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Raid of online firm in Philippines yields sex-trade data

MANILA, Philippines - An American real-estate company’s court-ordered raid of an online outsourcing company’s headquarters in the Philippines has yielded data linking the latter to an embattled classified advertising website accused of engaging in human trafficking and prostitution, an exclusive story by NBC News has reported.

CoStar, a multibillion-dollar enterprise behind Apartments.com, carried out the daring raid in the offices of Avion in an undisclosed location, emerging with 262 hard drives containing 35 terabytes of data that indicated it was used by Backpage to drum up business in the sex trade overseas, the report authored by Anna Schecter and Kenzi Abou-Sabe said. 

Backpage is a US-based online site that has listings for a wide variety of products and services, including automotive, jobs and real estate. It has been under fire since 2011 for allegedly using its adult services subsection for prostitution that particularly involved minors.

The company is facing legal battles, including criminal charges refiled last year by the state of California against its chief executive officer (CEO) and two founders and a civil lawsuit now headed for trial in Washington state after the courts declined to dismiss it, according to the report.

Backpage was also subjected to a 20-month US Senate investigation that found it complicit in trafficking.

For its part, Avion has claimed it does nothing more than “host and moderate ads.”

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The report said, however, that there were hackers at Avion “believed to be stealing proprietary real-estate photos and information on behalf of an industry rival.”

CoStar claimed that its raiding team’s yield contained proof that its intellectual property was being ripped off, but has been denied by its competitor.

CoStar senior vice president told NBC News that they got 1.7 million photographs in the December 2016 raid.

“It was building picture, building picture, porn, porn, prostitute ad, building picture and then – bang! – a picture that couldn’t be anything other than, you know, child pornography,” the report quoted Ricketts. “We just immediately shut the computer off, picked the phone up, called the attorneys. They called the FBI.”

Thousands of documents linking Avion to Backpage were found with the photographs, the report said.

Based on the yield of CoStar, Avion “worked to promote adult ad business on behalf of Backpage” overseas, including the United Kingdom and Australian markets.

Audio recordings of Avion workers contacting people who posted sexually explicit ads on rival escort sites and offering them a free ad on Backpage were also discovered during the raid, according to the report.

Citing a non-disclosure agreement he signed with Backpage, Avion CEO Von Nagasangan did not give any comment to NBC. Backpage legal counsel Liz McDougall also declined to say anything regarding the Philippine raid.

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