In July, Florida officials arrested the operators of an international Web site that brazenly advertised the “escort services” of sex workers across the U.S. and six other countries. A judge promptly ordered the site closed. Florida law enforcement officers hailed the arrests as a huge victory and a significant step toward successful prosecution of sex crimes that have moved from Main Street to Cyberville. Small catch: the site never closed; it’s still active, including ads hawking $17,000 all day “dates” with famous porn stars.
“Tell me about it,” says a clearly frustrated Chris Brown, a prosecutor with the Florida attorney general’s office, who is in charge of prosecuting the case against the Web site known as Bigdoggie.net in an investigation dubbed “Operation Flea Collar.”
Brown also charged a dozen others in conjunction with the two owners, lodging 57 counts ranging from racketeering to aiding and abetting prostitution.
Brown’s frustration is owed, in part, to the precedent setting approach he has taken in the case only to see two-years of work languish as the case winds its way through the court system.
“As far as we know, this case may be the first or one of the first, in which we are going after not only the prostitutes we believe are the core members of this organization [bigdoggie.net] in the Tampa area, but also the [Web site] owners and the registered users of the Web site,” Brown said.
But Brown didn’t stop at the flesh and blood.
“We took out an arrest warrant on the company,” that owns Bigdoggie.net,” Brown said. “Well, how do you arrest a company?” he asks rhetorically. “Certainly it has been done, but it’s not a road you go down very often.” And for now the owners of Bigdoggie have chosen to disregard the court order to shut down the site or, upon posting $100,000 bond, ensure that “no illegal activity” is being facilitated on their site.
“They’ve just thumbed their nose at it (the court order),” Brown says of the Bigdoggie’s owners.
Hookers and hurdles
The Bigdoggie case is big news for those trafficking in the soft white underbelly of the Web more commonly known as “adult content.” Brown cast his prosecutorial net broader than any other such case; going after registered users of the site is grist for columns and activists of all stripe.
The Bigdoggie site doesn’t actually participate in setting up the dates. “It wouldn’t be a site that you would say is a pimp,” Brown said, though “there are those types of sites.” Mostly those are run by independents, those sex workers who have moved off the grid, off the streets, out of the yellow pages and onto Web servers in Toledo or Des Moines or Burbank.Bigdoggie is “about the facilitation of prostitution,” Brown said, “it ranks prostitutes in geographic areas … and they don’t call them prostitutes, they call them ‘escorts.’”
And the Johns? “They call themselves ‘hobbyists,’” says Brown with a bit of a laugh. “Of course they are disregarding the fact that it’s an illegal hobby.”
Brown acknowledges that, despite high profile corporate crime cases like Enron and WorldCom, the courts are still a tad unsure of how to prosecute a company.
“Another difficulty is that you can’t put a company in jail so who do you punish?” Brown asks. “I think the logical connection is you punish the person who is in charge of the company,” he says.
Hide and peek
Metropolitan police forces are becoming increasingly aggressive in targeting so-called “escort services” that advertise online.
Chicago has a special unit dedicated to vice crimes facilitated in cyberspace. Chicago’s special online vice squad trolls escort sites advertising in the city limits, officers make appointments and when money changes hands, the arrest is made. The squad reportedly averages 15 arrests per month.
But it’s not only the large cities that are going after online sex workers. In Milwaukee, the police arrested a woman on prostitution charges resulting from a personal ad she placed on Yahoo! The police were tipped off about that ad which specifically mentioned that she would come to Milwaukee and trade sex for money.
Sex workers of all kinds are homesteading the Web, some out of a belief that it’s a “safer” environment than being on the street. Using online services for prostitution purposes is the “wave of the future,” said prosecutor Brown.
The number of people this year inquiring about setting up escort Web sites “has gone from zero to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds,” says Joe Obenberger, a Chicago-based attorney specializing in the online adult entertainment field.
“Beginners in the profession can have the same misconceptions that ‘civilians’ have,” says Tracy Quan, author of the novel Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl. “We hear people saying: ‘There are all these escort ads in the (print) Yellow Pages, therefore the vice squad is not making arrests.’ But the ads don’t mean that arrests have stopped. The ads actually mean that the police have an easy target. The same thing is true for the online medium,” said Quan, herself a former prostitute and spokesperson for PONY, a prostitutes and sex workers advocacy group based in New York.
“I think the escort business can be done (online) legally, I think it can be done quite illegally, too,” Obenberger said. That “best of times, worst of times” statement really sums up the current legal climate when it comes to enforcing sex crimes facilitated online.
“This is a complex area with lots of different laws that inter-relate to it and lots of doctrines of law,” Obenberger said. “If you know the crime is being committed and you facilitate it, you’re guilty of the crime,” he said. “That’s the underlying principle.”
Hookers are people, too
Prosecutor Brown said he’s taken testimony from an escort nabbed in the Bigdoggie.net investigation in which she admitted to putting ads into online dating services, hoping to rustle up some clients. Brown said she wrote the ads using “code words” such as looking for a “generous man” to date. When you see that, Brown said, “apparently there’s a good chance you’re talking about prostitution because she did end up getting people contacting her and they did have prostitution ‘events’ off of that personal ad.”
That experience doesn’t square with Quan’s personal knowledge. “I have not heard any stories from sex workers about finding customers at online dating services,” she said, though she didn’t doubt that was happening. “Prostitutes are part of everyday life ... so why wouldn’t we go to the places on the Internet where everyone else goes?”
Brown, the Florida prosecutor says he has “no illusions” that the case against Bigdoggie is going to put a dent in the practice of soliciting sex acts online.
“Our position on this really was that we needed to start somewhere; we needed to set some precedent in how these cases can be prosecuted successfully, maybe help out fellow law enforcement organizations around the country. If they see it can be done, that’s the chilling effect we’re looking for.”