Sunday, December 10, 2017
News Roundup

Backpage escort ad wrongly lists Thonotosassa school secretary's number

TAMPA -— The calls and text messages came in at 3 p.m. and 3 a.m. and just about every hour in between.

Are you up this late?

If your pics real, I'd like to get an hour appointment

Julia, let me know when, where. I'm downtown. My phone's about to die so hurry.

Hi, I saw your post. I'm interested. I'm in town for a business trip and I'm wondering if you're available.

At first, Nancy Caldwell, 60, a secretary at Thonotosassa Elementary School, figured the callers had a wrong number.

But in late July when the calls didn't stop, she finally confronted one of them.

"Where'd you get this number?" she asked.

"Uh," the man on the other end said, "you're on Backpage."

"And I had no idea what Backpage was," Caldwell said. "I just stopped right there."

Backpage.com is a website with classified advertising, including ads for adult services and escorts. The site has come under fire recently, authorities say, for facilitating human trafficking and child prostitution.

When Caldwell learned the nature of Backpage.com and that her number was on the site, she called T-Mobile and asked it to change her number. The company told her she needed a police report. Meanwhile, the calls and texts kept coming.

"It's very disruptive, but it's very disturbing," Caldwell said. "I guess this poor Julia gal isn't getting any business."

• • •

Caldwell said most of the unwanted calls came from the 801 area code, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Search for "Julia" in the Salt Lake City section of Backpage.com, and a single ad comes up.

"I'm only in town for a short amount of time and I'm looking for someone to spend it with," the ad read. "Like no other woman you have met before... WARNING you may become ADDICTED! Lol"

The ad encouraged interested parties to contact Julia on her personal line, an 813 number that led to Caldwell.

The men calling and texting Caldwell's cellphone wanted to know if Julia's photos were real.

They're not. An Internet search shows the photos weren't even of the same woman. One was of a dress model, another was of a porn star and a third was of award-winning British soap opera actress Helen Flanagan.

In the first week of August, the ad was updated. The description proclaimed Julia "Best in Utah" with "100% REAL PICS!!! 100%INDEPENDENT and ALWAYS AVAILABLE!!!"

New photos were added that could also be found on escort ads in Miami, New York City, Las Vegas and elsewhere.

But the phone number remained the same.

• • •

On Aug. 10, according to a timestamp on Backpage.com, the ad was updated again. This time, one digit on the number for Julia's "personal line" was changed. An 8 became a 0.

A Web search for that number turns up a list of links for escort services, all leading back to Utah. There are database sites with a profile for a woman named "Kat" who uses the same photos as the original Backpage.com ad.

Julia, or Kat, has a Google Voice account that forwards callers to an online voicemail box. She did not respond to calls from the Tampa Bay Times.

• • •

After being contacted by the Times, T-Mobile quickly moved to change Caldwell's phone number — also an inconvenient solution.

This number is on emergency contact lists with the elementary school, she says, and Caldwell would rather just stop the unwanted calls.

The terms of use posted on Backpage.com bans "transmitting any information ... that is unlawful, false, misleading, harmful, threatening, abusive, invasive of another's privacy."

Backpage.com's attorney and most vocal supporter, Liz McDougall, said Caldwell's situation is "disturbing" and said that people like Caldwell can report problems to the company.

The site has a way of searching for specific phone numbers and blocking ads, McDougall said, and Backpage will work with law enforcement in case there are any signs of illegal activity.

"That's not to say, unfortunately, that we'll get every ad with that number," she said. "That kind of problem happens across the Internet all the time."

Caldwell is still getting calls regularly from the 801 area code. She keeps a log of the calls now, and when they come in she just tries to ignore her phone.

She can't imagine that anyone is trying to harass her on purpose. "Julia" just must have made an unfortunate typo.

"It's wild," she said. "I just got lucky, I guess."

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