The website CityXGuide.com — a leading source of online advertisements for prostitution and sex trafficking that users described as “taking over from where Backpage left off” — has been seized and its owner charged in a 28-count federal indictment, announced United States Attorney for the Northern District of Texas Erin Nealy Cox.
Wilhan Martono, 46, was indicted on June 2 on one count of promotion of prostitution and reckless disregard of sex trafficking, one count of interstate racketeering conspiracy (facilitating prostitution), nine counts of interstate transportation in aid of racketeering (facilitating prostitution), and 17 counts of money laundering. He was arrested on June 17 in Fremont, California by Homeland Security Investigations and the United States Secret Service.
Shortly after the defendant’s arrest, CityXGuide was replaced with a splash page notifying users that the website had been seized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security pursuant to a warrant.
According to the indictment, Mr. Martono allegedly netted more than $21 million off a suite of illicit websites promoting prostitution and sex trafficking. He allegedly registered the domain names for several of the sites just one day after the FBI shut down Backpage.com, then the internet’s leading source of prostitution and sex trafficking advertisements.
In correspondence with Mr. Martono, one of his CityXGuide advertisers noted that the website was “taking over from where Backpage left off.”
CityXGuide and its companion websites allegedly allowed advertisers to select from a pre-populated list of “intimate activities,” then add nude photographs, descriptions, work hours, methods of payment, and contact information for the women being advertised. In order to secure premium placement, the websites offered paid “upgrades,” which could be purchased in Bitcoin or in exchange for gift cards from Walmart, Best Buy, Lowe’s, Amazon, and other retailers. Mr. Martono allegedly used CardCash, a third party gift card reseller, to exchange these gift cards for U.S. currency.
Mr. Martono allegedly took steps to conceal his online activity by routing website traffic through an IP address in Europe, using a VPN to mask his IP address while conducting CardCash transactions, and funneling his proceeds through a network of business and personal bank accounts. (At the time of Mr. Martono’s arrest, the Department of Homeland Security seized millions of dollars from accounts controlled by Mr. Martono.)
CityXGuide, which served clients across the globe, included a list of 14 “Favorite Cities,” including Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, and Boston.
Law enforcement has identified numerous minor victims in CityXGuide advertisements, including a 13-year-old Jane Doe recovered in North Texas in November 2019.
“As soon as DOJ shut down one despicable site, another popped up to take its place,” said U.S. Attorney Erin Nealy Cox. “Like the owners of Backpage, this defendant made millions facilitating the online exploitation of women and children. The Justice Department will not rest until these sites are eliminated and their owners held accountable for their crimes.”
“This case is a harsh reminder of the ruthlessness of human traffickers and lengths to which they go, including victimizing women and children, to make a profit,” said Ryan L. Spradlin, Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations’ Dallas Field Office. “HSI maintains its unwavering commitment to investigate these heinous crimes, rescue victims, and prosecute the offenders to the fullest extent of the law.”
“The Secret Service remains committed to investigating and pursuing those responsible for cyber-enabled financial crimes. Although the explosive expansion of the cyber domain has forced us to develop innovative ways of conducting these types of investigations, our proven model remains the same,” said Secret Service Special Agent in Charge of the Dallas Field Office William Smarr, adding, “This investigation is an excellent example of a partnership between local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies working together to successfully prosecute numerous violations of federal statutes. There are real innocent victims due to these crimes. The Secret Service also thanks the Northern District of Texas United States Attorney’s Office for their aggressive support.”
“I’m proud of our team who, with our federal partners, relentlessly pursued this investigation for more than a year. Today, we have made a significant impact on one of the world’s largest digital marketplaces for prostitution and sex trafficking. We know many lives will be saved through this joint effort,” said Michael C. Miller, Chief of Police for the Colleyville Police Department.
An indictment is merely an allegation of criminal conduct, not evidence. Like all defendants, Mr. Martono is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.
If convicted, he faces up to 25 years in federal prison.
Mr. Martono was charged in part under FOSTA, a law passed in the wake of the Backpage scandal in April 2018 that allows the federal government to prosecute websites that facilitate sex trafficking.
The North Texas Trafficking Task Force conducted the investigation, led by Homeland Security Investigations’ Dallas Field Office, the United States Secret Service, and the Colleyville Police Department, with assistance from HSI’s El Paso and San Jose Field Offices as well as the Texas Department of Public Safety. Assistant United States Attorneys Sid Mody, Rebekah Ricketts, and John de la Garza are prosecuting the case.