February 2, 2007
Cops Track Sex for Sale on Craigslist
By ALEXIS HUICOCHEA
The oldest profession is moving from the street corner to the Internet.
The new twist is making it more difficult for undercover officers to combat, said a Tucson police vice sergeant.
Not only are there dozens of explicit ads placed daily on Tucson's craigslist site, but the Internet provides a relatively safe place for prostitutes to seek customers when compared to walking the streets, the sergeant said. Soliciting customers online also helps shield prostitutes from police.
Officers working Internet cases often have to rent hotel rooms, pass background checks and give out credit-card numbers before a prostitution suspect will agree to a meeting, said Sgt. Jim Stoutmeyer of the Tucson police vice unit.
"It is advantageous for them to go about conducting their business this way because the women are better protected than they would be if they are standing on a street corner waiting for a stranger to drive up," Stoutmeyer said. "This is a way to screen their customers to ensure that they are legit and not a cop."
The Internet, he said, has allowed prostitution to operate on a "grand scale."
"This way all a girl has to do is type up a sentence or two saying she is free for the next two hours and she will get instant results," Stoutmeyer said.
But arrests are being made here and elsewhere of people using online sites to solicit sex.
After receiving a tip from an out-of-state police agency in October that prostitutes in Tucson were using craigslist to find clients, Tucson police began to investigate, Stoutmeyer said.
Several months and several sting operations later, about 20 people have been arrested as a result of online ads.
That's just a small fraction of the roughly 300 prostitution cases the department handles in a typical year, but it's a growing trend, Stoutmeyer said.
The vice unit now scours Web sites looking to build cases. While Stoutmeyer would not discuss exactly what officers are looking for, he said the ads are not hard to miss.
The ads are "kind of glaring and for the most part, they are all advertising 'skin for your pleasure' or something to that effect," he said.
Free classified ads
The Web site craigslist.org posts free classified ads and hosts forums in 450 cities around the world. Almost anything can be found on the site, including jobs, housing, goods, services, activities and advice.
A recent review of postings on Tucson's craigslist site showed page after page of explicit solicitations from people "ready to please you" for "donations" that range from $60 for 15 minutes to $200 an hour.
Meetings can be set up at locations chosen by the person offering the service or somewhere chosen by the customer. Several women from out of town posted ads stating they were going to be in Tucson on certain dates and that interested parties could make appointments.
There have been a number of publicized cases nationwide of arrests of people using craigslist for prostitution. Police stings have been conducted in Phoenix, Chicago, California, Oklahoma, New Jersey and Seattle.
In Phoenix, a 21-year-old Mesa woman was arrested after a hotel manager who had been looking at craigslist recognized her photo as a hotel guest, police said.
Craig Newmark, who founded craigslist in 1995, was quoted in a Seattle Times article as saying he has heard that "prostitution is a significant problem" on the Web site and noted that his company has a "top-notch" reputation for responding to complaints of illegal activity.
Some craigslist users attach disclaimers to their posts stating that "donations" are for time and companionship only, not sex.
Simply offering to engage in sexual conduct with a person for a fee meets the definition of prostitution, said Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall.
However, the ads on craigslist and other online sites are often vaguely worded.
"It seems that some of these ads do violate the statute as far as making the offer, but they don't say it outright," LaWall said. "Any adult reading it would say, 'Duh, of course that's what it's about,' but to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that sexual acts are (319) being offered usually cannot be done without a sting operation."
Stoutmeyer believes that while online prostitution is becoming more popular, it's not replacing streetwalking.
"We find this is a different breed of prostitutes," he said. "The women advertising online are usually dancers who are converting because of how lucrative this business is."
Can be difficult for police
Investigating online prostitutes can be difficult for police.
Once officers find a target, they arrange for a meeting, Stoutmeyer said.
Many prostitution suspects will not accept phone calls from blocked numbers or they may ask for a credit-card number in advance. Some conduct background checks, he said.
If an appointment is made, police must then rent a hotel room, which can cost anywhere from $80 to $100 a night, where the meeting will take place.
It is becoming more common in these situations for the prostitute to bring along a bodyguard, who will check out the customer. The bodyguard is also responsible for collecting a base payment - money paid for the woman to show up, which could be up to $200.
Once the base payment is collected, the prostitute will discuss her services and prices, and once the deal is made, the arrest is made - the charge is a misdemeanor, Stoutmeyer said.
On Jan. 6, three people in Tucson who posted online ads were arrested during a sting operation, Stoutmeyer said.
In one case, a 31-year-old man was arrested at a hotel near East Grant and North Swan roads after he posted two ads on craigslist in search of a woman for $150, Stoutmeyer said.
The man then met with a female undercover officer posing as a prostitute, according to a police report. After the agreement was made and the officer was given money, the man was arrested and booked into jail on one count of prostitution.
That night, two females who were looking for clients on the Web site were arrested in separate incidents, Stoutmeyer said.
The majority of such advertisements are posted under the services category under "erotic" and are sometimes accompanied by nude photos. The category, according to a craigslist spokeswoman, was created for legal escort services and sensual massage providers.
"All illegal activity is prohibited on craigslist, nor is it welcome on craigslist, and we appreciate and are fully cooperative with law enforcement efforts," said Susan MacTavish Best, a spokeswoman for the Web site.
Prostitution cases in Tucson
Source: Tucson Police Department
Internet safety tips
In the last decade, there has been a growing presence of people using the Internet to commit crimes, said Hsinchun Chen, a professor in the University of Arizona's management information systems department and an expert in cybercrime. "You can use the Web for identity theft, piracy, pornography, gambling and to buy and sell weapons or drugs," he said.
A challenge in fighting cybercrime is the fact that it is relatively new to law enforcement and much training is needed, he said.
"The Internet has created a whole new class of criminals, many of whom wouldn't commit these crimes in a face-to-face situation," said Sgt. Mark Robinson, a Tucson Police Department spokesman.
Here are some Internet safety tips from the Pima County Attorney's Office:
* Put the computer in a common room.
* Establish usage guidelines.
* Know who communicates online with your children.
* Familiarize yourself with programs your children use on the computer.
* Consider using Internet filters or blocks.
* Explain that criminals can find personal information about you and your children by tracking what Web sites you visit.
* Explain to children that instant messaging is only for chatting with school and family friends they know by face and are approved by you.
* Make sure family members know how dangerous it is to give out personal information online.
* Stress to children that it is not safe to meet in person with someone they first met online.
* Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at 629-9412 or [email protected].