CYBERSPACE — For those looking to sell their bodies, strolling up and down Lincoln Boulevard looking to turn tricks just isn’t cutting it anymore.
Concerned about pressure from police and pimps, some prostitutes are using the Internet to hook up with Johns, often meeting them at local hotels for sex in exchange for cash.
In the last few months, the Santa Monica Police Department’s Vice Unit has made roughly a dozen arrests for prostitution — a misdemeanor offense — by combing through online listings on Web sites such as CraigsList.org, where one can easily scroll through hundreds of offers for “sensual massages” in the Santa Monica area under the heading “erotic services.”
While some postings are legitimate offers to perform massages without any sex involved, most are poorly disguised attempts to lure clients, with posters, both male and female, claiming to take away stress for 150 “roses” or “gumdrops” per hour. Many postings include provocative photos, some explicit. One has a photo of a petite woman in a short black mini skirt posing in front of the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel sign.
“There’s not a whole lot of streetwalking anymore,” said Sgt. Bob Almada, who heads the Vice Unit. “Most have gone indoors … .They know they stand out on the streets. With the Internet, they can operate independently. … We monitor various [Web sites] and specifically go after folks operating in Santa Monica.”
In addition to patrolling popular prostitution “tracks” or circuits, and conducting stings at massage parlors when tipped off by residents, the Vice Unit patrols the Internet, a reflection of the changing times. Whenever a new technology surfaces, the criminal element will learn how to use it to further their illegal enterprise, Almada said. When pagers first came out, escort services became more prevalent.
“I anticipate that with the iPhone there will be a new application you can download to locate these kinds of services,” Almada said.
In addition to scouring Web sites, Vice also works closely with local hotels to target prostitutes, who often go to great lengths to determine if a potential customer is a cop. Some will ask multiple questions and not give a specific address to meet until the potential client is already en route. Others will have Johns wait in front of a hotel so that the prostitute can scope them out from a nearby balcony or window.
“They make you jump through hoops,” Almada said. “We have to keep changing how we do things to keep it fresh.”
Undercover officers will pick a listing, make arrangements to meet and then once a deal is sealed they notify backup and the prostitute is arrested. Many times Almada and his officers will get “eye rolls” and responses such as “Ahh, you got me.”
“One gal had been arrested in five other states,” Almada said.
Jim Buckmaster, CEO of CraigsList.org, said the site has taken steps to weed-out those offering illegal services. Users are encouraged to report any such activity or suspicious postings, which are investigated by CraigsList.org staff and removed if found to be inappropriate. CraigsList.org charges those who post in the erotic services section, donating that money to charity. Those posting must provide valid telephone numbers. Those caught performing illegal activity are blacklisted. It also restricts those who are under the age of 18 from accessing adult content.
“Misuse of CraigsList to facilitate criminal activity is unacceptable, and we are working continually to prevent it,” Buckmaster said.
CraigsList has been working closely with law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to prevent its online communities and classified ads from being misused for the facilitation of human trafficking, child exploitation and other illegal activities, Buckmaster said.
“The incidence of crime on CraigsList is actually exceedingly low, considering the tens of millions of legitimate ads posted each month by well-intentioned users,” Buckmaster said in a press release. “But no amount of criminal activity is acceptable … .”