Thursday, June 23, 2011

The assignation game: attempting to make an illegal market safe

Scott Cunningham (who studies risky behavior, crime, and illicit labor markets) points me to this story, which illustrates some of the difficulties of running a recommender system for an illegal transaction:  Fairleigh Dickinson professor accused of running prostitution website

"a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, was arrested Sunday while sitting in a Starbucks in Albuquerque, N.M., said Lt. William Roseman of the Albuquerque police."

"Flory’s website, Southwest Companions, had operated for months before several prostitutes in Albuquerque mentioned the site to police and they began investigating late last year, Roseman said.

"Users were split into three categories, and first-time visitors had to first gain the trust of Flory before gaining any access. Ordinarily this was done, Roseman said, by "sleeping with a prostitute." The prostitute would then report to Flory what sexual acts the two had engaged in, as well as how much money was exchanged.

"After that process, users were designated as "Verified," gaining access to a wider circle of women to choose from, Roseman said. If users became more frequent customers, their status was increased to "Trusted," which gave them access to more women and more portions of the website, including message boards explaining how to avoid the police, Roseman said.

"They had descriptions of my officers, phone numbers they used, videos of an attorney telling them that if you get busted by the police, here’s what you should do," Roseman said. "This was a website designed, managed and run fully for prostitution."

"The site also included message boards where users could rate the prostitutes with stars, including the rating of specific sexual acts, Roseman said.

"Roseman said Flory told police he did not make money off of the website and instead saw it as a hobby, "a safe place for guys to find female prostitutes," Roseman said."

Another news account gives more details on the police operation, which made use of an informant:

"Seemingly aware of possible legal issues, the site notes its content is for "entertainment purposes" only.

"Police, however, contend that Flory knew he was promoting illegal activity. A detective infiltrated the site, gaining a “verified account” through an informant, according to an arrest warrant. Using the screen name “David8,” the warrant said Flory posted “helpful tips” on how to avoid arrest and removed users who he thought had contact with authorities.

"Through a subpoena to Internet domain registration company, police learned that Flory used his FDU e-mail account to create the site. A GoDaddy spokesman declined to comment on the case, but issued a statement noting the company "routinely" works with law enforcement. According to the warrant, Flory also used for e-mail on the prostitution site, with the domain matching his initials. "

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