Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

UK's largest community website criticised for failing to crack down on gangsters' prostitution adverts as escorts are kept in squalor by greedy bosses.

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The UK’s biggest community website Vivastreet.co.uk is being used to sell sex slaves

A dossier of ­damning ­evidence that human ­traffickers are using the UK’s biggest community website to sell sex slaves is revealed today.

A Sunday Mail investigation found four girls with poor English who we suspect of being trafficked all operating under ­the same handle advertised on ­Vivastreet.co.uk.

We got involved after a leading anti-trafficking organisation said it had ­experienced a 42 per cent increase in sexually exploited women coming to them for help in the last year. Some of the women said they had been advertised on sites such as Vivastreet.

Campaigners and law enforcement groups have blamed the ease with which slave masters can hijack legitimate online marketplaces.

In the four ads identified, all of the women were from Romania – a notorious trafficking hotspot.

They spoke little English despite their ads being literate, another tell-tale sign that they are being controlled.

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Adverts placed on the website contained lists of services as well as photos (Image: Sunday Mail)

Trafficking Awareness Raising ­Alliance (TARA) fears sites such as ­Vivastreet have made it easier for ­gangsters to cash in on their victims’ misery.

The group’s operations manager, ­Bronagh Andrew, said: “The traffickers view the woman as a commodity to ­maximise their profit. They’re effectively being abused online and on websites.

“The trafficked women do not work the streets but operate from flats and houses, where they are kept against their will.”

Lewis Hunt, operations manager of the National Crime Agency’s (NCA) ­Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit, said there are about 7500 sites in Britain where sex is advertised.

He added: “Websites advertising sex with women are among the biggest ­enablers of prostitution in Britain.

“We’ve been working with some sites including Vivastreet to make them aware that human traffickers are using women and for them to take steps to prevent this happening.

“In Britain, it is not illegal for these types of sites to operate and to carry adverts from women. The money ­traffickers make from sexual ­exploitation is used to carry out ­further trafficking and fund other forms of organised crime.”

Vivastreet is one of the top two ­classified ad sites in the UK and the ninth biggest in the world. Sunday Mail ­investigators trawled the site, where ­browsers can look at adverts for cars, clothing and jewellery.

However, its “escort” section contained thousands of ­profiles featuring women advertising sex for up to £250 per hour.

Last week, it carried more than 600 ads for sex workers in ­Scotland, most of them in Edinburgh and Glasgow. We found four ads placed by a registered user who joined the site in August 2016.

Three women – Lora, Ameria and ­Rayssa – were based in Glasgow’s east end while the fourth, Sophia, was in Falkirk.

Our team contacted them on mobile numbers on their profile page. They did not answer but replied via text – another indication of coercion.

A reporter visited Lora in a ­tenement block in ­Dennistoun, ­Glasgow, that was in need of ­refurbishment, with plaster badly cracked in places. She led him into a sparsely furnished top-floor flat.

Her Vivastreet profile claimed she spoke English, Italian and Spanish but she was barely able to ­communicate other than to tell our reporter she charged £60 for sex. He made his excuses and left.

We found the same four women on another website used by sex workers, where they were described as ­Romanian.

Vivastreet is owned by the Digital Ventures group. Its ­headquarters is in London, with ­150 staff and ­operations in 26 countries.

It began in the late 90s in New York when Frenchman Yannick Pons set up Roomgo, an online flat-sharing service.

He founded ­Vivastreet to cash in on the classified marketplace sector.

Vivastreet was blamed in an inquiry last year by a Westminster all-party parliamentary group on prostitution for allowing sexual exploitation through their online adverts. The site is free to use with profits coming from fees paid by those placing the ads.

Last June, Paris prosecutors accused Vivastreet of pimping women via their websites. Its sex ads were removed in France but they still exist in the UK.

In December 2017, a Romanian human trafficking gang who forced 11 women into prostitution in Blackburn and Preston were found to have ­advertised them on Vivastreet.

Detectives discovered that one of the gang had placed £25,000 worth of ads and was even given an account manager.

In the same year, three men who sexually exploited a 14-year-old girl after advertising her as an 18-year-old on Vivastreet were jailed for a total of 18 years at Birmingham Crown Court.

The NCA is the lead organisation in Britain for fighting human trafficking.

History of Vivastreet

Vivastreet was one of the first classified ad sites in Europe.

Yannick Pons hit on the idea while living in New York, where he had launched Roomgo – a room sharing website.

Both sites are part of Digital Ventures ­Holding Ltd, which also owns mon-avocat.fr – a site for lawyers in France – and LeBonCompatable.com, which is a French ­business platform.

Pons is one of the ­richest men in France but Vivastreet’s HQ is based in London.

Vivastreet has eight categories for users to browse, ­including ­sections in which ­members of the public can look for a job or buy property.

It is considered to be in the top two websites of its kind in the United Kingdom and the ninth largest in the world.

The site operates across the continent, Latin America, North America and North Africa.

Le Monde, a respected French newspaper, claimed in 2017 that some 40 per cent of ­Vivastreet’s turnover came from ads linked to the sex industry.

Four years ago, ­equality campaigners removed posters that advertised Vivastreet from bus stops over claims they were sex ads.

The images showed three young women with the slogan: “A little bit of...” then listing names.

 

It said some ads throw up clues to women being enslaved, including an offer of unprotected sex and the same background in photographs.

Campaign group Anti-Slavery ­International said: “Girls working in a rundown place, in a poor area, not speaking the language and struggling for communication make it more likely they’ve been trafficked.”

A spokesman for Vivastreet said: “We take the issue of exploitation extremely seriously and we have a wide range of measures in place to enhance user safety, and detect and remove inappropriate material.

“We’re working closely with the Home Office and law enforcement agencies, such as the National Crime Agency, to help develop an industry-wide approach to identifying and ­preventing online trafficking, and we urge all other online platforms to engage with this process.”

Assistant Chief Constable Gillian MacDonald of Police Scotland said: “Victims of human trafficking may arrive after being kidnapped, smuggled or tricked by a friend offering a job and the opportunity of a new life.

“However, they soon discover that their lives are not their own and they are forced into a life of exploitation with no way of escaping.

“Trafficking exists in ­communities across Scotland and has become so sophisticated, it often goes unnoticed.”

Ying's case

Chinese sex slave Ying is typical of the women who come to TARA for help.

She suffered years of abuse that took place first in her homeland then France, England and finally Glasgow.

Growing up in China, she was left in the care of her stepfather after her mum fell ill. He raped her when she was 13. At the age of 15, Ying was sent to live with an aunt.

Her uncle arranged her to marry a much older man against her will who raped her on her wedding night. Once married, he beat her every day.

In 2007, Ying was given the chance by a family friend to escape and live in France.

But once there she was told her aunt owed a lot of money and she had to pay it off by working as a ­prostitute.

Ying was forced to have sex with up to six men in the family friend’s house every night.

One customer helped her escape but it was another trap.

She was taken by boat to ­England and made to work in a brothel in the London area.

After a few months, Ying was told she was being sent to look after a friend’s children in Glasgow.

She was met at the bus stop at Buchanan Street and taken to yet another brothel, where she was forced to work as a prostitute.

She eventually escaped and sought help from the Scottish Refugee Council, who referred her to TARA.

The organisation provided ­accommodation, financial ­assistance and legal advice for an asylum claim. It also put her in touch with police.

Now Ying has started college in Glasgow, where she is learning English.

She is also getting psychological treatment to help her deal with the years of abuse which still cause her nightmares.

Scottish Labour said: “There must be tighter controls to vet adverts online and to truly tackle trafficking and exploitation of women, we must focus on those who pay for it and make them ­criminally responsible.”

Minister for Community Safety, Ash Denham, said: “Trafficking and ­exploitation are an abuse of human rights that cannot be tolerated.

“We have increased funding for ­victim support services to more than £3million over three years and have commissioned research on child ­trafficking routes as we continue to work to eradicate this terrible crime.”

Article from: https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/sex-slaves-bought-sold-vivastreet-16167065