August 9th, 2010
03:47 PM ET

Sold on Craigslist: Critics say sex ad crackdown inadequate

Editor's note: Watch an update on the investigation into Craigslist's adult services section on AC360 tonight at 10 p.m. ET.

Steve Turnham and Amber Lyon
CNN Special Investigations Unit

On a late afternoon in early June, undercover police officers circled a one-story highway motel north of Washington. Inside was a 12-year-old girl who told her mother she was being forced to work as a prostitute.

According to her mother, the girl had started running away from home earlier this year. She found out her daughter was in the sex trade when she saw her in an adult online classified ad. The girl was advertising herself as a 24-year-old with a bogus name. The next time she ran away, her mother reported her missing.

Read the police press release

According to police and anti-trafficking advocates, the internet has now become the preferred way to sell women for sex. It's fast and convenient for the pimps and relatively safe for the men who pay for sex. Instead of trolling the streets, they can now look through hundreds of girls from the safety of their homes or hotels.

This time, the girl was lucky. She called home, and the call was traced to a Knight's Inn in Laurel, Maryland, where police were quickly on the scene. They rescued the girl and arrested a 42-year-old man and charged him with human trafficking.

Of all the sites that offer "adult services," Craigslist is one of the most popular. The online classified ad site is used regularly by about 50 million Americans for everything from buying used lawn furniture to finding a job or a roommate.

It's also used to sell sex, making Craigslist a prime target of a nationwide campaign against internet prostitution.

"Most of the young women we've worked with who have been exploited online talk about Craigslist," said Andrea Powell of the anti-trafficking group The FAIR Fund. "Craigslist is like the Wal-Mart of online sex trafficking right now in this country."

According to police who investigated the case of the missing 12-year-old, she had previously advertised on Craigslist under a false name and age. Craigslist declined to provide copies of the ad, citing privacy concerns.

Craigslist founder Craig Newmark defended his site, saying it is doing more than any other site that hosts adult ads to help filter out underage prostitutes and report them to police.

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Filed under: 360° Radar • Amber Lyon • Crime & Punishment • Steve Turnham
soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. teresa, ohio

    @ Peter R.... wow, lots of neat info, thanks.

    re: " I trust you guys (AC360 and CNN in general) to try and be fair and even handed and impartial to give us a true picture of the news. Please don't let me and others down. " now there's your mistake... trusting the news.

    I think Craigs list is an incredibly irresponsible site.

    August 9, 2010 at 6:53 pm |
  2. madisone

    Great report by Amber Lyon! I would love to know what percentage of Craigslist's profits come from the "Adult Section" ads as compared to the other sections. I have a feeling they make a lot of money from those "Adult" links.
    @Roxanne, ". . .The adult section needs to be shut down . . . " I agree with you! Unfortunately, I don't think that will happen unless concerned citizens take action. Flagging the inappropriate content is a good place to start. Then contact the police and tell them you flagged the ad and the ad is still up. (Don't bother waiting for Craigslist to do something about it.) If the ad's location is D.C., as was the case with Amber Lyon's probe, contact the D. C. police. Another area? Contact that area's local police.

    August 9, 2010 at 5:51 pm |
  3. Raymond Decker

    What an unfunny joke.There have been numerous cases in the news about underage girls who escape their pimps and tell tales of street abduction leading to having to service men who responded to the pimp's Craigslist escort ads. The posturing by Craigslist on this issue is their typical lip-service. The best way for them... to re-write their track record is for them to drop the "Adult Services " category from all the cities they list and quit hiding behind the "Our readers control the content, so don't punish us"excuse.For Cyber Flag Day 2010 last March, we and our volunteers flagged thousands of Craigslist escort ads in dozens of major cities. Do they dare to profess that none of the ads had underaged enslaved girls on the other end ? In Orlando, The M.B.I. Metroploitan Burea Of Investigation has been stonewalled time and again whenever they have asked Craigslist to remove the Adult Services category.It's time for Craigslist to be held accountable by the Feds.

    August 5, 2010 at 8:46 am |
  4. Iamcuriousblue

    "Youthful" does not inherently mean underage! That's a highly dishonest insinuation.

    August 5, 2010 at 4:08 am |
  5. Roxanne

    The adult section needs to be shut down and REAL screening needs to happen. This is a sick thing to allow to continue on CL. Craig and anybody working with him should be ashamed.

    August 4, 2010 at 4:30 pm |
  6. Susan Lewis

    I don't think ads of this nature should be allowed; period. Even if the woman is doing it of her own free will, for fun, this 'service' becomes a pervert's dreamworld, not to mention a serial killer's dream come true (see the boston case) Hello...bad idea, ladies. Put your clothes on and get a real job.

    August 4, 2010 at 9:19 am |
  7. P.K.

    I really hope they prosecute Craigslist – Newmark is a pathological libertarian.

    August 4, 2010 at 8:22 am |
  8. Peter

    A couple comments. first off, I know Craig Newmark from his days in Detroit, in the 80s. He worked for IBM, and was part of the local science fiction fan group, where I knew him. He's a good guy, kind and considerate and a bit shy sometimes. I've emailed him since, and he's not changed. The list started just as a hobby for his friends, and it's success caught him quite by surprise. He no longer runs it. Not his forte. Mr. Buckmiller (?) does. Craig works with customer service and the like. Anyway, the thing to remember about CL, which wasn't at all apparent in your video report is that it's a tiny company. They all work out of an old converted house in San Francisco. This isn't some company with armies of staff who can jump on everything. In large part, the whole setup is that the list is self policing and mostly automated. Users who object to an ad flag it, and enough flags get an ad deleted. It works well in almost all categories other than the adult stuff. That category is a distinct problem, to be sure. On the one hand is the desire to protect first amendment freedoms, while also respecting the law and the welfare of society, especially as regards things like underage prostitution or other especially nasty misuses of the list. But given the sheer size of the whole CL world, it's a difficult nut to crack. Yes, they try to screen everything, but it's obviously a harder thing to do consistently than it sounds, especially given the speed of the list updates and the size of both the list and the small size of sfaff. And they cannot just delete the adult catagory, or all those posters simply move over to the main (and free) personals ads (which is where they all were before CL created the separate category). Your report says the local law enforcement never gets reports. Well, how come they can't themselves, if they wish, also read those same ads, and address the ones that seem too much in violation of the law or promoting trafficking? It's their city too. CL doesn't have more info to screen ads with than the ads show. By creating the adult category, they did at least do what most adult sites also do, and that is to verify the age of the person placing the ad. By charging a fee, they get credit card or other identifying info on posters. One would hope that this would, by itself, greatly reduce the abuse. And, if an ad is in violation, that identity info is available to law enforcement through proper legal channels. What else would you have them do? Totally eliminate any ad with any word even remotely suggestive of sex? Hire dozens of people in every city served by CL to screen everything? And how would they determine which are legit or not? The abusers are great at adapting their ads to fit any guidelines. Your report noted photos of girls in underwear. You see the same in some of the legit personals ads (and more. Look at the casual "women for women" category where lesbian girls are looking to hook up. You'll see a lot more explicit photos there... Heck, you see similar photos on facebook and myspace too. So what then? The words "young". Sheesh. Do you know any women who don't wish to appear youthful? How about prices? Well, most of those already are veiled behind words like "roses" instead of dollars. And it remains legal for a person to market his or her services as a social escort (which does not always mean sex), so long as prostitution isn't advertised. So how to tell those ads apart?

    Yes, prostitution and especially trafficking of women and underage girls is a major problem and needs to be addressed. But don't be so quick to just blame Craigslist. The list may be currently a favored place to advertise, but the problem long predates the list, and is not confined to ads there. If the list dealt with it somehow, it would simply move somewhere else.

    On the whole, I enjoy AC360's coverage and reports. But please be careful to avoid the sort of totally aggressive and one sided reporting that seems so prevailant these days, especially on Fox. Yes, there is a valid story and discussion about CL. But trapping Craig Newmark out on the sidewalk isn't the way to do it. Meet with him or the guy actually running the company for a proper, in depth discussion of the problem, of the problems CL faces in addressing the issues, and of potential solutions. That would do us much more good than the one sided somewhat salacious sort of report I just saw on TV. I trust you guys (AC360 and CNN in general) to try and be fair and even handed and impartial to give us a true picture of the news. Please don't let me and others down.


    Peter R.

    August 4, 2010 at 3:29 am |
  9. gearld

    c raig should be ashame of himself

    August 4, 2010 at 1:50 am |
  10. Clevelander

    GREAT reporting Amber! Thank you for shedding light on the reality vs. the spin.

    August 4, 2010 at 1:50 am |
  11. Kim

    Agreed! Its inadequate. I used to take time to flag all the pornographic pics and sex selling advertisements and they would not be taken down in a timely maner. It a very easy venue for illegal activity and to traffic women and children. I think its sad craiglist allows this type of posting and doesn't shut it down faster.

    August 4, 2010 at 1:18 am |
  12. Cindy

    Craigslist is disgusting for letting this happen to these girls. They need to be held responsible!

    August 4, 2010 at 1:17 am |
  13. Theresa

    Children are easily misled and victimized. Why? Because they're kids.

    Rebellious kids, kids who think their parents/guardians are being 'uncool' or just 'stupid' and kids who think they know what they're doing. Most kids gets their ideas from seemingly harmless media aimed at youth, or their friends and the friends of their friends, etc. And some kids are just 'neglected' by apathetic parents and guardians.

    Thanks for addressing the issue.

    August 3, 2010 at 3:02 pm |