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Craigslist known as aid and enabler

By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / April 22, 2009

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Philip Markoff allegedly found two victims the same way: on Craigslist.

The case has shone a national spotlight on the company and its dominant role as one of the country's largest vendors of sex-for-sale services online.

In recent years, the online giant has forged close relationships with police agencies cracking down on illegal activity on the Internet. And after pressure from attorneys general in 40 states last November, the company agreed to cooperate with authorities and donate the money it makes from erotic advertising - including blatant prostitution promotions - to charity.

Yet not everyone thinks the company's dual role promoting sex trade advertising and assisting police helps solve the problem. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, for one, said yesterday that she did not join the attorneys general petition because it left room for the impression that the state sanctions the illegal activity found on Craigslist. As a district attorney, she received Craigslist's help in the prosecution of some cases, but she said the site also seemed like a good way for "pimps to connect with young girls, runaways."

"I can't say they haven't been helpful. On the other hand, they are the enablers," Coakley said. "It's all well and good to say we'll help when we're called upon . . . but in light of what's happened in Boston and around the country, it may be time for a little closer look or oversight."

Craigslist founder Craig Newmark could not be reached for comment yesterday, and company officials did not return phone calls. But Newmark said in a statement, posted on the Huffington Post blog April 17, that the company always helps "the cops out fast with the help they need from us, but they tell us not to comment on current investigations."

"That is, we're effective at helping cops and DAs with the forensics they need to catch crooks," he wrote.

Craigslist has promoted itself as a marketplace for people willing to sell anything, from used couches to real estate. Posting on Craigslist is often free, although the site charges for job ads in 18 cities around the United States, said Peter M. Zollman, a classified industry analyst. In New York City, for instance, it charges $10 for apartments posted by brokers, and in San Francisco, job postings are $75. In Boston, Craigslist charges $25 for job ads.

But it is the "erotic" offerings that boost traffic and have helped turn Craigslist into a big moneymaker by bringing more people to the site, Zollman said. Craigslist does not release financial information, but Zollman estimates total revenue for Craiglist was $81 million in 2008. The company employs 25 full-time workers and draws an estimated 9 billion page views a month.

"They are the biggest; there's no one who does what Craigslist does," Zollman said, adding that people are drawn to the site's "sleaze factor."

"People go to Craigslist for the erotics, for the free personals."

There certainly is nothing subtle about many Craigslist ads. For instance, a woman in Waltham this week offered "Wild N Crazy LippService" for $80. She did not specify what that entailed but also offered a half hour for $120, a full hour for $170, and an additional act that cannot be printed in a newspaper for $60 extra. Others are looking for "discreet dates," and one was a "yummy mommy looking to play."

The ads have gotten Craigslist plenty of less than desirable headlines. Trench Reynolds' Crime News, a company started by an unemployed medical accountant in North Carolina, culls stories involving Craigslist crimes from newspapers around the country on a website www.CraigsCrimeList.com. The daily posts - averaging about 10 a day - are a compendium of prostitution raids, arrests, and sex stings stemming from Craigslist encounters. A special section called "killers" outlines murderous relationships that began on the site, including the 2007 death of a young Minnesota woman who was killed when she went to someone's home responding to a baby-sitting job and was shot.

Complaints about child prostitution and trafficking on Craigslist became so loud last year that Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and some 40 other state attorneys general brokered the deal. Craigslist agreed to several measures, including the requirement that people who post sex ads must pay a $5 to $10 fee with a credit card. Craigslist also agreed to donate profits to charity. No recipients have been named.

Matt Zimmerman, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that helps law enforcement because Craigslist "might not have specific information about an individual but can point them to the subscriber's credit card or phone number."

Cook County Illinois Sheriff Tom Dart, who filed a lawsuit against Craigslist in early March, called the site the largest single source of prostitution in the United States and said Craigslist should not be congratulated for helping law enforcement.

"I don't remember a lot of us gathering in the town square for a dope dealer who turns in another dope dealer," Dart said. "It's abundantly clear what's going on Craigslist and what's being advertised. All I'm asking them to do is either monitor it appropriately or stop it, and they have no interest in doing either."

Zimmerman said the Electronic Frontier Foundation generally advises that companies not offer information without a subpoena. He said Craigslist is protected from liability for posting the ads for illegal activity under the 1996 Federal Communications Act, which gives Craigslist and other companies like it (eBay offers similar listings) immunity under the law for posting content it had no role in creating.

Meanwhile, authorities who arrested Markoff said they relied on forensic evidence, including fingerprints, electronic evidence, and photos of the suspect taken by a hotel surveillance camera. District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said federal and state investigators from Massachusetts and Rhode Island "followed high-tech leads and used old-fashioned shoe leather." Jake Wark, a spokesman for Conley's office, would not say whether officials had to subpoena information from Craigslist, though he characterized the relationship with the company as cooperative.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.

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