Sex trafficking of women and girls in the metro area continues to thrive despite Backpage.com’s recent shutdown of its escort section, according to an investigation by the Washington County attorney’s office.

Advertising in dating and romance categories on Backpage.com soared nearly overnight as sex traffickers quickly adjusted to the demise of adult escort ads, said Imran Ali, Washington County’s major crimes prosecutor.

Analysts in Washington County Attorney Pete Orput’s office tracked 74,273 sex ads that were placed in the metro area in 2016 on Backpage.com. Predators placed most of the ads, seeking customers for women and girls who in many cases were forced into the illicit sex trade.

“We know the sale of human beings in the Twin Cities metro area is unfortunately commerce,” Ali said. “The new age of a predator is behind a screen, not on the street or in the window.”

Despite accelerated arrests and prosecutions in all metro counties, the sex trafficking problem remains daunting for law enforcement. Easy internet hookups have driven what once was known as urban street prostitution to the suburbs, leading to a sharp uptick in sex trafficking everywhere in the metro area. Predators use texting and online chat rooms to make connections, often disguising their internet ads to hide that they’re selling sex with underage girls and sometimes boys.

“Maybe the most pernicious crime and the most exploitative involves our kids getting trafficked. These crimes don’t stop ... if we don’t protect our kids I don’t think anybody will feel safe,” Orput said Wednesday.

Backpage.com abruptly closed its adult advertising section Jan. 9 after the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report alleging the website concealed criminal activity in its adult advertising. The panel said Backpage.com removed words such as “Lolita,” “innocent,” “Amber Alert” and “school girl” from ads that would have exposed child sex trafficking.

Disclaimers reading “CENSORED” in red letters now appear on Backpage’s adult escort section, with the message: “The government has unconstitutionally censored this content.”

Backpage isn’t the only website that allows advertisements for sex trafficking, but it’s the one most commonly tracked in Minnesota.

Twelve sex traffickers were charged metrowide in 2016, as were hundreds of men caught soliciting sex. Many of them were arrested in police stings where detectives posed as underage girls. Thirty-one victims were “recovered” in 2016.

Ali said Washington County has charged six sex trafficking cases in the past five weeks. More traffickers arrested of late are people with prior convictions, and in one case two traffickers met in prison, he said.

Paul Kroshus, a Woodbury police detective assigned to the Washington County sex trafficking unit, said the problem is becoming more noticeable “because we’re getting better at what we do.”

Arrests in Woodbury, second in population only to St. Paul among the east metro’s largest cities, have been more evident in recent months because of training and awareness among police and hotel owners, he said.

The Washington County investigation, tracked by analysts Aimee Schroeder, Jessica Hockley and Erinn Valine, showed sex trafficking ads shifting suddenly in the days after Backpage.com shut down its escort section.

Ali and his analysts shared their findings, including leads uncovered to prosecute predators and help victims, with other county attorneys and metro police agencies.

In the metro area, the site’s “massage” section ballooned from 14 posts on the day of the shutdown to 241 posts on Jan. 25. The “women seeking men” section, which had 23 posts on the day of the shutdown, shot to 231 on Jan. 25.

“The shutdown of the escort section has not appeared to affect the number of posts for commercial sex on Backpage.com, only where the advertisements are being posted,” Hockley said.

Kroshus said Backpage.com has been “compliant” in sharing information with law enforcement but said it’s also the biggest hub for sex trafficking ads. It appears that limiting sex ads in one place won’t reduce threats to women and girls but merely push it someplace else, he said.

Ali said that Backpage “made millions of dollars in trafficking of children,” much as the U.S. Senate investigation concluded.

“They made a profit, they made a significant profit,” he said. “Backpage has proved that the model they have for online solicitation works. We know it works because of the money that was made. What’s to prevent somebody else from doing it?”