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Phone-sex chat lines are part of web of cybersocializing

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By David Nakamura and Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

When D.C. principal Brian Betts contacted a phone-sex chat line to arrange a meeting that police said led to his slaying last month, he was entering a vast world of telephone and online socializing used by millions of Americans each day, said experts who monitor the largely unregulated but highly profitable industry.

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Dozens of companies use phone lines and Web pages to offer traditional dating services and more explicit adult-oriented hookups. The services, descendants of the 900 and 976 pay-per-call chat lines popular beginning in the mid-1980s, entice users with a chance to connect with strangers anonymously and then, potentially, meet them in person for sexual encounters.

Some of the most popular adult-oriented chat sites have more than 1 million visitors logging in each day, said Mark Brooks, a consultant who edits an industry news site called Onlinepersonalswatch.com.

What happens after users turn over their credit cards for monthly membership payments (or after they listen to ads on one of the growing number of free sites) is largely left to chance -- and users are generally good about taking precautions, Brooks and others in the industry said.

"People arrange to meet at your place or mine," said Jonathan Crutchley, chairman and founder of Manhunt.com, which operates gay-oriented phone and Web chat services. "And every now and then, people get murdered. There have been some murders."

Although Crutchley said that nearly all of his customers had reported no problems, his site was linked to a 2003 case in Provincetown, Mass., in which a man who killed a lover had met sex partners online.

Police said Betts, 42, the popular principal at Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson, met the suspects charged in his death on a phone chat line in the hours before he was killed April 15 and arranged a meeting with at least one of them. Officials did not say what service Betts used. Three men, all 18, have been arrested and charged with murder.

Dee Leander, a manager at Ripple Communications, a Nevada-based company that operates national chat lines, said that she had been "in communication with the authorities" regarding a homicide near Washington, but she declined to elaborate. Leander said the greeting on one of her company's sites, DC Raven, a Washington-oriented chat line, instructs callers "never, ever, ever, ever" to meet anyone they connect with through her service.

"People are people, and they do what they want to do," she said. "There are many good stories. People who are socially isolated, people who are obese, who are blind talking to others. Once a year, there's something really bad. I've had at least two cases this year."

On Manhunt's phone service, which costs less than $10 a month, users comb through recorded voice messages and leave word for users they are interested in. On the company's more popular Web service, which costs $12 a month, users create profiles with pictures and contact each other through e-mail accounts. The company has a Web page of safety tips and disclaimers.

'Common sense applies'

Although industry veterans said that violent crimes are rare compared with the number of people who use sex and dating services, they said that encounters have gone awry. In Miami, during a six-month span in 2007, meetings originating from chat rooms resulted in at least a dozen violent incidents, including two homicides, the Miami Herald reported.

"Even if you just go into a bar, you can have a bad experience," Brooks said. "So common sense applies. If you are going to meet up with someone, let someone know where you are headed. Don't let them pick you up at home. Meet somewhere public. There are three basic rules. People break the rules."


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