Police prowl internet as vice moves off street

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The Independent US

Craigslist, the utilitarian and highly-trafficked website that long ago captured the online market for classified advertising in the United States and around the world, has now replaced red-light districts as the new battleground between prostitutes who are trying to reel in new punters – and undercover cops whose job it is to stop them.

Police departments are reporting new success in penetrating the electronic version of street-walking, in particular by scouring the postings on Craigslist, which they describe as a new hub of sex-for-sale activity. The site, they say, is busier than Times Square on a sultry night (or at least before Rudy Giuliani cleaned it up.)

Police in Nassau County, New York, for instance, report having arrested more than 70 "professional" women for posting their services on Craigslist since last year when they first grasped it had burgeoned into a cyber-bazaar for more than just jobs and second-hand boats. Most recently, eight women were taken into custody for working the posh resort towns of Long Island during the busy summer holiday season.

Vice-squad agents now spend hours surfing Craigslist looking for postings that seem to offer sex for money. With thousands of new ads appearing on its "erotic services" section each hour, it can be an eye-boggling task. Even more effective, however, have been the phoney ads placed by agents to entrap customers.

"Craigslist has become the hi-tech 42nd Street where much of the solicitation takes place," Richard McGuire, assistant chief of detectives at Nassau County Police Department, told The New York Times. "Technology has worked its way into every profession, including the oldest."

The development is a potential source of embarrassment for the company, originally founded in California by Craig Newmark as a tool for people looking for work, for sellers and buyers and, of course, for romantic or steamy connections.

However, under existing US law, it does not appear the list can be found liable for whatever content users choose to post on its pages.

"We don't comment on the specifics" of the law, said Jim Buckmaster, the president of the company. He did add, however: "We do not want illegal activity on the site." Once confined to a few cities in the US, Craigslist now offers tailored pages in 450 cities around the world, including in London, and claims to have 25 million users as well as eight billion page views every month.

As of last night, the rotation of postings on the "erotic services" section of the New York page seemed as swift as ever, despite the negative publicity. "Beautiful Sexy Asians in NYC Now! Incall Only," topped the list. "Let's make plans for this evening", said the next. Click five minutes later and a new raft of suggestive postings has appeared, many with pictures attached not suitable for children.

For prostitutes and punters alike, connecting online is considerable easier – and safer – than connecting on the streets in badly lit corners. Experts say many women now practising prostitution would never have done so had online solicitation not made the profession so much safer.

Indeed, the greatest danger now may be the police sting. Police in Chicago said they arrested 43 prostitutes on the city's streets in July, compared to 60 who had been found selling their wares online.

Increasingly, the police are focusing on concocting and posting their phoney ads, which means it is the potential customers they catch. A single ad placed on the Seattle page of Craigslist recently snagged 71 eager respondents, including a bank officer, a construction worker and a surgeon.

In Jacksonville, Florida, another single ad posted by police for three days in August trawled in 33 men, among them a teacher. "We got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hits" in emails and phone calls, confirmed John Hartley, an assistant chief sheriff.