Computer Crime Research Center


New technology for oldest profession

Date: March 17, 2008

Red-light districts are traditionally known as urban neighborhoods where prostitution and other businesses in the sex industry are available.

But now, every computer with Internet access — from the one in your office to the one in your child's bedroom — has the potential to become its own red-light district.

Type "Somerset County Escort Services" into the search engine Google and and it will generate a lists of 13,100 Web sites. Though there are legitimate and legal escort services, authorities believe that many are fronts for prostitutes.

On the first page of the Google search is a link to a service offering an "$120/hr Escort Service" and another one that's geared to people who are "tired of high price escorts" and advertises escorts for both men and women at prices as low as $50 per half-hour and $100 per hour.

But once you enter the site, you find the potential female escorts (11 in Somerset County, 14 in Middlesex County, seven in Hunterdon County and 14 in Union County) who are charging up to $200 per half hour, $250 per hour and $3,000 for overnight services. The Web site has pictures of each escort and details the services they offer.

The spotlight has been focused on prostitution and the Internet following New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer's resignation after he was identified as one of the clients of the Emperors Club VIP, a Web site that advertised high-priced encounters.

On its Web site, the company displayed photographs of the prostitutes' bodies, with their faces hidden, along with hourly rates depending on whether the prostitutes were rated with one diamond, the lowest ranking, or seven diamonds, the highest.

A three-diamond prostitute would cost $1,000 per hour, while the Icon Club allowed access to the most highly ranked prostitutes at $5,500 an hour, federal prosecutors said.

Another Web site drawing the interest of law enforcement authorities is, the classified ad Web site founded in 1995 by Craig Newmark that has listings for jobs, rental properties, merchandise and "casual encounters."

The Web site boasts that it publishes 30 million new classified ads each month, including 2 million new job listings. The Web site says it also generates more than 9 billion page views per month, making it the seventh most popular English-language Web site.

Late Friday afternoon, the Web site had 101 listings in the "casual encounters" section.

The Somerset County Prosecutor's Office has busted two alleged prostitution operations this year that were posted on Craigslist.

In April 2007, three women were arrested on prostitution charges at a massage parlor in Branchburg that was also posted on Craigslist.

"It's a quality-of-life issue," Somerset County Prosecutor Wayne Forrest said, adding his office is taking an "aggressive" approach in cracking down on prostitution.

Three people were charged on prostitution charges in Raritan Borough in January. Those arrests came after an undercover detective from the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office responded by telephone to several advertisements for sexual acts that were posted on Craigslist. During the phone conversations, the detective arranged for one of the suspects to perform sexual acts with him for $200 per hour at a hotel in Raritan Borough.

On Tuesday, three women were arrested on prostitution charges at what Forrest called a brothel operating under the name "J&L Holistic Therapy and J&L Massage Therapy" on Gaston Avenue in Somerville.

The investigation began with several citizen complaints about a suspected brothel being operated out of a massage therapy business. Somerset County Prosecutor's Office Organized Crime and Narcotics Task Force Task Force detectives then searched both and, a Web site that describes itself as a "gentleman's guide to pursuing perfection," where they found advertising for "J&L Massage Therapy" on Gaston Avenue.

Detectives then conducted surveillance of the establishment and saw several males entering and exiting the business. More investigation discovered that prostitution was being conducted in the business, Forrest said.

A Craigslist spokeswoman, Susan MacTavish, said illegal activity is banned on the site.

"We cooperate with authorities," said MacTavish, adding the Web site receives "high marks" from authorities for its cooperation.

Authorities will continue to monitor and for advertisements of massage parlors that may be operating as brothels, Forrest said.

One of the tasks for detectives after receiving tips of prostitution at massage parlors is to determine whether the parlor is a brothel or a legitimate business offering massages, Forrest said.

In December, authorities raided four massage parlors in Hunterdon County and arrested eight women in Operation CHIPP — the County of Hunterdon's Investigation into the Promotion of Prostitution.

Deputy Chief Dan Hurley, a spokesman for the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office, said the three-month undercover investigation led authorities to believe that "these four massage parlors were, in reality, offering various sexual acts to customers in return for cash."

Hurley said tipsters initially alerted authorities and officials about the suspicious activity, prompting the formation of a multi-agency task force.

"This is all about quality of life in Hunterdon County and ensuring that it doesn't erode," Hurley said. "We're grateful to those citizens who came forward both to law enforcement and the mayor — which really is what got the investigation started."

In the past 10 years, as the Internet became a common presence in offices, classrooms and homes, the "criminal element" began using the Web for its own purposes, Forrest said.

The Somerset County Prosecutor's Office was one of the first to establish a computer crimes unit responsible for investigating computer-related crimes, including identity theft, fraud, prostitution, child pornography and sexual predators on the Internet. The unit, which works with other law enforcement agencies, is both proactive and reactive in responding to complaints, Forrest said.

Last year, for example, the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office conducted a two-month investigation, Operation Cyber-Vice, into posts on Craigslist that resulted in a Burlington County man being charged with selling marijuana and hashish to an undercover detective.

The Computer Crimes Unit is now examining laptop computer seized from the alleged brothel in Somerville. A Rolodex also seized from the business contains several customer names and appointment times, Forrest said.

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