Craigslist Cracks Down on Illicit Sex Ads

Craigslist has teamed with states’ law enforcement officials and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to crack down on prostitution and other criminal activity facilitated by ads on its popular classified site.

The three-pronged approach involves technical improvements to the site’s screening and tracking mechanisms, changes to the ad policy of Craigslist’s erotic services section, and an aggressive legal push — in a joint initiative with 40 states’ attorneys general — to punish businesses selling software that helps criminals evade the site’s terms of service.

Craigslist said it would meet periodically with the participating attorneys general, providing them with information about companies and individuals that it observes violating its policies. The groups hope that the new safeguards will deter prostitutes from using Craigslist to solicit business and keep human traffickers and sexual predators away from the site.

“The incidence of crime on Craigslist is actually exceedingly low, considering the tens of millions of legitimate ads posted each month by well-intentioned users,” Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster said in a company blog post. “But no amount of criminal activity is acceptable, and as Craigslist has grown, we have become aware of instances where our free services were being misused to facilitate illegal activities.”

The new initiative follows previous partnerships that state law enforcement officials reached with social networks MySpace and Facebook to keep sexual predators off of those sites, indicating the increasing prevalence of online criminal activity.

“The criminals engaged in the sexual trafficking of children no longer parade them on the streets of America’s cities, NCMEC President and CEO Ernie Allen said in a statement. “Today, they market them via the Internet, enabling customers to shop for a child from the privacy of their own homes or hotel rooms.”

Craigslist recently began requiring advertisers to submit a working phone number before posting listings to the erotic services section. The phone-verification requirement cut the number of ads by 80 percent, and with the new agreement, Craigslist will begin charging a fee for listings to that section, which will entail a credit-card validation.

The company expects these steps to improve accountability and deter most criminals from trying to publish ads on the site. Any illicit ads that get published will be removed and Craigslist will not refund the fee, instead donating the net proceeds of those ads to charity.

As a technical safeguard, Craigslist is developing new digital tags that will enable parental-screening software to block access to the erotic services section. It is also refining its internal protocols for blocking ads containing code words or euphemisms that often refer to illegal activity.

Going forward, users will be able to flag posts that include pornography or other content prohibited by Craigslist’s terms of service. Any ad that reached a threshold amount of flags will be automatically removed.

On the legal front, Craigslist has filed lawsuits against 14 companies that it has identified as selling software or services to help criminals circumvent the phone verification and other safety mechanisms.

The company has also sent cease-and-desist letters to other companies and individuals that it has observed undermining its policies.

The states’ effort was led by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who often takes an active stance on Internet rights and privacy issues.

“We’ll continue to fight illicit and illegal activity on the Internet, especially threatening the safety and wellbeing of children,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “The dark side of Internet must be stopped from eclipsing its immense potential for good.”

The District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam joined the 40 states participating in the effort.

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