Online Sex Connections Linked to False Sense of Security

Screengrab of site's 'Adult Services' section.
Screengrab of site's 'Adult Services' section.
By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Bethesda resident and former University of Maryland student who calls herself Amy says she would never consider walking the street as a prostitute. But to her, performing erotic acts for men she meets on Craigslist seems relatively safe, anonymous and lucrative.

"Life is expensive," said Amy, who like hundreds of other women in the Washington area moved ads from Craigslist's defunct erotic services section to its new "adult services" listings in the past week. "In this economy, you have no idea what it takes. We're all single mothers, struggling beyond belief."

Although Amy says she stays within the law, police say Craigslist's adult services section, which the company pledged to monitor closely, has quickly emerged as a major virtual meeting spot for the sex trade in the Washington region. More than 700 ads were listed locally on the site yesterday. Close-ups of women in lingerie have replaced purely pornographic images, but euphemistic descriptions of services and hourly rates -- often expressed as "roses" or "donations" -- remain.

In recent interviews, nearly a dozen women who posted ads on Craigslist said that they know the risks involved. But police said many women engage in online prostitution because they fail to appreciate the dangers.

The women are able to post ads from the comfort of their homes, on a Web site more often used for such mundane tasks as selling used couches. The encounters, however, often require traveling alone, meeting a man at a hotel room and telling no one, a scenario that can leave a woman particularly vulnerable.

In the Washington area, according to police, at least 50 women have been raped or severely beaten in the past two years by men who responded to ads they posted on Craigslist.

"The number is probably 10 times that, actually," said Inspector Brian Bray, who heads the D.C. police prostitution unit. "The majority of women who may be raped are prostitutes who are . . . not reporting it."

Craigslist chief executive Jim Buckmaster said in a blog today that the company screens every adult ad but cannot be responsible for what happens during the encounters that result.

"We have humans reviewing each ad, both the text and the image, to make sure it complies with our terms of use," he said in an interview.

The former U-Md. student, who acknowledged that she is older than the 24 years she gives as her age online, said she has had to fight off four men she met on Craigslist, including one who pulled a knife during a rape attempt in Greenbelt in 2007. She spoke on condition that she be identified only as Amy, which she said is not her real name.

Police said at least 40 women in the Washington area were the victims of one man, Mark Humphries, who lured victims he met on Craigslist to isolated apartment buildings and raped them at gunpoint, snapping digital pictures during the attacks.

Prince George's County investigators knew of just nine victims last summer when they launched a manhunt for Humphries, who committed suicide as police closed in. In his apartment, police have since found pictures, taken during attacks, of 34 additional women, said Detective Spencer Harris, who led the investigation.

"If you were a prostitute on the street and a John walks up to you, you could tell a person's body language, look in their eyes, see how they talk," said Prince George's Detective Sherry Prince, who has handled two Craigslist rape cases this year. "But you can't get any of that in a phone call or text message, and by the time you arrive and knock on the door, the suspect already knows what he is going to do. He knows before you know."

In Boston last month, police say, a woman was killed by a man who answered a Craigslist ad she posted as a masseuse. And in Arlington County, a man was fatally shot in December by a person who responded to an "erotic services" ad posted by the victim and a woman. Willie Donaldson, 35, the Internet consultant charged in the slaying, has said he acted in self-defense.

A woman who advertised herself on Craigslist in November after losing her job as a journalist met a man for sex in Upper Marlboro, where he beat her with a baseball bat and stole her car, according to police. Another woman was attacked at gunpoint in April in a hotel in Waldorf by a man who responded to her Craigslist ad, police said.

"She was college-educated, smart, good-looking," said Prince George's Detective Allyson Hamlin, who investigated the beating. "We're dealing with people you wouldn't necessarily think would be involved in this. It's not the same category as hookers on the street."

Although Craigslist is widely known for other services, the erotic services portion of the site had more visitors in the Washington area last month than all "for-sale" ads, according to an analysis that Compete.Com performed for The Washington Post.

Last month, more than 217,000 visitors, or 12 percent of Craigslist's total Washington area traffic, visited the erotic services section, spending an average of 64 minutes.

Craigslist has been under tremendous pressure to change its practices, particularly since the April 14 slaying of Julissa Brisman in Boston. Philip Markoff, 23, a Boston University medical student, has been charged in her death and in attacks on two other women police say he met through Craigslist.

The company stopped taking ads on its "erotic services" section last week. Craigslist pledged that ads posted on the adult services section would be manually reviewed to ensure that they are from "legal adult service providers." The ads on the new adult section cost $10 and once approved can be repeated for $5.

Law enforcement officials said it is almost impossible to gauge how the rate of attacks on women who post ads on Craigslist and other Web sites compares with the rate of attacks on street prostitutes, who historically have underreported abuse and other crimes against them.

The second person in the Washington area to post an ad on Craigslist's new site was a woman who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that she be identified only as Shay, the name she uses online. Shay copied, verbatim, the thinly veiled advertisement she had posted four days earlier on Craigslist's defunct erotic services page, offering a "Full Body Rub!" from a curvy American Italian for an hourly rate of $160.

"They warn that you can only say certain things, but it's about the same," said Shay, 25, who said she is a Virginia college student. "My service hasn't changed."

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