Prosecutors in Texas announced Friday that they have taken down one of the largest websites to replace Backpage.com, the defunct classified website that allowed advertisements for prostitution and child sex trafficking.
On Thursday, Wilhan Martono, 46, the owner and operator of several illicit websites that advertised prostitution around the world, was arrested on sex trafficking, money laundering and other related charges. His sites — CityXGuide.com and its affiliated websites, including 1Backpage.com — advertised prostitution, child sex trafficking and other illicit services. The online platforms he created contained hundreds of thousands of posts for "intimate activities" that users could filter by their location and interests.
During the investigation, law enforcement officers discovered correspondence between Martono and an advertiser who said the website was "taking over from where Backpage left off." In fact, court documents say that Martono registered the domain name for 1Backpage.com, CityXGuide.com and a half a dozen others the day after the FBI seized Backpage.com in April 2018.
"As soon as DOJ shut down one despicable site, another popped up to take its place," said U.S. Attorney Erin Nealy Cox in a statement. "Like the owners of Backpage, this defendant made millions facilitating the online exploitation of women and children. The Justice Department will not rest until these sites are eliminated and their owners held accountable for their crimes."
Posts on Martono's websites included the trafficking of "numerous" minor victims, including a 13-year-old Jane Doe whom law enforcement recovered in North Texas in November 2019. She was advertised on CityXGuide.
Shortly after Martono's arrest, the Department of Homeland Security took down the website, replacing it with a page that said it had "been seized by the Department of Homeland Security," prosecutors said.
CityXGuide listed 14 "Favorite Cities," including Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, and Boston. All 14 cities ban prostitution, so Martono would try to cover up the money trail by using bitcoin or a third-party gift card reseller called CardCash. Advertisers would pay in gift cards from places like BestBuy, Walmart, Amazon, Lowes and others, and he then exchanged them, funneling the money into personal bank accounts. While working on the transactions, Martono took steps to hide his IP address by using a VPN. In total, prosecutors estimate Martono's enterprise earned him more than $21 million since 2018.
Martono was indicted on 28 counts by a federal grand jury earlier this month, and was arrested Thursday in California by Homeland Security Investigations and the Secret Service. If convicted he could be sentenced to up to 25 years in prison.