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In Nevada: Craigslist clampdown leaves door open for sex ads

from www.lasvegassun.com – Sex sells in Las Vegas, a city where erotic catalogs sit side-by-side with newspaper racks and billboards roll along city streets advertising adult services.

But what has officials from Nevada and other states atwitter is the sale of adult services online, particularly on the Web site of San Francisco-based Craigslist.

Nevada is one of 40 states considering legal action against Craigslist for the sale of adult services in the site’s online classifieds, a spokeswoman for Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto [pictured] said.

Despite the more stringent guidelines the company has in place to eliminate ads posted by prostitutes, officials say sex is still for sale on the Internet.

The coalition of 40 attorneys general is saying little about what any legal action might look like. The Connecticut attorney general’s office is leading the effort.

After a Boston-area man was accused in April of fatally shooting a woman who placed an ad on Craigslist, the site promised to rid itself of prostitution ads. The same man has been accused in the armed robbery of a Las Vegas woman in a Rhode Island hotel room. That woman also posted an ad on Craigslist.

It was the second time in recent months Craigslist tightened up its protocols.

Responding to criticism, the site began requiring a $10 fee paid by credit card and replaced its “erotic services” category with “adult services.” That section of the site, like the rest of Craigslist, can only be used to advertise legal services, the company says.

It also says ads that suggest or imply “an exchange of sexual favors for money are strictly prohibited.”

Craigslist now prescreens all ads posted in the adult category and prohibits graphic images. The company points out that some other sites offering online classifieds don’t have screening standards.

“Many prominent companies, including AT&T, Microsoft, and Village Voice Media, not to mention major newspapers … feature more ‘adult services’ ads than does craigslist, some of a very graphic nature,” Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster wrote on his blog in May.

In November, months before the publicity stemming from the Boston attacks, the Web site and more than 40 states entered into a partnership to go after prostitution, human trafficking, child exploitation and other illegal activities. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and state law enforcement agencies also joined in the partnership.

At the time, Craigslist referred to the changes, intended to prevent illegal activity and improve safety, as “sweeping.” The site acknowledged it had filed 14 lawsuits against companies misusing its site.

Craigslist agreed to provide information to state attorneys general to aid in prosecutions. It also enacted a system to block inappropriate posts and offered a method for users to flag inappropriate posts for review. It updated its software to facilitate parental screening for adult content, imposed a $10 fee and implemented a telephone verification system for erotic ads.

Masto signed onto the joint agreement Craigslist created in November to police itself.

Craigslist agreed to “meet on a regular basis with the attorneys general to discuss additional ways to fight inappropriate content and making the site safer,” according to a copy of the agreement supplied by Masto’s office.

“Craigslist created its erotic services section because prostitutes were placing ads on other parts of the site. Allowing the erotic services to continue keeps such ads segregated, while making it easier for law enforcement to monitor and crack down on Internet-based prostitution, human trafficking and child exploitation,” the agreement said.

But even recently with new rules in place, attorneys general have been disturbed by the content of some ads.

“They are so thinly disguised, the real question is, how they are permitted to be there if, in fact, the site is doing the screening and policing that they said they will do,” Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal told the Associated Press this past weekend.

Blumenthal spearheaded the November effort, too.

Local attorneys say using legal means to regulate the ads likely won’t pass muster in Clark County because that could constitute an infringement on free speech.

In saying that legal action likely wouldn’t stick in Las Vegas, both the Nevada Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Clark County District Attorney’s Office pointed to the years-long court battle over handbilling on the Strip.

A look at the Las Vegas adult services section on Craigslist yields numerous ads that don’t differ much from what’s offered for sale in the open on billboards, on business cards advertising escorts peddled along the Strip, even in the Yellow Pages.

“I’m not sure that Craigslist … is any worse than the phone book,” Clark County Chief Deputy District Attorney Ron Bloxham said.

He said he hadn’t personally seen the online ads.

A glance at the site earlier this week showed the following:

– Mel, a “busty British brunette,” offers “an accent so sexy it will make you weak in the knees.” Her services are billed at $200 an hour, all-inclusive.

– Trent, a “handsome Italian jock,” offers up spa-like, relaxing massage services with “strong body contact.” Potential customers have to text him on his Southern California cell phone for rates.

– Veronica says she offers “the best in nude, erotic massage” and says her husband is available for a four-handed massage. Her services are offered “in-call only,” and like many others, she doesn’t accept blocked calls.

A trip through the “entertainers” listings in a Las Vegas phone book yields page after page of full-page ads that offer everything from “real college girls who strip for extra credit” to “beautiful soccer moms,” “Asian centerfolds” and “naughty room service.” Most of the ads tout “full service,” a phrase, Bloxham said is open to interpretation.

“The ads (in the phone book) are pretty explicit,” Bloxhom said. “If I’m trying to, say, find my local Boy Scout office, it might fall open to these pages. What one person considers to be appropriate, another person can find highly offensive.”

Bloxham said that while the district attorney’s office has in the past tried to prosecute cases involving explicit advertisements — notably, the saucy handbills slapped into the palms of tourists along the Strip — the efforts have been trumped by free speech laws.

But, he noted, when it comes to the ads on Craigslist, people are seeking them out.

“The cards … they hand them to men holding hands with ladies. It’s so brazen; it’s so offensive,” he said.

Brazen and offensive to some, perhaps. But, thanks to the First Amendment, the practice isn’t going away, he said.

Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the ACLU of Nevada, agreed.

“As a general rule, it’s protected speech,” he said. As for Craigslist: “Unless there is evidence of any particular ad where Craigslist knows or has reason to know — not speculate, but know — that it is in fact for an illegal activity, it is protected speech.”

With its new rules in place, Craigslist is collecting credit card information from its customers for adult postings, thereby making them traceable to law enforcement.

Bluxhom said he didn’t know whether credit card data was being used in Las Vegas to link alleged prostitutes to criminal acts. He said law enforcement does use ads to set up meetings with suspected prostitutes, and any additional evidence that Craigslist might provide would be a boost when it came time to prosecute.

That’s a notion that has a local advocate for sex workers upset.

Susan Lopez, founder and director of the Sin City Alternative Professionals’ Association, said the valley’s sex workers who advertise on Craigslist are generally those who are the most “marginalized.”

“People who are down on their luck think, ‘oh, I’ll sell sex,’ and because of all the news about Craigslist, that’s probably the first place they think about. Then they see they need to provide a credit card, which they do, and they give law enforcement information so they can go and arrest them,” Lopez said. “It’s a waste of public resources — arresting people who are already down on their luck.”

She said the sour economy has prompted an upswing in those looking to get involved in the sex industry in Las Vegas — whether as a prostitute, a dancer, a phone sex worker or any other related profession, legal or not.

She said her organization doesn’t help people get involved but does provide information and referrals.

“We believe that people in the industry should be treated with respect and dignity because they’re working, too,” said Lopez, a former exotic dancer. “There aren’t a lot of opportunities for single mothers out there.”

But while Craigslist has caught the attention of potential sex workers and law enforcement alike, Lopez said other sites are still mostly under law enforcement’s radar.

“It’s an entry-level sex worker thing. Anybody can do it, it’s easy access,” she said. “But it’s not the only resource out there, which in a way, it’s kind of good that Craigslist is getting all the attention so the other (online classified) resources are left alone.”

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