Las Vegas Sun

July 25, 2014

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LAW ENFORCEMENT:

Hawking erotic services? Craigslist now has your number

Mahria is a “beautiful blonde” offering “erotic wrestling” for $100.

Dru is charging $80 for an hour of “sensual massage.”

Alicia can be at your door in half an hour.

These advertisements, which come with photos a family newspaper won’t print, are a small sample of what can be found in the “erotic services” section of Craigslist in Las Vegas — an online classified ads Web site that, aside from helping people find roommates or sell old lawn mowers, has become one of the most popular ways for Clark County escorts to peddle their wares to the electronic masses. It’s an Internet buffet of costly companionship, but perhaps not for long.

Just over two weeks ago, Craigslist began charging a fee to advertise on the site’s “erotic services” section. The fee is small — $5 — but the consequences are huge.

The fee must be paid with a credit card, and Craigslist will supply this credit card information to law enforcement officials, should they subpoena it. Erotic services advertisers must also provide a phone number, which an automated system will call before any posting is published online.

In short, Craigslist is working with the police.

Erotic services advertisements in the dozens of American cities Craigslist serves have fallen dramatically since Nov. 6, when the fee took effect, the company’s chief executive, Jim Buckmaster, told the Sun. On Monday in Las Vegas, that meant there were only 362 erotic services ads posted on Craigslist. The Monday before the traceable fees, there were more than 1,100 ads.

Craigslist entered into the agreement with 40 attorneys general, including Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Masto, to clamp down on illegal services being offered online. And the shrinking number of erotic services ads are a clear victory for law enforcement, at least on the surface. Some critics, however, including local Vegas escorts, suggest the move will only force prostitutes onto the streets in search of clients they once could have courted from the comfort, and relative safety, of their laptops.

There are numerous Web sites that charge escorts considerable fees to advertise their services. Craigslist, because it was free, was a forum for escorts who didn’t have money to market themselves — escorts who are, in many ways, the most vulnerable, UNLV sociology professor and prostitution researcher Barbara Brents said.

When asked whether taking away the free online forum would endanger prostitutes by forcing them onto the streets and into casinos, a spokeswoman for Cortez Masto, Edie Cartwright, said via e-mail, “Prostitution has always been a fluid problem. It is the secrecy of anonymous ads on Craigslist that the agreement targets.”

Craigslist’s chief executive would not comment on whether the company has provided law enforcement officials with any identifying information about those who post erotic services ads.

But not everybody is scared off. Randi, a 28-year-old escort who has been working in Las Vegas for several years, said paying five dollars and risking arrest still pencils out in an escort’s favor.

“If you get arrested, it’s a few hundred dollars’ bail, a few hours in jail, and you’re out,” she said. “It’s worth it.”

She hasn’t been caught so far, she said.

For all the criticism of the clampdown, the flip side is easy to see as well: With fewer escorts advertising, prospective johns have less opportunity. And just as some prostitutes are loath to walk the streets, some johns are hesitant to hire company off the curb. Men who normally find escorts on Craigslist are increasingly scared to do so, according to one prostitute, who says her clients are equally put off by the idea police can subpoena details about their date.

The anonymity once offered by Craigslist made it easy for minors, or people selling their bodies to support a drug habit, to advertise themselves online, even though established escort companies wouldn’t employ them, Metro Vice Sgt. Gil Shannon said.

Nichole Yegge was a horrific example: The 17-year-old Vegas teen was advertising on Craigslist, allegedly pimped by the couple arrested this August in connection with her slaying.

If Yegge hadn’t been so easily sold on Craigslist, if she had had a harder time becoming an underage escort, perhaps she might not have been wound up mutilated in the Nevada desert.

Told of the drop in erotic services ads, Shannon said, “That’s fantastic.”

You could hear his smile through the phone.

Metro vice has worked with craigslist before, particularly when it was clear that underage escorts were posting nude photographs of themselves on the site — child porn, essentially. When detectives would subpoena information about the person posting these advertisements, however, the information available was often of little use because everything was so easily made anonymous online. Now connecting the dots between an escort advertising online and an arrest will be much easier for the department. The vice section has yet to subpoena the newly available credit card information, but, Shannon said, it’s “coming to a courtroom near you.”

Again, you could hear his smile.

Thirty million ads are posted on Craigslist’s global classified ad sites every month, for such things as apartment rentals and rescue dogs. Buckmaster said he wasn’t aware of any study that broke out the number of erotic services ads, but it seems safe to assume that at $5 a pop, the new fee structure will generate a considerable amount of revenue. That money will be donated to charities that address human trafficking and child exploitation, Buckmaster said. But the charities haven’t been chosen. That was one reason Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum would not join his 40 colleagues in supporting the changes at Craigslist — it’s unclear where that money will go, and how it will be distributed.

Cortez Masto’s spokeswoman, when asked whether this was of any concern for the Nevada AG, said “we understand that the choice of charities is up to the company; the purpose of the use of a credit card is to create an identification trail for the advertiser.”

Of course, escorts are already coming up with payment techniques that make that identification trail harder to trace, one escort said. She wasn’t willing to explain the techniques because they seem to be working so far.

That’s the nature of the beast, Shannon, the vice sergeant, said. Every step forward may be followed by one or two steps back, as escorts look for another way to ply their trade. Many will join up with agencies, he said. The men snapping handbills on the Strip aren’t running out of little cards to pass out any time soon.

And it’s only a matter of time until someone, shielded by free speech protections, comes up with another free Web site for escorts to advertise on.

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