Craigslist at center of sex trade storm

Craigslist

North Charleston police arrested six women in a recent citywide sweep to curtail prostitution. But while these women stewed in jail, dozens more used the Internet to offer their intimate services to lonely Lowcountry men.

The Charleston area has no shortage of hard-luck women who walk the streets selling sex to strangers. But the "working girls" who make the real money are those who ply the flesh trade in cyberspace, staying under the radar of law enforcement while pulling down $150 an hour or more.

Authorities have become increasingly concerned about ladies of the night using Web sites such as craigslist.org to solicit carnal encounters for cash. The issue has sparked national debate since Cook County (Ill.) Sheriff Tom Dart filed a lawsuit last week against craigslist, alleging the popular online classifieds site has created "the largest source of prostitution in America."

Craigslist officials have adamantly denied the allegations. They insist they've taken a number of steps to prevent misuse of the site and inappropriate ads in its "erotic services" section, which Dart seeks to shut down.

At last count Wednesday, craigslist had more than 300 postings for "erotic services" in the Charleston area. These services ranged from phone sex and webcam sessions to intimate massages and unforgettable dates at special rates. One woman stated plainly that she was out of work, looking to get paid for sex and is "open to doing whatever makes you happy" for $100 an hour. Many of the women pictured are scantily clad or naked.

The Charleston County Sheriff's Office arrested about 40 people on prostitution-related charges last fall after vice officers spent a couple of months prowling craigslist.

Investigators nabbed people who offered paid sex through the site as well as consumers who responded to decoy ads placed by law enforcement, sheriff's Maj. John Clark said. Investigators were surprised by the variety of people involved, from sophisticated escorts to soccer moms on the prowl.

"I don't think craigslist was set up to be used the way it was being used," Clark said. "But clearly, some of what's being advertised is pretty explicit."

Dart offered a harsher critique March 5 in a news conference in Chicago, accusing craigs-list of actively promoting and facilitating prostitution. He brought with him a 19-year-old woman who reportedly turned to prostitution after originally visiting craigslist in search of modeling jobs.

Investigators from across the nation have turned their attention to the site's "erotic services" offering in recent years, yielding numerous arrests in places like Wisconsin, Connecticut, Seattle and Hawaii. In October, investigators in Florida's Port St. Lucie County arrested 35 alleged pimps, prostitutes and customers as part of a craigslist investigation. A month later, federal prosecutors in New York accused an alleged pimp with advertising the services of girls as young as 15. Eleven more prostitution arrests were reported in January in Harrisburg, Pa., as part of a craigslist probe.

North Charleston police arrested about 20 people on prostitution charges in the past year by monitoring craigslist and similar Web sites, newspaper classifieds and phone directories, public safety spokesman Spencer Pryor said.

Charleston police have not made any arrests in connection with craigslist, but investigators are taking a close look at the site and what's being advertised, public information officer Charles Francis said.

Craigslist officials pledge to continue cooperating with law enforcement and working to stamp out illegal activity. In November, craigslist reached an agreement with attorneys general in some 40 states, including South Carolina, to crack down on prostitution ads through such measures as requiring "erotic services" posters to provide a valid phone number and credit card. The site also agreed to share that information with law enforcement if subpoenaed. The site saw an "enormous reduction in ad volume" for such services in the months that followed, craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster wrote in a recent blog.

The changes apparently scared off some of Charleston's erotic service providers. One poster urged people to visit another site, warning that call girls and their clients risked "getting cuffed" on craigslist. Another poster urged customers to contact her elsewhere for rates to avoid craigslist and police stings.