Is Craigslist the world's biggest bordello?

A San Francisco sex worker says Craigslist is vital to her industry. Cook County says Craigslist's erotic services section is a nuisance to the community.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Greg Sandoval
Declan McCullagh
6 min read

Update 7 p.m. on Friday: Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster issued a statement. You can read the story here.

Catherine is a 35-year-old sex worker in San Francisco who relies on Craigslist to reduce the physical risks often faced by a woman in her line of work.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart discusses during a press conference Thursday why he considers Craigslist a marketing tool for pimps and prostitutes. YouTube

"Craigslist is important to helping us avoid violence," says the woman, who is originally from Europe. "Craigslist is a way to filter out that kind of person...and with Craigslist there is no need for pimps."

For people in her trade, she adds in a thick accent, "Craigslist is vital."

It is also why Chicago Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart on Thursday sued the popular Internet classified service, accusing Craigslist of being one of the largest sources of prostitution in the country.

In an interview with CNET News, Dart said that the kind of sex services being advertised on Craigslist frequently involves minors as well as people forced into prostitution against their will. The federal lawsuit filed by Dart's office claims that Craigslist's erotic section is a powerful marketing tool for pimps and prostitutes and makes it easier for criminals to elude police.

"This (lawsuit) was my act of last resort," Dart said. "We're seeing some outrageous stuff here that we hadn't seen before. Our people on the street have seen the volume increase. It's become much more complicated for us. We can debate the whole 'Pretty Woman' thing. If a woman decides that this is a viable choice for employment, but that isn't the ones we're focused on."

He detailed how women were performing sex acts while their children were unattended in the next room. Dart described the many juveniles arrested when police followed up on suspicious Craigslist ads.

"We arrested numerous juveniles over the last two years," Dart said. "What we found is that they weren't advertised as juveniles in most of them. We walk in to hear: 'You want a juvenile? We got a juvenile. You'll have to pay more but we have her for you.'"

At the same time, however, this is a story that underscores how one of the world's newest technologies has become a vital part of one of the world's oldest occupations. For the majority of Craigslist users--the millions who sell sofas, rent rooms, or find Spanish tutors every day--a steamy online brothel juxtaposed with Craigslist's plain-wrap classified pages may seem unlikely. But with the emergence of the Internet as a vital communications medium, it was only a matter of time before sex for hire infiltrated the listings on Craigslist as well.

A Craigslist spokeswoman said Thursday that criminal acts are rare at the site compared with the overwhelming amount of legal activity. She added that Craigslist helps law enforcement track down criminals every day. (In response to the sheriff's lawsuit, Craigslist can claim to be immune from liability thanks to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.)

Catherine, who has lived in the United States for 10 years, spoke with CNET News on the condition that she would remain anonymous. She asked to be identified in the article as "Catherine," after the actress, Catherine Deneuve, who played the role of a young housewife moonlighting as a prostitute in the film "Belle de Jour."

Taking issue with Dart's portrayal, Catherine argued that Craigslist provided a safety net for her and other sex workers who use the service to screen out prospective clients who may be violent. Craigslist and the Internet give her a chance to communicate with a client to weed out those she senses may not be acceptable.

If access to Craigslist's bulletin board listings was shut off, Catherine says that many sex workers would be walking the streets.

Craigslist and the police
Over the years, police have found that Craigslist's erotic services ads can actually be useful when pursuing criminal investigations.

A 2007 article in the New York Times reported that a covert police ad on Craigslist in November by Seattle police led to the arrests of 71 men, including a bank officer, a construction worker and a surgeon. Police in Jacksonville, Fla. posted a single ad that drew 33 responses.

In July 2006, Detective Brad Conners of the Santa Rosa, Calif., police department posted multiple messages on the local Craigslist site posing as women offering erotic services. One ad Conners posted as "Emily" offered oral sex for $100.

An ad he posted from a woman named "Summer" drew a response from a 39-year-old man named Christopher Scarberry, who used the e-mail address wolfnursehunter@yahoo.com. Even after learning that "Summer" was 13 years old, he agreed to meet her at a parking garage and said he would be driving a white Chevrolet Corsica.

Santa Rosa police arrested Scarberry, and discovered $145 in cash on his person. He admitted to responding to the ad, but during the subsequent trial objected to the detective's claim that the encounter clearly involved sex for money. (He was sentenced to probation and was required to register as a sex offender.)

Det. Conners nabbed another respondent the same month. Again using the name "Summer," Conners posted an ad saying: "i talked 2 sum of u last week but I wuznt able 2 meet w/ some of u. i made some last week and it wuznt so bad, so im tryin to make a little more, can u help me out? i dont have pics, but im yung, cute, and blond bjs 100."

This time Michael Harris, a 45-year old welfare investigator for the Department of Social Services in nearby Mendocino County replied. Using the name "hardbody_hercules," Harris typed: "I must have missed your ad last week, sounds pretty interesting. I'd love to know what's up. Want to fill me in on the details. I'm off work all day and need to get into something special, might that be you. Hit me up."

"Summer" replied by saying she was 13 and the two agreed to meet. Santa Rosa detectives posing as skateboarders arrested Harris at the parking garage, where they found $100 and four flavored condoms in his pockets. Harris was convicted of one felony count of attempting to commit a lewd and lascivious act on a child under 14.

In New York City, an FBI agent had the same idea, posting an ad on Craigslist that offered the "freshest, youngest girls."

Timothy McDarrah, the 43-year-old former "Hot Stuff" editor at US Weekly magazine, replied. He asked "what it'll cost for the cutest white 14 year old girl with a pony tail in the whole 8 grade." McDarrah agreed to pay $200 for oral sex on July 7, 2005, but never showed up to the rendez-vous.

He did continue to chat online with an undercover FBI agent posing as 13-year-old "Julie," and was eventually arrested, convicted of using a computer to entice a minor into having sex, and sentenced to 6 years in prison.

Police have also used Craigslist to identify--and arrest--sex workers.

Detective John Harrigan on the vice squad of the Long Beach Police Department replied to a Craigslist ad by "Katie," who offered $200 for "a nude rubdown," or $250 for "full service with protection," apparently meaning intercourse with a condom. The woman, Sandra Kole, and her pimp, Robert Pimental, were arrested. (Pimental was sentenced to three years in prison for pimping.)

A Craiglist investigation by the San Francisco Police Department zeroed in on advertisements for a 19-year old woman named "Stacy.' Police discovered that she was really 14 years old and staying with her pimp in a Quality Inn in South San Francisco.

As previously reported by CNET News, police began closely monitoring Craiglist's casual encounters section for evidence of human trafficking during the Republican and Democratic conventions. (Sex ads on Craigslist spiked during the Democratic National Convention in Denver.)

Neither the police nor advocacy groups interested in the topic found any evidence of human trafficking--meaning the involvement of people under 18 years old, or situations involving coercion--at either event. Nor was there evidence of additional prostitution, at least measured by the number of arrests.

Craigslist has pledged to implement new measures designed to discourage people from using the site's erotic services section for prostitution. The privately held company responded in November to complaints from state attorneys general that the site's administrators were allowing users to post ads for prostitution in violation of its own terms of service.

Craigslist managers said they would adopt new measures, such as requiring anyone who posted an ad in the exotic services section to provide a valid credit card and phone number. The idea is that anyone planning to break the law will be reluctant to identify themselves.

From what Catherine says, the measures are easily circumvented.

Dart said he might have filed suit earlier against Craigslist but was waiting to see what impact the preventive measures had.

He said: "They've made absolutely none."