Craigslist.com, the wildly popular online community and classified bazaar, is coming under intense pressure from law enforcement authorities to eliminate what they say are ads for illegal sexual activities.
South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster sent the company a letter Tuesday giving site leaders 10 days to remove illegal content and prostitution ads or face prosecution, claiming managers had “knowingly allowed the site to be used for illegal and unlawful activity after warnings from law enforcement officials and after an agreement with 40 state attorneys general.”
That was a reference to a deal Craigslist struck in November with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the attorneys general to crack down on ads for prostitution. Under the arrangement, craigslist said it would require anyone who posted an “erotic services” ad to provide a working telephone number and pay a fee with a valid credit card; craigslist said it would provide the information to law enforcement if it were subpoenaed.
The crackdown did not involve prepublication approval or review, however, and it did not apply to personal ads, where prostitutes have frequently been found advertising.
In the letter, which was addressed to Jim Buckmaster, the site’s chief executive, McMaster said the site had not kept up its end of the bargain.
“Recent national events, along with ongoing law enforcement efforts in South Carolina, indicate that craigslist has not installed sufficient safeguards since November to prohibit the Internet site from being used as a vehicle to advertise or solicit prostitution,” it said.
“Please be advised that the craigslist management may be subject to criminal investigation and prosecution by this office if the portions of the Internet site dedicated to South Carolina and its municipal regions and which contain categories for and functions allowing for the solicitation of prostitution and the dissemination and posting of graphic pornographic material are not permanently removed on or before 5:00 p.m. EST, the close of business Friday May 15, 2009.”
Ads called illegal, dangerous
McMaster is not the only law enforcement official who is leaning on craigslist, which Craig Newmark started in 1995 as an e-mail bulletin board and classified-ad service for the San Francisco region. In March, its traffic topped 20 billion page views across 570 local sites in 50 countries, making it one of the 30 most popular destinations on the World Wide Web, according to the Web traffic data company Alexa Internet Inc.
Attorneys general from three other states — Missouri, Connecticut and Illinois — met Tuesday with lawyers for craigslist to urge the site to shut down its erotic services ads.
“Anybody who goes on the erotic services section of Craigslist is going to find a set of ads that’s so blatant,” said Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, who called the ads “not only illegal but dangerous.”
“No one will disagree that this is prostitution in many, many cases,” he said.
After the meeting, Craigslist said it was optimistic that the dispute could be resolved “without compromising the quintessentially American values of free speech embodied in our Constitution.”
Craigslist maintains that its system of user ratings and alerts is sufficient to weed out inappropriate material. In an interview with NBC News last month, Buckmaster said the erotic services section was no different from similar features in newspaper classified ad sections and alternative weekly newspapers, saying the material is “collected in a single category and put behind a warning screen.”
For Craigslist, insult to injury
The public pressure comes at a difficult time for Craigslist, which is in the spotlight in a homicide case. Philip Markoff, 22, a medical student at Boston University, has pleaded not guilty in the death of a 25-year-old massage therapist who had advertised on the site.
Craigslist is not accused of any wrongdoing, but Newmark acknowledged that its connection to the Markoff case and to a handful of similar cases in recent years was a significant blow.
“Despite the billions of times well-meaning people have helped each other through Craigslist, it’s been devastating to see that it can also be used by bad people to take cruel advantage of others and bring a senseless end to a beautiful young life,” Newmark said Sunday at a memorial concert in Eden Prairie, Minn., for Katherine Ann Olson, 24, who was killed in 2007 after answering a fake Craigslist ad for a babysitter.
“The most recent crime in Boston has been a grim reminder of that,” Newmark said.
Hit man sought through site
Law enforcement officials say craigslist is rife with all sorts of wrongdoing, from ads for prostitution to fraudulent moneymaking schemes.
In February, Marrita Whitlock of St. Louis and her boyfriend began looking to buy a 2003 Cadillac Escalade and found one on Craigslist. The couple flew to Port Columbus, Ohio, to pick up the car with $7,000 cash in hand.
There, the would-be seller, identified by police as Michael Hague, picked them up in a luxury car. He allegedly pulled a gun and told Whitlock to give him the cash, police said.
The couple were left on a Columbus street with only their cell phones. Hague and two alleged accomplices were eventually arrested and charged with robbery.
And last month in Seattle, police arrested a suburban Kent, Wash., man who posted an ad on craigslist seeking to hire a hit man. The ad indicated that the man was also willing to kill for hire.
Police said an undercover investigator met with the man, who told the investigator that he was seeking a woman to have sex with and then kill. He was booked last week for investigation of attempted murder charges.
‘It just probably doesn’t belong there’
But it is the site’s erotic services ads that are most troubling to the state attorneys general, who say the ads don’t even bother to obscure their goal of offering illegal services.
“It seems like it has that bad side or it gives people the tool to use in a not-so-great way,” said Lonny Pulkrabek, sheriff of Johnson County, Iowa. “I’d rather see a lot of that stuff or some of that stuff removed. It just probably doesn’t belong there.”
In the section, advertisers — most of whom are women — pay $1 to post provocative images and offers to provide “personal services” guaranteeing a night that will not be forgotten.
“If there are 40 on there, I could tell you 39.9 of the 40 are there for prostitution,” said Ricky Ramie, a sheriff’s captain in Bay County, Fla., where several Panama City-area women have been arrested in an investigation of prostitution offered through online services.
“You might expect something like this to happen in a major city, but no city is immune,” Ramie said.
Eyes wide open
By and large, the women who offer such services on craigslist know what they could be getting themselves into, saying there is no way to confirm who, with what intentions, is answering their offers.
“My mom and dad, they’re always talking to me saying, ‘Well, we wonder if we’re going to get a call the next day, calling us saying your daughter is dead,’ ” said Ashlyn, a Panama City woman who said she frequently advertises private dances for $170 an hour.
“A lot of women are trying to make money right now,” she said in an interview with NBC station WJHG-TV of Panama City, speaking on condition that she not be further identified. “Times is hard.”
Recently, Ashlyn agreed to meet a client who answered one of her ads.
“I basically told him what he’s getting. He’s only getting a lap dance,” she said. “So I started doing the dance, and he came out and was like, ‘I didn’t ask for the dance — I wanted to have straight-up sex.’ ”
The man pulled a knife, she said, “grabbed my arm and started snatching on me.” she said. She said she was able to escape only by spraying the man with pepper spray.
Women in Ashlyn’s situation “could have been murdered,” said Ramie, the Bay County sheriff’s captain.
“We can make a dent in it. We can slow it down," he said. “But as long as Craigslist allows for this to be on their Web site, it makes it difficult for law enforcement.”