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Pay attention when you log on to craigslist

Sometimes, bad results can occur
by: Jim Clark, 
Chandler Cook and Elizabeth Dorsch made a deposit for a lease-to-own house they found through the community billboard Web site, craigslist.or, but the “seller” vanished on them.

In Tigard, a man allegedly invites women to his house and sexually assaults them.

In Portland, newlyweds discover that their minister stole their wedding gifts.

In Beaverton, police find a prostitution ring operating in a local motel.

And in Gresham, a couple steals and resells utility trailers for years.

All of these accused or convicted criminals have one thing in common - they committed their crimes with the help of craigslist (www.craigslist.org), the wildly popular Web site for buying and selling property and services, as well as finding a job, a roommate or a date.

Portland police recently busted a theft ring using craigslist to sell thousands of dollars worth of stolen property. Following up on a tip that a stolen laptop computer was sold on craigslist, police served a search warrant on a house in the 9600 block of S.E. Holgate Boulevard and recovered an estimated $30,000 worth of stolen electronic goods, power tools, LCD TV screens, iPods, car stereos and other consumer products.

'The occupants of the house told us they were using craigslist to sell the stolen property every day,' said Portland Police officer Jim DeFrain, who participated in the Nov. 15 raid. 'It happens all the time'

Jim Buckmaster, craigslist CEO and programmer, says the vast majority of the transactions over his Web sites are legal, and that his organization works with law enforcement agencies to curtail any criminal activities.

'Misuse of craigslist for the facilitation of illegal activity is absolutely unacceptable,' Buckmaster said in an e-mail response to questions from Pamplin Media Group.

Local law enforcement officers say that crimes on craigslist are a major problem, however.

'Craigslist, unfortunately, is about much more than just buying and selling things. There have also been issues with prostitution, child exploitation, stolen property, ID theft, any number of things,' said Multnomah County Sheriff's office spokesman Travis Gullberg, whose agency has arrested many people in recent years for craigslist-related crimes.

Substantially reducing craigslist-related crimes may not be possible, however. Federal courts have so far ruled that Web site operators are not liable for what people post on them. And local law enforcement officials say they do not have the resources to constantly monitor craigslist.

Portland's a big user

Founded in San Francisco in 1995, craigslist claims to operate more than 300 sites in 50 states and more than 50 countries. According to organization statistics, craigslist is now the seventh-most popular English language Web site in the world, hosting more than 12 million ads viewed by more than 15 million people a month.

Craigslist also says that 700,000 new classified ads are posted on the Portland Web site every month, generating 275 million page views - making the metro area the organization's No. 5 city in terms of overall use and No. 2 city in terms of per capita use, trailing only San Francisco.

Buckmaster insists that craigslist reflects society at large.

'It was recently pointed out to us that with literally billions of positive human interactions facilitated by craigslist, it is quite remarkable how little crime is associated with the site, given the much higher crime rates that exist in the world at large - which is a testament to the good intentions of the vast majority of craigslist users,' he noted.

That's small consolation to Elizabeth Dorsch and her boyfriend, who were scammed out of $2,400 by a woman they met through Criagslist in September.

Lynne Sisto, 33, offered to sell them a house on a lease-to-own basis. Sisto told the couple she needed the money to finishing buying the house. When the couple showed up to move in, they discovered the house was still for sale and Sisto had vanished.

Portland police arrested Sisto in October for scamming several people out of at least $20,000 through similar schemes.

'It was horrible feeling. You think you¹ve got a place to live, and then you¹re nearly homeless,' said Dorsch, who was forced to move into a low-rent apartment with her boyfriend in Vancouver.

Reports spawn a Web site

Craigslist-related crimes are becoming so well known that several Web sites and blogs have been established to track them.

One - www.craigscrimelist.org - is operated by a true-crime buff who uses the name Trench Reynolds to avoid retaliation, he says. After starting his first blog on school shootings in 2000, Reynolds said he began noticing news stories about crimes related to the Internet, including many connected to craigslist and such social Web sites as MySpace.

After starting a Web site dedicated to such crimes, he soon realized that the majority were connected to just one site (craigslist) and started the Web site dedicated to it.

'I'm probably posting 30 to 40 stories a month just on crimes connected to craigslist,' Reynolds said.

Reynolds believes that a major reason why criminals are attracted to craigslist is its anonymous nature. People posting ads do not have to report any identifying information to anyone.

'There's no screening or regulation at all about who can use it. If you place a classified ad for something, you've got to give somebody your name and address. But on craigslist, nobody knows who you are or where you live,' Reynolds said. 'The inmates are running the asylum.'

Locally, criminals not only are placing ads on craigslist, they allegedly are responding to them, too.

On Nov. 15, Tigard police arrested Ronald Leistiko, 52, on charges that he used craigslist and other Internet sites to invite women to his house and sexually assault them. According to police, some of the alleged victims were as young as 14. Leistiko is jailed on a long list of charges, including rape, kidnapping, prostitution, sex abuse, menacing, attempted rape, strangulation and unlawful sexual penetration.

According to Tigard police spokesman Jim Wolf, Leistiko found his victims by responding to personal ads posted on craigslist and other sites.

'We've investigated some sex-related crimes associated with craigslist before, but nothing of this magnitude,' Wolf said.

Some ads suggest sex for cash

According to Reynolds, more than half the news stories he sees on craigslist-related crimes involve prostitution. All craigslist Web sites have an 'erotic services' section where people openly advertise for sexual partners. Many clearly suggest sex is available for money.

The erotic services category easily draws the highest number of craigslist visitors, according to an April 2007 study released by the Web site analysis firm Compete.com. The study, which looked at eight major American cities (though not Portland or San Francisco), found 'erotic services consistently garners the highest number of individual visitors for February - almost always twice as many as the next ranking category, averaging 260,000 people per city.'

A nonprofit advocacy group against human sexual trafficking, called the Polaris Project, believes craigslist is now the single largest source for prostitution, including child exploitation, in the country. The project surveyed all craigslist pages for apparent prostitutes on Feb. 7 of this year. It identified thousands across the country, including 275 on the Portland site.

Perhaps the most disturbing craigslist-related crimes are those involving sex with children.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin believes craigslist is a significant source of child prostitution in her city. On Aug. 21 of this year, she wrote craigslist to say the site could do more to prevent itself from being used 'as a means of promoting and enabling child prostitution.'

Among other things, Franklin called on craigslist to revise its warning on pages for erotic services and personal ads, and to remove postings that offer sexual services for sale.

Franklin based her request on Atlanta police studies that found that the vast majority of all child sexual predators in that city found their victims on craigslist, said Stephanie Davis, the mayor's policy adviser on women's issues.

Buckmaster wrote Franklin back a week later to say he shared her concerns.

In his letter, Buckmaster pointed out that various notices posted on the Web site say that illegal activity is not allowed. He also said craigslist users routinely flag apparently illegal ads for removal.

Nevertheless, he told Franklin, 'we are not content with the status quo and are open to new ideas for improving any and all aspects of the wide array of free services that craigslist provides to the people of Atlanta.'

Police lack resources

Compared to many of the apparent prostitution ads, those selling stolen property are much harder to spot - and therefore to stop. Portland Police Detective Dave Anderson said he has personally sold property on craigslist over the years.

But Anderson also knows that local criminals routinely use craigslist to sell stolen property, including cars, computers, digital cameras and household appliances. In fact, Anderson said that so much stolen property is being sold on craigslist, the police don't have enough manpower to track it down.

'We get a lot of tips (about stolen property on craigslist) that we just don't have time to follow up on. If we had the staff, we could just surf craigslist all day and recover stolen property,' Anderson said.

DeFrain agrees. He works for the Neighborhood Enhancement Team at Southeast Precinct, a unit dedicated to reducing street crimes. In that capacity, DeFrain said he routinely runs across criminals who are selling stolen property on craigslist.

'If you spend any time on craigslist, you see items that are obviously stolen,' DeFrain said while standing in a police storage room full of property recovered from the Southeast Holgate Boulevard house. 'Brand-new laptops in their original boxes for $200, iPods without any of the cables or accessories. You need to ask yourself, Why is that?'

Housing, Internet laws clash

Efforts to hold craigslist legally responsible for the illegal activities occurring on it have so far been unsuccessful.

Perhaps the most significant attempt occurred in early 2006 when a group of civil rights attorneys sued craigslist over housing ads it said violated federal anti-discrimination laws. In a federal lawsuit, the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law alleged a pattern of landlords posting ads that said people of a certain race, religion, gender or family status need not apply. The suit alleged craigslist violated the federal Fair Housing Act by accepting the ads.

In its defense, craigslist argued that as a 'provider of interactive computer services (ICS),' it is immune from such suits under a portion of the federal Communications Decency Act. An amicus brief supporting that position was filed with the court by a number of large Internet-based companies and free speech advocates, including Amazon.com, AOL, eBay, Google, Yahoo and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The suit was filed in the United States Northern District of Illinois assigned to Judge Amy J. St. Eve. She sided with craigslist and dismissed the suit in late 2006. Citing more than a dozen cases, the she noted that '(n)ear-unanimous case law holds (the Communications Decency Act) affords immunity to ICSs against suits that seek to hold an ICS liable for third-party content.'

The Chicago lawyers committee recently appealed the dismissal to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that St. Eve should have applied the federal housing laws to the case, not the Communications Decency Act.

The appeals court is not expected to act for months, at the soonest.