Craigslist Clean-Up: Is it Really Working?

Photo: Craigslist Clean-Up: Is it Really Working? Conn. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal: Were Not Going Away

It's been nearly a month since Craigslist promised improvements to clean the Web site of prostitution and graphic images, and while attorney general watchdogs report some progress it still takes just seconds to find illegal activities advertised on the site.

ABCNews.com looked at advertisements in eight cities and almost immediately found posts that were both lewd and illegal in markets that included Hartford, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Salt Lake City and Columbia, S.C.

The ads have ranged from a lusty "Hey fellaz" with hourly rates to raunchy photos, and even an offer to trade drugs for sex.

VIDEO: Craigslist Founder Doesnt Plan to Change Web Site
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"It's very much a continuing battle," Connecticut State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal told ABCNews.com. "So far, Craigslist has failed to do enough and that's why we're asking the questions."

Craigslist, which told ABCNews.com that it was being unfairly targeted, was hit with a fresh round of questions on May 26 from the attorneys general of seven states, requesting more information about the site's screening process and criteria for banning certain posts among other details.

The Web site has yet to respond to the AGs' letter sent to Craigslist attorney Edward Wes, but Blumenthal said further action would be determined, in part, by the answers to those questions.

Pressure began mounting on Craigslist last year as complaints grew about the racy posts and images that proliferated among its popular personal ads. That prompted a promise by Craigslist in November to make more of an effort to combat online prostitution, including raising the fee for posting ads in the now-defunct "erotic services" category from $5 to $10.

Public outrage grew, however, in the wake of a string of high-profile crimes linked to Craigslist.

The site's operators agreed to a number of changes to cut down on illegal activity, including removing graphic sexual images and remioving its "erotic services" category and replacing it with an "adult services" section to help eliminate blatant ads for prostitution or other crimes.

Since May, Blumenthal said he has noticed that most of the Connecticut ads containing pornographic images are gone and the number of prostitution ads have diminished and are less explicit.

The Illinois Attorney General's office reports similar findings, but Cara Smith, deputy chief of staff to Attorney General Lisa Madigan, said ads the state considers illegal still abound.

"We're still concerned about what Craigslist believes illegal adult service is," she said,

Smith said illegal ads include hourly rates with "no even arguable service being offered." Prostitution ads also often include coded phone numbers that use letters or symbols in place of numbers.

"While it may seem minor, obstructing the phone number, to us, is a red flag," she said, because it indicates the poster's attempt to circumvent law enforcement search engines.

A Look at Online Prostitution

When it comes to prostitution ads on Craigslist, little but the women's faces change from city to city.

While some cities, such as New York, were better at including the words "massage" or "body works" to lend an air of legality, posters in other large cities didn't even bother.

A woman in Chicago, like many others, was so bold as to include her hourly rates in the post, carefully dancing around what exactly that money would pay for.

"Cute In the Face …

Slim In the Waist…

A Girl you'll Love to Date…"

The woman's ad was posted under the subject line "Taste the Rainbow" and featured a picture of her scantily clad in rainbow colored socks and suspenders. She listed her rates from $100 for a "15 Min Appetizer" to $240 for a "1 Hour Lunch Special."

One young blonde in Salt Lake City incorporated the economic crisis into her ad. "I've also lowered my prices due to these hard times making them very generous!" she wrote.

Blumenthal noted that prostitution, no matter where it's advertised, is often tied to other crimes, including human trafficking, child exploitation, drugs and violence.

Such ads were allegedly utilized by Philip Markoff, the so-called "Craigslist Killer," until he was arrested in April and charged with the murder of 26-year-old Julissa Brisman and the robbery of two other women in hotels in Boston and Rhode Island. Police in both states have said he met the women through Craigslist's "erotic services" section. Markoff has pleaded not guilty.

Craigslist was also named as a factor in the murder of New York radio host Greg Weber who was stabbed more than 50 times by a man, police said, who allegedly answered Weber's advertisement offering $60 for "rough sex."

And last week, a North Carolina husband was charged with allegedly hiring a man off Craigslist to rape his wife while he watched as part of a perverse sexual fantasy.

AGs Looking Past Prostitution

The problem isn't always prostitution. After the "erotic services" category was pulled from Craigslist, many of the pornographic images and other illegal activities began popping up in the "causal encounters" section of the "personals" category.

In Los Angeles, one poster looking for a rough group sex encounter put up several images that would be considered hard-core porn.

And in Chicago, Smith said her office has notified Craigslist about a posting found by ABCNews.com looking to trade vicodin for oral sex, an offer that's illegal in Illinois.

Blumenthal said his office is starting to pay more attention to the "casual encounters" category.

"It kind of takes you into a place you don't want to know exists," Smith agreed.

Smith likened Craigslist to an "Internet brothel." And while many Web sites exist with the sole purpose of offering sexual services or money, the difference is visibility to the general public.

"You can't sell a 10 speed [bike] and engage a prostitute with the click of a mouse" on sex-only sites, she said.

Asked to comment on the attorneys general's claims, Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster said, "The Craigslist ads now being challenged are similar to those in any yellow pages directory, and are quite tame compared to vast numbers of extremely graphic adult ads featured by hundreds of other media venues, all of which are inexplicably ignored by attorneys general and reporters alike."

Founder Craig Newmark told ABC News in April that the site does not facilitate prostitution.

"Sometimes a bad guy of some sort tries to pull a fast one on our site," Newmark told ABC's "Nightline." "We don't want it there. It's wrong, and that's why we have the help of the general community and the law enforcement community getting rid of things like that."

The trouble with trying to force Craigslist into meeting the attorneys general's demands, Smith said, is that they and other Internet sites are afforded a "tremendous amount of protection" under federal law that doesn't hold them responsible for criminal actions arranged through the Web.

"We have a problem, we all have a problem, and the solution doesn't lie with hiding behind federal law," Smith said.

While Blumenthal said there are legal avenues states can pursue against Craigslist – through consumer protection laws among others – he and Smith said they are not at that point yet.

"Right now," Blumenthal said, "our focus is on measures they take voluntarily because they said they want to be cooperative."

And the attorneys general have suggestions for Craigslist. In Illinois, Smith said Madigan has discussed with Craigslist requiring "masseuses" that post in the adult services category to enter in their state- issued massage license number.

And in Connecticut, Blumenthal said he'd like Craigslist to take advantage of screening software that would aid the site's manual reviewers in catching illegal or pornographic ads before they go up.

Blumenthal said he's been after Craigslist to do a better job monitoring their site for 1 ½ years.

"And," Blumenthal added, "we're not going away."

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