In August, the Department of Homeland Security, the federal agency tasked with tracking down and fighting domestic terrorist threats, partnered with the New York Police Department to raid the Manhattan offices of Rentboy.com, a site for men looking to connect with paid male escorts. The government shut down the website and arrested seven employees, including the company's CEO.
Founded in 1997, Rentboy claimed more than 500,000 visitors each day and millions in revenue. Though the company said it was a platform for advertising companionship, not sex, a Homeland Security agent determined that the site's operators and workers were facilitating sex work, a violation of New York state law.
The seven arrested employees were not charged with any crime directly connected to prostitution or trafficking. Instead, they were charged under the Travel Act. This little-known federal law allows the Department of Justice to step in when a suspect uses mail or other communications to facilitate certain crimes across state lines or international borders. It thus allows the government to make a federal crime out of violations of some state laws.
The federal government's complaint provided no evidence that anybody had been victimized by Rentboy. There were no claims of illegal human trafficking. Nevertheless, each defendant faces up to five years in federal prison and fines of up to $250,000. The Department of Justice is also trying to seize $1.4 million from the company's bank accounts.