Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart Sues craigslist for Promoting Prostitution

March 9, 2009

Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart filed suit Thursday in U.S. District Court against the owners of the website craigslist, accusing them of knowingly promoting and facilitating prostitution.

Dart’s lawsuit was filed just four months after craigslist settled a nationwide lawsuit, promising to enact new safeguards to restrict prostitution postings on their website. In fact, Cook County vice officers have noticed no change in the number or type of postings being generated on the site.

Dart is asking a federal judge to order craigslist to eliminate its “Erotic Services” section, where most prostitution ads are posted. He is also seeking reimbursement for tax dollars spent paying the salaries of officers who investigate and arrest those responsible for trafficking women on the website.

“Craigslist is the single largest source of prostitution in the nation,” Dart said at a press conference. “Missing children, runaways, abused women and women trafficked in from foreign countries are routinely forced to have sex with strangers because they’re being pimped on craigslist.”

Recent Craigslist ads Cook County vice officers have responded to or flagged include (sic):

  •  “15 min $50 roses … 1 hour $150 roses”
  • “Young – tight - & - just – right – 4 – you (exit I-94 Old Orchard Rd: Skokie)”
  • “Due to the way the economy is I am willing to do almost anything to get money.”
  • “Are you looking to make some good money in this tough economy. Minimum pay is $25 per hour … performing duties specified in Naughty Nannies handbook.”
  • “Busty blonde pregnant beauty … 28 … Barrington Rd & I-90”
  • “Teens for cash … $100 quickie”

While the prostitution postings generate no fees for craigslist, it is the most visited section on a website that draws 30 million new ads and more than 9 billion viewings overall every month. Craigslist does charge for some ads, such as job postings and apartments, basing its fee on total traffic to their website – traffic driven in large part by a search for sex.

“Craigslist unabashedly facilitates prostitution, then ultimately makes a profit from it,” Dart said, pointing to the estimated $80 million in revenues craigslist generated last year.

Dart has made numerous written pleas to craigslist over the last two years, asking them to shut down the Erotic Services section of the website, to no avail. He has also alerted them to the hundreds of arrests his department has made off their website – charges that include juvenile pimping, human trafficking and endangerment of a child. Arrests have ranged from suburban soccer moms to heroin addicts, a former reality TV star and several juveniles, some as young as 14 years old.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Department of Women’s Justice Services is providing outreach to many of these women, linking them to social service and substance abuse agencies. Still, many of these women say Chicago has a reputation for being a lucrative market for craigslist prostitution ads.

After learning of the nationwide November settlement, Dart said he was hopeful there would be substantive changes to the way craigslist does business. Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster promised “sweeping” changes, adding “no amount of criminal activity is acceptable.” Craigslist claims it requires a credit card and charges a small fee to post ads in Erotic Services, all of which is donated to charity.

But Dart called that dirty money – saying it was a publicity stunt that generated goodwill and possibly tax breaks for craigslist, but which has had little practical effect. Additionally, pimps are working around these requirements by using stolen credit cards and posting ads in new sections.

Every day, hundreds of sex ads are posted on craigslist’s Chicago section. This week, ads were posted by pimps offering women in exchange for “$350 in roses,” along with an ad from a man seeking to pay money to “explore a daddy-daughter sexual relationship.”

Dart’s own vice officers have, in recent weeks, posted ads for sex pretending to be a 15-year-old girl. Those postings drew several responses, including one from a convicted sex offender. Despite the promises from craigslist to better monitor its own website, the ads were not removed.

Dart said street gangs have also started using craigslist to pimp out prostitutes as a way to generate money. Those investigations have led to arrests on drug and gun charges.

Last year, an FBI sex ring investigation found more than 2,800 child prostitution ads had been posted on craigslist. Since then, police across the country have continued to use craigslist for prostitution arrests. A recent nationwide sweep for child trafficking and prostitution netted hundreds of arrests and authorities from Anaheim, Calif. to Boston reported using craigslist to make arrests.

“Pimps are preying on the most vulnerable members of our society and taking advantage of our struggling economy,” Dart said. “The worst part is craigslist’s owners know their website is still being used for illegal purposes and they’re doing nothing to stop it.”

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