On November 14, 2022, Wilhan Martono, the owner of CityXGuide.com, was sentenced to over eight years in federal prison for promoting online advertisements of sex trafficking victims on his website. Martono, 48, was arrested on June 19, 2020 when CityXGuide and its related websites were seized by Homeland Security Investigations. On August 24, 2021, Martono pleaded guilty to one count of promotion of prostitution and reckless disregard of sex trafficking and one count of conspiracy to engage in interstate transportation in aid of racketeering enterprises – facilitating prostitution. Martono’s plea makes history as the first plea entered under the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). This Act was enacted in 2018 and permits the federal government to prosecute websites that facilitate sex trafficking. In addition to his federal prison sentence, Martono was also ordered to forfeit over $15 million in assets.
Martono admitted to creating, owning, and operating CityXGuide along with other related websites, such as Backpage.com, CAPleasures.com, and BodyRubShop. CityXGuide and its associated websites provided a platform for “brothels, pimps, and prostitutes to post hundreds of thousands of advertisements for sexual services, which users could then filter by geography and preference.” These websites had hundreds of thousands of advertisements for “prostitutes” in the United States and around the world. On the websites, advertisers could list “intimate activities” as well as “nude photographs, descriptions, work hours, methods of payment, and contact information for the women being advertised.” The websites also offered “upgrades,” which buyers could purchase via Bitcoin or in exchange for gift cards. Martono used a third party reseller, CardCash, to convert the gift cards into money. While engaging in the CardCash transactions, Martono used a VPN to hide his IP address. A VPN allows the user to surf the web privately, hiding what the user is doing on the internet as well as the user’s physical location. Martono then kept the money in personal and business bank accounts.
Martono registered the domain names for CityXGuide and the related websites on April 8, 2018, which was one day after Backpage.com was shut down. Before it was shut down, Backpage.com was the primary source of commercial sex advertisements on the internet. Backpage.com had hundreds of thousands of posts of adults and children advertising “intimate activities” that sex buyers could filter through. Martono purchased and maintained over 95 IP addresses to run the websites.
Martono admitted that he “turned a blind eye” to CityXGuide’s involvement in sex trafficking and exploiting victims. Martono received emails from law enforcement at the local, state, and federal level advising him that CityXGuide and other similar websites were being used to advance sex trafficking and child exploitation. Despite these numerous warnings, Martono did not stop operating the websites. According to court documents, prosecutors estimated that Martono profited over $20 million from his websites. Numerous minor victims have been identified by law enforcement as being advertised in CityXGuide advertisements. Of these victims were a 13-year old and a 16-year-old, both located in North Texas.
Martono’s sentence is an enormous stride in targeting the demand for commercial sexual exploitation. U.S. Attorney Chad Meacham stated that “[Martono] profited off of the exploitation of vulnerable women and children, just like the traffickers advertising them on his website did.” U.S. Attorney Meacham further explained that “Human trafficking is one of the most despicable crimes we prosecute.” As Lester R. Hayes Jr., Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations Dallas, said, “the largest digital market place for sex trafficking and prostitution no longer exists.” Special Agent Hayes emphasized that “HSI will not relent until those who conspire in these illegal activities are brought to justice.” Holding sex traffickers accountable, especially those on online platforms, is crucial to putting an end to sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.
The CSE Institute applauds the efforts of the North Texas Trafficking Task Force, Homeland Security Investigations’ Dallas Field Office, the United States Secret Service’s Dallas Field Office, the Colleyville Police Department, HSI’s El Paso and San Jose Field Offices, and the Texas Department of Public Safety for investigating this matter. The CSE Institute further applauds Assistant United States Attorneys John de la Garza, Sid Mody, and Rebekah Ricketts for prosecuting this case and bringing justice to the victims.
All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.