She calls herself "Diamond." And thanks to Craigslist, the 25-year-old prostitute hopes never to walk the dusty streets of Reno, Nev., again.
But when the San Francisco-based Web site pulled the plug Wednesday on its "erotic services" section, Diamond's luck may have run out. Coming under fire from law enforcement in several states and facing bad publicity over a recent murder case in Boston, Craigslist said it was replacing the old category with a new one, "adult services," that will be actively monitored by employees.
In recent years, sex workers have flocked to Craigslist and other Web sites, believing cyberspace to be a much safer way to meet new clients than pounding the pavement. "You know they have access to a computer, to the Internet," says Diamond, suggesting that it means they're maybe a little less likely to be deranged or crack-addled. "They can read. It just feels more ... professional."
Diamond may feel safer, but critics say it's not necessarily so. In the wake of several crimes linked to the privately held Craigslist in recent months, several attorneys general moved to end a tenuous truce signed last fall between the site's purveyors and the top lawyers from 40 states. The pact was designed to rein in the selling of sex on a site that draws 9 billion page views per month and that generated an estimated $80 million in revenue last year, according to a report by the Web consultant Classified Intelligence. Most of that revenue is generated by fees from job and apartment listings.
In March, the Cook County, Ill., sheriff filed a lawsuit against Craigslist in U.S. district court calling for the company to discontinue the erotic services section and to reimburse police for more than $100,000 spent to arrest 156 people via Craigslist between January and November 2008. "Craigslist is the single largest source of prostitution in the nation," said Sheriff Thomas Dart at a press conference in Chicago. "Missing children, runaways, abused women and women trafficked in from foreign countries are routinely forced to have sex with strangers because they're being pimped on Craigslist."
In Kent, Wash., last month, King County prosecutors filed attempted-murder charges against a 24-year-old laborer named Shawn Tyler Skelton after he allegedly posted an advertisement seeking a woman he could have sex with, and then murder. The ad said "serious inquiries only." Detectives responded and learned that their suspect was also "willing to kill an unwitting person, but that he wanted to be paid" $2,000, according to court documents. Skelton agreed upon the terms, police say, and then showed up at a Seattle motel to an arranged meeting with a knife, a length of heavy chain and two long shoelaces. Skelton has pleaded not guilty.
"The risk of streetwalking has been replaced with the risk of an anonymous forum where you really don't know who you're dealing with—which can embolden some people to do things, act out fantasies they might not do in person," says Dan Satterberg, the King County prosecutor handling Skelton's case. "And it's too big to be policed."
In Massachusetts, police used computer records to arrest 23-year-old Boston University medical student Philip Markoff in April and charge him with murder, alleging that he had terrorized a woman who advertised her services on the site and killed another woman from New York that he allegedly met on Craigslist. Markoff has pleaded not guilty.
In February a nationwide sex sting orchestrated by the FBI found more than 2,800 child-prostitution ads had been posted on Craigslist. Forty-eight teenage prostitutes, some as young as 13, were uncovered during the arrest of more than 571 people.
In the face of these cases, Craigslist began charging a fee last November of between $5 and $10 for erotic-services ads, which have been the most viewed, according to attorneys general in several states. The site required payment with a valid credit card, and a working phone number for verification. The company turns over the resulting information to law enforcement if subpoenaed and forwards the proceeds from erotic-services ads to charity.
Craigslist also filed 14 lawsuits against companies and individuals that it found were using the site to offer prostitution. These steps, the company claims, have reduced the number of prostitution-related postings by as much as 80 percent, though Sheriff Dart says he's seen no change in the number or type of postings generated on the site in recent months.
"Craigslist is part of the solution when it comes to combating terrible crimes like human trafficking and child exploitation," said company CEO Jim Buckmaster in a recent press release. He declined to answer questions submitted to him via e-mail by NEWSWEEK. Craigslist spokeswoman Susan Mactavish Best said the company's founder, Craig Newmark, also declined to be interviewed or answer questions.
Previously, Craigslist officials have said that "erotic services" began at the behest of users, who wanted the paid services cleared away from sections such as "casual encounters," where visitors can indulge each others' fantasies free of charge. The other point Craigslist's owners repeatedly stressed is how much of a resource "erotic services" can be for vice detectives. Recorded IP addresses can allow cops to track down both prostitution "providers"—a term used to describe both pimps and hookers—and the "hobbyists," a.k.a. johns. As blogger Owen Thomas put it recently on Gawker, "Horny, desperate men are the largest source of prostitution in America. And Dart should be happy that they're visiting a Web site which rolls over so easily when the police call."
Craigslist is not liable for prostitution that occurs online, says John Morris, general council with the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit liberal-advocacy group that works on Internet constitutional issues. "A service like Craigslist or YouTube … couldn't exist if those services had a legal liability for everything people put up," Morris says. "There's no way a YouTube or Craigslist would be able to review and take legal responsibility for every single thing posted there."
Craigslist is a daily part of the job for Det. Ryan Long, who supervises investigations in the vice unit at the Seattle Police Department. Cops routinely post fake ads and respond to real ones in order to nab suspected criminals. The detectives in Long's squad are on a first-name basis with many of the Web site's 25 employees, and the company's representatives are quick to notify police if they spot illicit activity. It was a Craigslist staffer, in fact, who alerted authorities to the disturbing Kent posting.
Since Craigslist started charging people for erotic-services ads, Long has noticed purveyors moving to other parts of the site and other Web sites, making it harder to keep tabs on them. "It's a double-edged sword," he explains. "Do we let it operate to gain intelligence and take enforcement action, or do we take the entire site down" and see it disperse?
Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna doesn't share that ambivalence. "Erotic services" made it easier for human trafficking to happen, McKenna tells NEWSWEEK, which means it happens more, whether it's in a back alley or a condominium. "The Internet reduces the cost of buying and selling, the transaction costs," McKenna says. "We know there's more activity occurring because it's easier for prostitutes and their clients to find each other."
Craigslist also seems to broaden the playing field, Long adds. Modern-day prostitutes include suburban housewives and high-school cheerleaders, and they operate in places where people never thought they had a prostitution problem.
In Oak Harbor, a community of 22,000 in Washington state's San Juan Island, police in October and December conducted their first-ever sting via Craigslist, says Det. Mike Bailey, answering ads, and setting up dates at a local motel and at a car parked in a grocery-store lot that led to the arrest of five women in the first prostitution-related sweep in Island County's history. One of the women showed up armed with a butterfly knife, and told police she intended to rob the client.
During the course of the investigation, Bailey learned some interesting things about how pimps and prostitutes are staying ahead of the competition. They'll flag other providers' ads as inappropriate, he says, post negative reviews of their "work" or come right out and claim that a particular prostitute has a sexually transmitted disease. "There were some offering military discounts," Bailey says, which is why the cops partnered with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, using a sailor to pose as a john.
All current erotic-services ads on Craigslist will expire by May 19, and nude or graphic photos will be banned in the new section. "Of course, the states will continue to watch pretty carefully," McKenna says.
No matter what steps are taken, most law-enforcement officials agree that it would be impossible to end the sale of sex at Craigslist or any other site. That suits Diamond just fine, who said she's only had one off-kilter experience with a customer met through Craigslist so far. He tried to pay with a check.