Since the growth of online retail, payments providers and acquirers have wrestled with the ethical questions and the risks surrounding gun sales, marijuana shops, pornography sites and other businesses that carry a stigma.

The latest chapter in that ethical debate unfolded last week when the major card brands discontinued acceptance of payments generated through the adult section of the online classifieds.

MasterCard, Visa and American Express have all terminated payment acceptance from the website following the start of an investigation by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart over the site's alleged promotion of sexual services.

Dart asked the major card brands to consider terminating any relationship with the Texas-based, Dutch-owned company that operates Backpage.

"MasterCard has rules that prohibit our cards from being used for illegal or brand-damaging activities," MasterCard spokesman Seth Eisen said. "In this case, we contacted Backpage’s acquiring bank about the Cook County sheriff’s claims of Backpage’s activities in the U.S., as well as separate violations of MasterCard rules." The acquirer advised MasterCard that it is terminating acceptance at this time, Eisen added.

The sheriff's department has estimated Backpage generates $9 million in revenue a month, using the site to advertise various adult services and massages. In April, Backpage published more than 1.4 million adult services ads in the U.S., the sheriff's department reported.

With the major brands not allowing use of their cards for Backpage ads, the only way to purchase the ads now is through the more difficult process of using Bitcoin, Dart said in a Reuters article. 

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