Early this month, the social networking Web site itspimpin101.net fell into disarray after its founder, Kelly Surrell, was fatally wounded in a shooting while driving his Bentley in East Oakland.
For years, Mr. Surrell, 34, had profited by taking a portion of the earnings of his roster of women prostitutes. Then, like many Internet entrepreneurs, Mr. Surrell decided to capitalize on an expanding online community. On his Web site, which referred visitors to Mr. Surrell’s Facebook page and his instructional podcasts, pimps and aspiring pimps could post tips and swap advice about “the game.”
They will have to go somewhere else now, because Mr. Surrell’s social network is “currently undergoing maintenance,” according to a message posted there. But it appears that there are more places than ever for them to go.
The online sex trade is flourishing despite nationwide campaigns and pressure from government leaders. Two years after public and legal pressure prompted Craigslist.org, the San Francisco-based online classifieds service, to scrap its “erotic services” section, visitors and revenue have soared on other classified Web sites, according to the Advanced Interactive Media Group, a consulting firm for the classified advertising market. Law enforcement officials in the Bay Area said other Web sites had emerged with suspected sex-for-pay advertisements.
The sites display ads for sex services, and they also serve as online communities where customers, pimps and prostitutes can arrange business deals, share police sightings and swap tips. Law enforcement officials said the online trade has, in some ways, made sex trafficking and solicitation easier, while giving the police new insight into a historically hidden, underground culture.
“It’s a great tool for us, to be honest,” said Detective Jeremy Martinez of the San Jose Police Human Trafficking Task Force. “I know there was a lot of applause when Craigslist’s erotic services got brought down, but for us it was a fishing pond we could go to.”
Casey Bates, who supervises the Alameda County district attorney’s human trafficking unit, said law enforcement officials have “a love-hate relationship” with online sex sites. “It’s despicable, what’s going on,” Mr. Bates said, “but they allow us to show a jury in very graphic terms what’s going on between provider and john.”
Law enforcement officials said the most popular sites for listing sex-related services in the Bay Area include the social media and review Web site myredbook.com and Village Voice Media’s classified advertising site backpage.com. Other sites offer additional features, from lovings.com, which verifies escort-submitted photographs, to rubmaps.com, which features an interactive map of adult massage parlors and user-submitted reviews of masseuses, down to detailed descriptions of their sexual prowess.
On myredbook.com, customers calling themselves “hobbyists” share reviews of “providers,” whose photos, phone numbers, services and prices are listed on their profiles. In some forums on the site, other users post photographs of women they see walking on the street, including on “Inty,” or International Boulevard in Oakland, the notorious stretch for prostitution known as “the track.” Many post warnings to other users, in real time, when they spot police officers, or claim to have been robbed or ripped off by a pimp, prostitute or customer.
“The Internet is that frontier out there,” Detective Martinez said. “Anyone can post, even if it’s about something illegal. The good thing about that is we have a place to look.”
At least one site owner does not find the idea alarming.
“These places have been around since the beginning of time, basically,” said Warren Newsome, a spokesman for rubmaps.com, the only site to respond to an inquiry from The Bay Citizen. “We don’t play referee. We just provide a forum. It’s better to provide this medium where cops can get some info, rather than not have any.”
Earlier this month, the San Francisco Police Department received a report that a suspected pimp had kidnapped a young woman at 10th Street and Mission. With a description and photograph in hand, investigators with the special victims unit searched on myredbook.com for the missing woman, filtering the profiles by age and hair color. After finding her profile, a detective contacted the listed cellphone number and arranged to meet with her at a nearby motel, where officers took her into custody.
“It’s a good way to gather intelligence,” said Detective Vincent Repetto of the special victims unit. “You get this kind of information and it can dovetail with open investigations.”
Late last year, the police in South San Francisco arrested a couple after finding them and two 16-year-old girls, including one runaway, in their motel room. Mahendar Singh, 40, told the authorities that the girls were his stepdaughters, but the police found their profiles on myredbook.com. In January, Mr. Singh pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiring to commit sex trafficking.
Challenging the sites legally has proven difficult. Legal experts said the Web sites are protected by the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which states that Web site owners are exempt from responsibility for the content of their users.
“The idea is that you hold the speaker liable, and not the soapbox,” said Rebecca Jeschke, director of media relations for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It’s the foundation of the Internet you see now.”
In August, a judge dismissed a lawsuit against Village Voice Media that claimed backpage.com was aiding and abetting sex trafficking by allowing users to post advertisements for sex.
Investigators said that trying to battle the Web sites in a public or legal arena is not the solution to the problem; providers simply write in code — offering “French lessons,” for example — or move to other Web sites. Some Web sites are hosted in other countries, such as rubmaps.com, which lists its business address in Nicosia, Cyprus.
“Maybe the best thing to do is to block a site or take it down, but it just pops up in a different form,” said Mr. Bates, of the Alameda district attorney’s office.
Lawmakers have been slow to realize the scope of the problem. In 2007, two years after California lawmakers made human trafficking a felony, the attorney general’s office released a report on human trafficking in the state. The Internet was not mentioned.
But California is now leading the country in responding to the rapidly expanding online sex trade. In February, Attorney General Kamala D. Harris convened leaders from nonprofit, law enforcement and technology companies to gather information for an updated report on human trafficking in the state. Several researchers who are a part of the group, including some from Microsoft and the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, are developing a database that would allow law enforcement officials to search and map information from all of the Web sites suspected of advertising prostitution.
“This is an opportunity to observe the social behaviors which underlie the trafficking trade, which is essential if you want to combat it,” said Mark Latonero, director of research at the Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy. “We’re trying to crack the code.”