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Cook County Sues Craigslist Over Prostitution Ads

The second largest sheriff's department in the U.S. filed a lawsuit against Craigslist on Thursday, charging the online classifieds site with facilitating prostitution.

The Cook County Sheriff's department, which encompasses Chicago, asks the court to force Craigslist to close its erotic services section and pay damages for the money the police have spent monitoring the forum and pursuing suspects.

"To say Craigslist's 'erotic services' forum makes prostitution accessible is an understatement," the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the northern district of Illinois, reads.

The sheriff's office maintains that Craigslist's Chicago erotic services section collects 300 new posts each day. The suit also cites a study from Compete.com from 2007 that found that in eight Craigslist cities that were part of the study, the erotic services segment had almost twice as many visitors as the next ranked category on the site.

"While Defendant does not profit from erotic services per se, erotic services is the catalyst behind Craigslist being the ninth most popular website in the country," the suit reads. "Erotic services enables Defendant to charge fees of up to $75 per post for job openings due to the significant traffic garnered by erotic services." While most types of ads are free to post on Craigslist, in some cities the site charges for paid jobs ads and apartment listings.

Between January and November 2008, Cook County police arrested 156 people via Craigslist erotic services ads, the suit said. Officers spent 3,120 hours working on the arrests for a cost of over $105,000, according to the suit.

Late last year, Craigslist made a deal with 40 state attorneys general under which it agreed to begin charging a fee for erotic services ads and requiring people posting in the section to provide valid identification. Craigslist agreed to donate the money it collected to charities.

But the Cook County Sheriff's department said the agreement had little affect. Arrests through Craigslist continue unabated and it appears that people have figured out how to post without paying the fee, the suit says.

In a statement, Craigslist said it hasn't yet seen the complaint. "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," Susan MacTavish Best, a Craigslist spokeswoman, said in the statement.

Craigslist has a long history of cooperating with law enforcement, she said, citing the agreement from late last year. She also said that Craigslist bans illegal activity in its terms of use, warns users against illegal activity and removes inappropriate content that comes to its attention.

In a press conference announcing the suit, Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart described some of the people the office has arrested after finding their ads on Craigslist. "We have this Web site that facilities this. And somehow we're all supposed to feel good about this because it's a legitimate business," he said. "Since when do we feel good about a legitimate business that facilities a criminal act?"

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