Fridley police turned the tables on the illegal sex trade this week, nabbing 23 people in a two-day prostitution sting by placing ads on the controversial website

Officers used Backpage, a site heavily criticized in the past for its adult ad section by law enforcement and activists, to pose as people selling sex and also to pretend to want to buy sex, said Capt. Bob Rewitzer of the Fridley police.

Four women were arrested on prostitution charges, ranging in age from 18 to 32. The 19 men arrested for soliciting sex were between 23 and 60. None of the suspects arrested on misdemeanor charges at the LivINN Hotel at 5201 Central Av. NE. on Monday and Tuesday was from Fridley. One woman faces a gross misdemeanor charge, Rewitzer said.

“We certainly see crimes that are associated with prostitution, be they robberies or narcotics offenses, and those directly impact the quality of life here,” Rewitzer said about the importance of police combating prostitution.

Using escort sites to set up stings is just one way to address the problem of prostitution, he said. It’s not an unusual tactic for police to use. In July, Fridley police arrested 24 men for soliciting prostitution in a similar two-day sting. Police have used the same method in other cities, including St. Paul.

“Because of the changing face of how these enterprises work, law enforcement has changed the way they work,” said Howie Padilla, St. Paul police spokesman.

Prostitution has shifted from being something that is just solicited on street corners to something that can readily be found in online ads, according to local authorities.

Backpage’s adult ad section is considered one of the most popular of the online sites for prostitution ads. The site has been linked to several child sex trafficking cases in the Twin Cities.

In their defense, Backpage executives have said that the site works closely with law enforcement to help catch those involved in trafficking.

Last fall, the site’s parent company, Village Voice Media, split with a group of its executives, buying out City Pages in the Twin Cities and 12 other weeklies to form Voice Media Group. The company’s founders now operate Backpage as an independent entity.

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