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Flourishing Sex Sites a Boon to Police

Websites facilitate human trafficking but are a "great tool" for law enforcement

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Early this month, the social networking website 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, Surrell, 34, had profited by taking a portion of the earnings of his roster of women prostitutes. Then, like many Internet entrepreneurs, Surrell decided to capitalize on an expanding online community. On his website, which referred visitors to 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 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 websites, according to the Advanced Interactive Media Group, a consulting firm for the classified advertising market. Law enforcement officials in the Bay Area said other websites had emerged with suspected sex-for-pay advertisements.

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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,” 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 website 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.”

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