A website advertising itself as “Canada’s classified[s] site” has drawn police attention due to concerns that some of its users might be facilitating human trafficking.
LeoList presents itself as a source for online advertising similar to Craigslist, but it features virtually no listings for furniture, technology or housing.
Check under the “Casual Dating” and “Personals” sections, however, and it becomes apparent the platform is primarily an avenue for sex workers to advertise to potential clients.
Ontario-based sex worker, porn performer and sex work advocate Jelena Vermilion told Day 6 that LeoList’s classifieds exterior is likely “a facade.”
Toronto police first took note of LeoList in April 2018, following the closure of Backpage.com, according to Det.-Sgt. Nunzio Tramontozzi, who leads the Human Trafficking Enforcement Team.
Backpage, an American classifieds advertising platform, was seized by U.S. authorities on April 6, 2018, following allegations that it played a role in facilitating prostitution and enabling human trafficking.
Tramontozzi said his analysts noticed an “almost overnight” spike in traffic to LeoList following Backpage’s closure.
“Now we’re seeing more and more victims [of human trafficking] being advertised on that site, and it seems to me … that it’s actually taken over from Backpage and is the number one site that pimps are using to advertise the sexual services of the victims they’re forcing into the sex trade,” Tramontozzi told Day 6.
Over the past several months, Toronto police have charged eight people with multiple offences in four separate investigations. They’re alleged to have used LeoList for human trafficking purposes.
Police are expected to announce charges related to two more human trafficking investigations next week, including one involving “a man who purchased the sexual services of a 12-year-old on LeoList,” said Tramontozzi.
Tramontozzi confirmed that LeoList is owned and operated by Unicorn Media out of Budapest, Hungary, but it also has a subsidiary near Boston that offers web support to users.
“It is not Canadian,” said Tramontozzi.
Day 6 attempted to contact LeoList for comment, but didn’t receive a response.
According to LeoList’s rules and guidelines, users who suspect any content posted to the website “might be of an underage individual or is somehow connected to human trafficking” should contact law enforcement.
“Once contacted by the proper authorities, we will cooperate to the fullest extent possible,” reads the site’s guidelines.
“However, we do not have capability to investigate or offer meaningful resolution — if you suspect or believe you have been the victim of a crime — please report it to the proper agency.”
Prohibition not necessarily the answer
Vermilion, who said she generates a chunk of her income by advertising on websites like LeoList, told Day 6 that she and other sex workers view LeoList as a “necessary evil.”
“It’s not well-liked, I will tell you that,” she said.
According to Vermilion, sex workers still mourn the loss of Backpage, because most saw it as a kind of “partner in [the] operation of their work.”
“Since Backpage was eliminated … most sex workers … have seen at least a 70 per cent loss of income,” she explained.
Despite her concerns about LeoList, Vermilion doesn’t believe shutting it down would meaningfully address online human trafficking.
“I think that, in any case of prohibition, we definitely see how forcing people into more clandestine areas just causes more harm,” she said.
Vermilion doesn’t feel she has enough power to exert influence over the website or its unknown owners, either.
“[Sex workers] don’t have a lot of agency, because our work is not decriminalized, we don’t have the ability to unionize, and, as far as our ability to demand … to do better, no, we don’t have any negotiation power there,” she explained.
Larissa Maxwell, director of anti-human trafficking programs at Salvation Army Canada, said shutting down websites like LeoList often makes it more challenging for law enforcement to conduct investigations.
“When you close down a section of one [website], it just moves on to another,” she explained.
Instead, Maxwell believes that eliminating human trafficking requires a multi-faceted approach that involves meeting the “core needs” of victims of exploitation.
“[If] they didn’t have a place to stay, they have a place to stay with us and it doesn’t cost anything. If they had a drug addiction, then we’re going to work on harm reduction and potentially, if they want to, work towards sobriety,” she explained.
“If they had a mental illness issue, we’re going to help stabilize them in their mental wellness, so they can take back power in their life.”