Jamiee Johnson is a survivor.
She was sex trafficked for five years, but now devotes her life to exposing the dark underworld of the illegal trade.
“Every minute that goes by that we're not tackling it another girl is being found dead or another girl is being abused or another girl is getting raped," Johnson said.
She was a single mother of two when she says she was introduced to prostitution by a man who promised to care for her and her small children. Through the years, she met others in the business, also duped by pimps hoping to profit from their vulnerabilities.
Johnson said she was coached by her pimp on how to post ads and pictures on websites, like Backpage.com. She says she was taught how to use certain words when describing sex acts, posting ads without entrapping herself.
"Say things like, ‘I'm coming to the area. I'm pre-booking, call me if you want to set up an appointment.’ So, I already have a whole day's clients waiting for me," Johnson said.
Law enforcement officials said her story is familiar. Technology and the internet are changing the face of prostitution. No longer chance meetings on dark streets, law enforcement investigators said websites like Backpage.com are becoming the go-to place to buy and sell sex.
Similar to Craigslist, Backpage.com is an online marketplace. Sellers post ads for items for sale and potential buyers shop. It's localized by city and is divided by subject categories. On Backpage, most of the adult ads appear under the "escort" category. Craigslist ended their adult ads in 2010 after pressure from state attorneys general and advocacy groups.
Click here or watch below to learn more about Backpage.com and its connection to sex trafficking.
San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Summer Stephan said even though advertisers on Backpage use a code of sorts, the intent isn’t hard to decipher.
"This is not like the different websites where people meet to have a date,” she said. “This is very clear this is about money and money in exchange for sex.”
According to Stephan, the sex trafficking business in San Diego brings in $810 million a year. She said some of the women featured on websites like Backpage are minors. The majority, she said, are there against their will.
Johnson said she knew of several women who were underage.
"Pimps like younger girls,” she said. “The customers like younger girls. The girls always try to look younger be younger.”
According to Johnson, going online to shop for sex is potentially safer than a street corner.
"I mean, why go risk being caught by an undercover police officer when you can go online and check a girl's reviews and see, ‘I know she's real. I know she's safe,’" she said.
She said she was taken from city to city in Southern California and other cities known to pay a premium for prostitution. For her, Backpage was a cyber street corner of sorts they would use to test the market before they arrived.
Lt. Brian Goldberg with the San Diego Police Department's VICE Operations said his team is constantly holding human trafficking stings and chasing tips and leads.
“We target not only the prostitutes, the customers of those prostitutes, and we also look to take into custody those that are pimping the girls," Goldberg said.
At the federal level, Backpage has been accused of aiding and abetting sex trafficking and allowing customers to post ads for prostitutes. The website was subpoenaed by the U.S. Senate as part of a sex trafficking investigation but refused to comply, saying it's protected under the First Amendment by providing a platform for customers to buy and sell.
"They claim ignorance,” Stephan said. “They claim they're just providing a platform for people to post and so long as the postings say you're over 18 or over 21, than everything's okay.”
Several major credit cards have stopped processing payments on Backpage. Many customers of the website now using the more anonymous bitcoin.
NBC 7 reached out to the president of Backpage but have not received a response.
In addition to law enforcement, citizen patrols are forming in a number of cities, including San Diego. The groups meet and post fake ads on websites like Backpage to connect with would-be "clients."
“When somebody's calling thinking they're going to buy a young girl, a man answers on the other line and tells them the real truth about the harm and damage they're causing," Stephan said, explaining how these citizen patrols operate.
She said the volunteers tell the buyers these women are being exploited for profit and what they're trying to buy is illegal. It's a collaborative effort to try to change the mindset of potential buyers and break a vicious cycle that has countless victims trapped as sex slaves.
For Johnson, even now, the emotional trauma is a stain that never seems to fade. By telling her story, she said she's hopeful it will let others know they're not alone, maybe opening the eyes of potential future customers to see the person behind the post.
"These people need to look at their daughters and look at their sisters and their wives and mothers and remember that these women are no different than that and they definitely shouldn't be used as sexual commodities or expendable products," she said.
Johnson has been free of trafficking for two years. She finds strength in her faith and local support groups and has started an outreach of her own called, Sisters of the Streets.
Law enforcement leaders said they depend on community leads and tips to build their intelligence and go after those involved. To report human trafficking call the San Diego Human Trafficking Tipline: (858) 495-3611 or text a tip to 233-733.
For more information on groups and resources that support human trafficking victims and the fight against the crime, check out the resource list below:
- San Diego County District Attorney
- Polaris Project
- U.S. Department of Homeland Security
- Abolish Human Trafficking
- Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition
- Center for Community Solutions
- Generate Hope
- North County Lifeline
- San Diego County Youth Services
- Protect Oakland Kids
- H.E.A.T Watch
- Survivors for Solutions
- Alabaster Jar Project