Prostitution is sometimes called the world's oldest profession, but these are dangerous new times. The age-old image of streetwalkers is being replaced by cyber-sex hookups. The thinly veiled alleged prostitution platforms hiding in plain sight are contributing to a rapid increase in sex trafficking. And that includes both recruiting and exploiting teenagers. According to one advocacy group, 63% of child sex trafficking victims were advertised online. Lisa Fletcher traveled to Portland, Oregon and found a thriving online market for pimps trafficking young American girls up and down the West Coast.
Lindsey Whittaker: I'm in like the smallest, skimpiest outfit. It's freezing and it's raining outside. He's trying to rob me and I'm just scared for my life, like I'm in somebody else's car, like he could have easily killed me.
Lindsey Whittaker is one of the lucky ones. She was a prostitute for six years and lived to talk about it. Born in Vancouver, Washington, Lindsey ran away from home at age 12 and landed on the streets of Portland.
Lisa Fletcher: At, at what point did you go from being a runaway kid with a troubled life at home, to a runaway kid who was pushed into the sex trafficking business.
Lindsay Whittaker: Mainly just being around the wrong people. There's pimps and mean dirty people like that everywhere, and they approached me, I told them what was going on because I was scared, you know, a little child in the streets not knowing where they are going to eat, where they are going to go, so when you don't have that and somebody comes and tries to comfort you and take you in, you know, you're a kid and you fall for it.
Lisa Fletcher: They sort of groom you?
Lindsay Whittaker: Yeah, like they train you, they slowly manipulate your mind and slowly say little things, that just get you to where they want you.
Jeff Tiegs : These predators out there, these terrorists out there are looking for their prey.
Jeff Tiegs leads the guardian group, that works to disrupt sex trafficking in the U.S.
Jeff Tiegs: He just got engaged, this is an indicator that she's working for him.
He is also a counterterrorism expert who spent 25 years in us army special operations.
Lisa Fletcher: Is recruiting for ISIS similar to recruiting for child trafficking?
Jeff Tiegs: It is, in my opinion, identical.
Lisa Fletcher: So, they're looking for somebody who's vulnerable.
Jeff Tiegs: Yes.
Lisa Fletcher: Then what?
Jeff Tiegs: They befriend that individual. They begin to groom you and give you the things that you need, but ultimately, that grooming shifts to a breaking phase where they want you to do something that violates your character. That can be something from the terror world as violent as, and final, as a suicide bomber, or in the trafficking world, they convince you to start turning tricks and having sex with men.
Lindsey Whittaker's pimp sold her through strip clubs in Portland and also posted her availability online. She looked young, and that was fine for the clients or 'Johns'.
Lisa Fletcher: Were there Johns that specifically requested you because they knew you were a kid?
Lindsay Whittaker: Yeah. Yeah, definitely, like that's, that's probably why a lot of them chose me anyways. Obviously, we wouldn't broadcast that I was a minor, but it was very clear, like, when you're a child you look like a child. Act like a child.
Lisa Fletcher: Do you remember how old you were the first time you were raped?
Lindsay Whittaker: Around that time, when I first got into the streets, around like 12, 13.
Lisa Fletcher: If you had to guess how many times you were raped, what do you think it would be?
Lindsay Whittaker: I can't even say a number. That's just a lot.
Lisa Fletcher: More than a hundred?
Lindsay Whittaker: Yeah. A lot. A lot. I don't know, it's a sick world, that whole part that world, it's just horrible. And I don't want, I don't want any girls to ever have to go through that, you know what I mean? Like, I would save every single one if I could.
Chad Opitz: The main goal is if we get any minors, but the traffickers are the other things.
In Beaverton, Oregon, a suburb southwest of Portland, detective Chad Opitz makes it his mission to save as many of these girls as he can. Posing as an interested client, he sets up a date.
Lisa Fletcher: You know, I was watching you text this morning, setting up these dates, and then I was thinking, you could be booking a plane ticket or a dinner reservation, I mean it's that easy.
Chad Opitz: Yes. It's sadly it's too easy.
Lisa Fletcher: How many texts a day do you think these women get on average?
Chad Opitz: I would say dozens. And that's probably being a safe number. It is pretty much right when they post, they get inundated with, with potential johns.
Chad Opitz: "These two have just responded for possibles…"
Opitz showed us just how easy it is to buy a girl online, through websites like Backpage.com, a classified advertising site.
Chad Opitz: Right now we are waiting for Maya to show up, she posted as an 18-year-old here on Backpage. And she's supposed to be showing up probably in the next 15 minutes.
Chad Opitz: "Hi Detective Opitz, Beaverton Police Department, How are you?"
Maya ended up being 16-years-old.
Chad Opitz: I just need to find out who you are and I need to make sure that you're okay. OK?
She was taken back to the police department. She received counseling and was eventually released into the custody of her mother.
While Portland's 'brick and mortar' sex shops are dwindling, the internet has only made it easier for prostitution and sex trafficking to flourish and for men interested in young girls to find exactly what they want.
Jeff Tiegs: Every single one of these girls is for sale right now. And you can see the time and date stamp on when they were posted, and the thing that we work with law enforcement on, is there, there are clues hidden in these ads that, that help you understand who they are, where they are, and help law enforcement become more efficient. And as we move closer and closer to that capability in the United States, trafficking is going to get crushed.
A Senate subcommittee recently issued a report and found that Backpage knows it facilitates child sex trafficking. Has that report changed anything?
Lisa: Many believe it’s created a legal pathway, that previously didn’t exist, to shut down that portion of the online marketplace. And we’re starting to see more lawsuits, just a few weeks ago a Chicago family filed suit against Backpage in the death of their 16 year old daughter, claiming she was the victim of sex trafficking, facilitated by Backpage. We reached out to Backpage about our story and they declined to comment because of pending legal matter.