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Nassau County, N. Three had come all the way from the San Francisco Bay area, one from Miami. Two lived less than 60 miles away, in Newark and Elizabeth, N. All eight were arrested on prostitution charges here, snared in a new sting operation by the Nassau County police that focuses on Craigslist.

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Nassau County has made more than 70 arrests since it began focusing on Craigslist last year, one of numerous crackdowns by vice squ from Hawaii to New Hampshire that have lately been monitoring the Web site closely, sometimes placing decoy to catch would-be customers. Augmenting traditional surveillance of street walkers, massage parlors, brothels and escort services, investigators are now hunching over computer screens to scroll through provocative cyber- in search of solicitors.

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In July raids, the sheriff of Cook County, Ill. In Seattle, a covert police ad on Craigslist in November resulted in the arrests of 71 men, including a bank officer, a construction worker and a surgeon. And in Jacksonville, Fla. Hartley, the assistant chief sheriff there.

Sex and the Internet have been intertwined almost since the first Web site, but the authorities say that prostitution is flourishing online as never before.

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And while prostitutes also advertise on other sites, the police here and across the country say Craigslist is by far the favorite. On one recent day, for example, some 9, listings were added to the site's "Erotic Services" category in the New York region alone: Most offered massage and escorts, often hinting at more. A civil liberties issue Law enforcement officials have accused Craigslist of enabling prostitution.

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But the company's president, Jim Buckmaster, said its member staff cannot patrol the multitude of constantly changing listings--some 20 million per month--and counts on viewers to flag objectionablewhich are promptly removed. Asked whether the company supported the police's placing decoy on CraigslistBuckmaster said: "We don't comment on the specifics" of law enforcement. Craig Newmark, the site's founder and chairmandeferred all questions to Buckmaster.

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The police have also occasionally turned to Craigslist to trace stolen goods offered for sale or make drug arrests. In June, in Nassau, spotting code words like "snow" or "skiing" to refer to cocaine, they set up a sting with an undercover officer to arrest a man who advertised cocaine for sex. Experts say that under the federal Communications Decency Act ofthe are legal and Web site owners are exempt from responsibility for content posted by users.

Craigslist, for example, last fall won dismissal of a suit that alleged housing discrimination in posted on its Web site.

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Opsahl, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties group based in San Francisco. While Buckmaster said Craigslist was no different from old-media publications that have long carried sex-orientedlaw enforcement officials say its scope and format are especially useful to the sex industry.

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With listings for some cities around the world, Craigslist claims to have 25 million users and 8 billion views a month. Posting advertisements, except those in the employment and some housingis free, as is responding to them by e-mail.

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Tracy Quan, a member of the advocacy group Prostitutes of New York and author of the autobiographical novel Diary of a Married Call Girl Harper Perennial,acknowledged that "the Internet became a virtual street for people in the sex industry," but said that "the police are as inventive and as wily as sex workers are. The police say that Craigslist has changed prostitution's patterns, with people roaming the country, setting up shop for a week or two in hotels--often near airports--where they use laptop computers and cell phones to arrange encounters for hundreds of dollars, then moving on to their next location.

In Westchester County this spring, the police in Greenburgh, Rye, Rye Brook and Elmsford formed a t task force to investigate on Craigslist, resulting in 30 arrests.

Some of those arrested were out-of-town prostitutes who booked numerous dates in advance, then whisked in for a busy couple of days, the police said. In Sandpoint, Idaho, population 8, R. Mark Lockwood, the police chief, said that an arrest this summer involving Craigslist "was probably our first prostitution case since World War II. Amid the police crackdown, in a game of electronic cat-and-mouse, the authorities say that Web site users who get wind of enforcement sometimes post warnings to thwart investigators.

The Craigslist modus operandi provides mobility, helping prostitutes keep a few steps ahead of the law, law enforcement officials say.

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It also affords a degree of anonymity--if they are caught, being away from home makes an arrest less embarrassing. Pimps have also adapted to the computer age, the police say. Among those arrested here in August, on charges of promoting prostitution, was Victor Teixeira, 31, of Mineola.

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He put different up sometimes three times day. He would screen the calls and make the appointments.

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Most of the arrests are on misdemeanor charges, with convictions resulting in fines of a few hundred dollars; only repeat offenders risk jail time. The real penalties are the disruption of business, the cost of lawyers and the seizures of computers and cash--as much as several thousand dollars at a time. The police say the focus on such misconduct is worthwhile because prostitution is often linked to other crimes involving drugs, weapons, physical abuse and exploitation of minors and immigrants.

Law enforcement officials ask why Craigslist even includes Erotic Services among its .

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Buckmaster, the company president, said the site created that category "at the request of our users" for legitimate massage, escorts and exotic dancers. In an e-mail interview, he said that the police had praised the company's cooperation, though he did not give examples.

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Despite police complaints that Craigslist facilitates prostitution, some experts say the Web site also aids enforcement. Harris, president of the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology.

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