Human trafficking concerns prompt FBI closure of Bay Area online escort service

The closure of a Bay Area based escort service website in late June and the arrest of its alleged owners has reignited the debate between sex workers and law enforcement over the criminalization of prostitution.

The FBI and the IRS shut down, a website offering forums, reviews and advertising for escort services in the West Coast. Following a raid on two South Bay homes, federal agents arrested the alleged owners of the website Eric Omuro, 53, and Annemarie Lanoce, 40.

According to the case indictment, a grand jury indicted both suspects with racketeering and Omuro with 24 counts of money laundering. Omuro is being ordered to forfeit $5 million in funds and property he allegedly obtained through sales of membership and advertising on the site. Both pled not guilty in July and are free on bail until the court resumes.

The indictment also stated Omuro and Lanoce used the domain name to facilitate prostitution, though San Francisco Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Danielle Newman believes the website was instead a front for human trafficking.

“We worry about human trafficking,” Newman said. “That is our first priority. To say this website involves consenting adults is misinformation.”

While authorities maintain the site was a breeding ground for trafficking, there are those who believe shutting it down has dealt a blow to the well-being of sex workers including escorts, dancers and masseuses who relied on the website’s resources to safely conduct their business.

Maxine Doogan, founder of the Erotic Service Providers Union, said closing MyRedBook jeopardizes the safety of those in the sex industry who used the site to earn income, advertise their services for free and screen customers. In a city like San Francisco where the cost of living is rising, Doogan said these resources made MyRedBook crucial to the safety and sustainability of sex workers in the city.

“It’s a loss of community,” Doogan said. “When you impact their economic stability you force them to go to the streets.”

Doogan blames public officials for the closure of MyRedBook. According to Doogan, the stigmatization of escorts by public officials creates poor policy based on misinformation stemming from studies that suggest many of those in the sex industry are minors.

Tara Burns, a retired sex worker and writer of the Whore Diaries series, argues making trafficking synonymous with prostitution breeds contempt for sex workers and distracts authorities from actual trafficking.

“Trafficking is something we do to objects,” Burns said. “We’re people. What is happening is people who are disenfranchised are becoming more disenfranchised, and it makes them more vulnerable to sex trafficking. It’s a war on sex workers, but they’re passing it off as a war on trafficking.”

For now, it is uncertain whether closing the site will hinder any on-going trafficking in the Bay Area or prevent sex workers from finding other ways to find a customer base.

Jeffrey Snipes, a criminal justice professor at SF State, believes the website’s closure had little effect in preventing human trafficking, as traffickers can find other means to continue their operations.

“The volume of trafficking on MyRedBook pales in comparison with all of the other trafficking enterprises going on in the Bay Area,” Snipes said. “Closing it down won’t make much of a difference in terms of the numbers.”