CHICAGO (AFP) — An Illinois sheriff filed a lawsuit against Craigslist on Thursday calling the popular website the largest clearing house for prostitution in the United States.
Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart sued the owners of the classified ad site in US District Court for facilitating prostitution by failing to block blatant offers to trade sex for money.
"Craigslist is the single largest source of prostitution in the nation," Dart said at a press conference in Chicago.
"Missing children, runaways, abused women and women trafficked in from foreign countries are routinely forced to have sex with strangers because they're being pimped on Craigslist."
Dart's lawsuit was filed four months after San Francisco-based Craigslist settled a nationwide lawsuit by promising to enact new rules to crack down on prostitution.
Dart said his officers have seen no change in the number or type of postings in the "Erotic Services" section since the website's owner promised "sweeping changes" and said "no amount of criminal activity is acceptable."
"This section is a convenient clearing house for pimps, prostitutes and patrons that enables sellers to advertise and buyers to peruse discretely," Dart said in court filings.
Dart said he has made numerous written pleas to Craigslist in the past two years asking them to shut down the Erotic Services section, which generates about 300 posts a day in Chicago alone.
In the past two years, Dart's department has made more than 200 arrests linked to the website on charges that include juvenile pimping, human trafficking and endangerment of a child.
The people arrested have ranged from heroin addicts to suburban soccer moms, a former reality TV star and teenagers as young as 14 years old.
Dart asked a federal judge to order Craigslist to eliminate its Erotic Services section.
He is also seeking reimbursement for tax dollars spent paying the salaries of officers who investigate and arrest those responsible for trafficking prostitutes on the website.
A Craigslist spokeswoman said she could not comment on the case because she has not yet received a copy of the lawsuit.
"Misuse of Craigslist to facilitate criminal activity is unacceptable, and we continue to work diligently to prevent it," Susan MacTavish said in an e-mail in which she outlined a number of measures Craigslist has taken to prevent illegal activity.
"Misuse of the site is exceptionally rare compared to how much the site is used for legal purposes. Regardless, any misuse of the site is not tolerated on Craigslist."
Dart said street gangs are now using Craigslist to pimp out prostitutes.
An FBI investigation found last year that more than 2,800 child prostitution ads had been posted on Craigslist and a recent nationwide sweep for child trafficking and prostitution netted hundreds of arrests, he added.
"Pimps are preying on the most vulnerable members of our society and taking advantage of our struggling economy," Dart told reporters.
"The worst part is Craigslist's owners know their website is still being used for illegal purposes and they're doing nothing to stop it."
While Craigslist does not profit from ads in the Erotic Services section, Dart claimed the traffic it generates accounts for the bulk of the website's popularity and allowed it to generate 80 million dollars in revenue last year from paid posts for jobs and apartments.
In November, Craigslist said it would charge a small fee and require credit card verification for postings in the Erotic Services section and all revenue from the ads would be donated to charity.