Craigslist Vows to Improve Monitoring of 'Adult' Ads

Philip Markoff has been charged in the death last month of Julissa Brisman in Boston and in attacks on two other women police say he found on Craigslist.
Philip Markoff has been charged in the death last month of Julissa Brisman in Boston and in attacks on two other women police say he found on Craigslist. (By Mark Garfinkel -- Associated Press)
By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009

Online classifieds giant Craigslist said yesterday that it will replace its "erotic services" section with a new adult category that will be more closely monitored, responding to criticism that the popular Web site has facilitated prostitution across the country.

Craigslist chief executive Jim Buckmaster said on the company's blog that every ad posted to the new "adult services" category will be manually reviewed and that the section will be scrubbed of blatant sex-for-money ads and pornographic pictures. It was unclear, however, how a company that employs 28 people intends to screen the thousands of ads, and what criteria will be used.

The company has been under tremendous pressure to change its practices, particularly since the slaying last month in Boston of a woman who had advertised on the site as a masseuse. Authorities say the erotic services section of Craigslist is widely used by prostitutes, and at least a dozen women in the Washington area have been attacked after offering their services on that site.

Craigslist called the measure an effort to "strike a new balance" on the site, which draws an estimated 20 billion page views worldwide a month for ads offering everything from used furniture to "casual encounters."

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a leading critic of Craigslist, said in a statement that the announcement is "a solid next step, not a solution." He added: "Closing the erotic services section -- a blatant Internet brothel -- should lead to other blocking and screening measures, and set a model for other sites, if Craigslist keeps its word."

Some local law enforcement officials greeted the company's announcement with skepticism yesterday. Inspector Brian Bray, who oversees the D.C. police department's prostitution unit, said he is concerned that the move will prove to be little more than cosmetic.

"I believe it'll just transfer it over under a different name," he said. "But we'll see."

In recent months, 200 to 300 ads for sex in the D.C. area have been posted daily on Craigslist's erotic services section, according to police.

In February, authorities said a Loudoun County man used the Web site as part of a prostitution ring involving as many as 400 women across the country. Also that month, a D.C. police officer was arrested in a downtown hotel after allegedly soliciting sex from an undercover officer who had posed as a prostitute on Craigslist as part of a sting.

Last week, a 36-year-old man was charged with brutally attacking a woman at a Charles County hotel after arranging to meet her through an erotic services advertisement on the Web site, and investigators think he is responsible for at least one other similar attack.

Prince George's County police last summer also tied a serial rapist to Craigslist. Police said Mark Humphries lured women he met on Craigslist to isolated wooded areas and apartments. He raped them at gunpoint, wearing green rubber gloves and robbing them afterward, police said. Humphries committed suicide while surrounded by police in July.

The company has come under greater pressure since the April 14 slaying of Julissa Brisman in Boston. Philip Markoff, a 23-year-old Boston University medical student, has been charged in her death and in attacks on two other women police say he met through Craigslist.

State attorneys general in Illinois, Missouri and Connecticut in recent weeks assailed Craigslist, saying its efforts did not live up to agreements it made last year to curb prostitution on its site.

The ads in the new adult section will cost $10, but once approved they will be eligible to be reposted for $5. In his blog posting, Buckmaster said the site will be open for postings by "legal adult service providers."

But on the site's D.C. area page, several of the first ads were nearly identical to those that had appeared in recent days under the site's erotic services banner. Most advertised "erotic" or "sensual" massages, and many expressed hourly rates in "roses," the same euphemism for dollars charged for sex acts that was common in the erotic services section.

Buckmaster, who lashed out at "sensationalistic journalism" in his post, suggested that the company may not donate the proceeds from its adult section to charity, as it did the proceeds from the erotic services section.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company