Criminals sell prostitution on the Web

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The Independent Online
The advertisement is clearly designed to grab the attention: "Have you heard about mysterious `Russian soul'? Why can Russian women sacrifice themselves? Why are they so open-hearted, so hospitable? Russian women have a heart of gold and are loving and caring." The words are accompanied by a picture of Olga, a 25-year-old with beguiling eyes and dark, swept-back hair.

She is one of scores of "marriage-minded" Russians, offered by this particular company, who would love to meet a Western man.

That is, a man who can afford to pay up to pounds 3,000 for her. The company is among a growing number using the Internet to promote brides or prostitutes from Eastern Europe, Thailand and the Philippines.

While campaigners say the women are being exploited, there is often nothing illegal in what the companies are doing. But police in Britain are concerned about evidence showing many of these firms are run by organised crime, in particular the Russian mafia. Det Insp Paul Holmes, of the Metropolitan Police's Vice Squad, said the increase in trafficking of women into London was a result of the increase in the Internet sex industry.

"It's undoubtedly a growth area, and, unlike other features of vice crime, the pressure applied is much more subtle and, in ways, much more evil."

A hotline was set up last year by the Home Office, police and computer industry for people who discovered potentially illegal or explicit material. Home Office minister Lord Williams of Mostyn regularly meets the Internet Watch Foundation, a self-regulatory group of members of the computer industry, to monitor developments. "Abuse of the Internet for spreading pornography and information that could lead to the trafficking of women is a serious concern to us," said a spokesman.

Researchers for a BBC Radio 5 Live report, The New Slave Trade in Women, broadcast last night, found hundreds of listings for young Filipino, Thai and Russian women.

- Andrew Buncombe