Lawsuit Claims Backpage Used Custom Salesforce Tools to Fuel Its Sex Trafficking Empire

‘Human beings … were raped and abused because of it’

The lawsuit says online advertising enables traffickers to maximize profits and evade law enforcement. Getty Images
Headshot of Lisa Lacy

The same day CRM company Salesforce was named 2019 Humanitarian Company of the Year by the American Red Cross of the Bay Area, lawyers on behalf of 50 women—listed as Jane Does No. 1 through No. 50, survivors of sex trafficking—filed a lawsuit against Salesforce seeking trial by jury.

The claim: “Serious and grievous personal injury” related to the company’s work with Backpage.com, the classified ads site shut down in April 2018 as a result of its links to prostitution.

Filed on March 25 in the Superior Court of California in San Francisco, the complaint alleges Salesforce “stepped in” when Backpage and its executives were facing lawsuits and arrests in 2013 as a result of said ties to sex trafficking “to help Backpage survive and even grow,” while at the same time it was boasting on Twitter about its role in fighting human trafficking:

As a result, the suit says, “Salesforce’s data tools were actually providing the backbone of Backpage’s exponential growth” with “a heavily customized enterprise database tailored for Backpage’s operations.” And, with Salesforce’s help, the complaint says Backpage was able to market to new “pimps, johns and traffickers” on three continents. Its database included:

  • identifying and categorizing sales opportunities for traffickers;
  • identifying and increasing referrals from traffickers by creating cross- and up-selling opportunities;
  • managing marketing campaigns for traffickers;
  • managing trafficker and pimp histories, including previous engagement with Backpage and outstanding customer issues;
  • collecting and managing traffickers’ social media activity;
  • managing a trafficker/pimp database as well as tracking trafficker and john data across platforms including phone, email and social media;
  • managing traffickers’ data across multiple sources and using this information to promote Backpage;
  • and generating insights into traffickers’ and pimps’ purchasing habits to help Backpage understand them better and predict how they will feel and act so Backpage could cater outreach.

As a result of Salesforce’s work with Backpage, its CRM needs grew to manage more traffickers, which led to higher-priced contracts, which the lawsuit says benefited Salesforce financially.

The lawsuit says online advertising enables traffickers to maximize profits, evade law enforcement and maintain control of victims by moving them quickly between locations. It has also resulted in an “explosion of domestic sex trafficking.”

“Salesforce knew the scourge of sex trafficking because it sought publicity for trying to stop it,” the lawsuit says. “But, at the same time, this publicly traded company was, in actuality, among the vilest of rogue companies, concerned only with their bottom line. And human beings—many more than just these 50—were raped and abused because of it.”

The Jane Does hail from 23 states and are using fictitious names because of “a risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm” and because of “sensitive and highly personal matters.”

In a statement, Salesforce said, “We are deeply committed to the ethical and humane use of our products and take these allegations seriously; however, we don’t comment on pending litigation.”

Salesforce has indeed been vocal about human trafficking.

In a 2017 blog post, Salesforce program architect Phil Bennett wrote about a 2015 trip to India to fight human trafficking with Effect.org, a nonprofit that focuses on educating children in India.

Upon his return, Bennett said he realized the “people, skills and resources from companies like Salesforce are powerful weapons against human trafficking and I decided that I would devote my free time to helping nonprofits in this field” because in part “volunteering and giving back is hardwired into the Salesforce culture” and “Salesforce technology is particularly conducive to confronting human trafficking.”

Salesforce has 30 calendar days from the date it was served to provide a written response.

“If I were them I would keep quiet, too,” wrote one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, Annie McAdams, in an email to Adweek. “The evidence of Salesforce’s liability is overwhelming and the damages that have been caused to the victims and our communities as a result are monumental. The fight against human trafficking is hard enough without our country’s top tech talent aiding pimps and traffickers in their illegal efforts.”

In addition, McAdams said it’s not enough to say fighting human trafficking is important—internal policies and procedures have to reflect that commitment.

According to figures from the International Labour Organization, more than 40 million people were forced into a form of modern slavery—including forced labor and sexual exploitation—in 2016, meaning there are 5.4 victims for every 1,000 people in the world. And one-quarter of those victims are children.

Trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide and about a $1 billion industry in the U.S.—with missing, runaway and foster children the most vulnerable population. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an estimated one out of six endangered runaways in 2016 was likely a victim of sex trafficking.

In a prior interview with Adweek, Hannah Rivard, an officer with the Fort Worth Police Department, said the rise of sites like Backpage in 2004 made it easy for traffickers to advertise online and remain anonymous because they no longer had to work with victims on the street.


@lisalacy lisa.lacy@adweek.com Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.
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