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Craigslist death renews calls for limiting sex ads

Prostitution persists on Craigslist even as attorneys general pressure the online classified service to stamp it out, experts say. Those efforts are intensifying after the killing of a Boston masseuse.
/ Source: The Associated Press

"Late night cravings special," promises the Craigslist ad in the "erotic services" category. "My exotic mix makes me an intoxicating and sensual treat."

The "treat" runs a discreet 100 "rose petals" for 15 minutes, 130 rose petals for a half-hour and 160 for an hour.

Prostitution persists on Craigslist even as attorneys general pressure the online classified service to stamp it out, experts say. Those efforts are intensifying after the killing of a Boston masseuse hired through the site.

"It is clear that Craigslist is the new frontier," said Mark Lagon, executive director of the Polaris Project, an anti-slavery group.

Many of the victims who come to Polaris can point to a Craigslist posting used by a trafficker to market their bodies against their will, Lagon said in an April 6 letter to the site.

"Ultimately, the 'erotic services' section must be shut down," Lagon wrote, noting that a study last year found that Craigslist was the site used most frequently by johns seeking prostitutes.

Intensified concerns about ads
The recent arrest of Boston University medical student Philip Markoff, charged with murder, armed robbery and kidnapping for the killing of a 25-year-old masseuse he met through Craigslist and the robbery of another, has intensified long-standing concerns about the ads.

In Illinois, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart sued Craigslist last month, saying the site not only allows the solicitation of prostitution, but also has actively created "the largest source of prostitution in America."

Craigslist rejected the sheriff's contentions, saying the company cooperates with law enforcement, has taken several steps to prevent illegal use of the site and pulls inappropriate ads.

"The Internet is still fairly new, and there's a tendency to focus on any crime story that has a connection to the Internet, as I suspect was done in the early days of the telephone as well," Jim Buckmaster, Craigslist's CEO, told The Associated Press.

The Web site is among the most popular for posting classified ads, with 42.2 million visitors in the United States in March, a 48 percent increase from a year earlier, according to Andrew Lipsman, director of industry analysis for Comscore Inc.

Crack down on prostitution ads
In November, Craigslist reached an agreement with several attorneys general nationwide to crack down on ads for prostitution on its Web sites. The deal requires those who post "erotic services" ads to provide a working phone number and pay a fee with a valid credit card. The Web site must provide that information to law enforcers if subpoenaed.

Buckmaster said at the time that the deal would allow legitimate escort services to continue advertising, while strongly discouraging companies conducting illegal business.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal on Wednesday called on Craigslist to stop what he calls "pimping and prostitution in plain sight." He asked the site to immediately eliminate photographs in the "erotic services" section, hire staff to screen images and ads that violate the site's terms of service and fine users who violate those terms.

Blumenthal said Thursday that he plans to meet with Craigslist officials in the next week and is confident that his counterparts around the country will support him in reaching another agreement.

"I'm confident that they are committed to stronger steps against ads that can lead to horrific tragedies such as occurred in Boston," Blumenthal said. "The Boston tragedy is only one of many brutal and violent crimes that occur as a result of prostitution ads or other illicit activities on this site and similar ones."

'Risks of Craiglist are low'
Buckmaster said Wednesday that criminals who use the site are virtually guaranteed to get caught because they leave electronic trails that are easily traced. He noted that there have been billions of interactions on Craigslist, adding, "Compared to human society as a whole the risks of Craigslist are low, but they're not zero."

Some are skeptical about the efforts to combat the world's oldest profession on the Web. Trying to curb the ads on Craigslist may just drive them to another site that is less cooperative with authorities, said Steve Jones, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"Craigslist is sort of only a symptom of the problem," Jones said. "The problem here is criminal behavior. Criminal behavior will find a way to express itself regardless of the medium."

The issue shows how authorities are struggling with how to respond to age-old social ills that are increasingly emerging on the relatively new Internet, he said.

"In some ways it's kind of a constant cat and mouse game," Jones said. "We have a long way to go to figure out how to deal with them."