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Memphis police bust online prostitutes

In a recent Craigslist posting under "Erotic Services," a 22-year-old East Memphis woman named Kim promises to be "sexy, clean, [and provide] low rates." Another ad features a photo of a nude woman with the line: "Call me so we can set up a secret rendezvous."

Such ads, featuring female, male, and transgender prostitutes, are uploaded to local Craigslist listings almost every 15 minutes. And though it's impossible to catch everyone who posts, the Memphis Police Department (MPD) does keep an eye on Internet prostitutes. Just last week, 12 women were arrested in an online prostitution sting.

The MPD's vice team spent August 29th and 30th conducting an undercover investigation on the free listing website. Posing as johns, officers set up meetings with the women in area hotel rooms. The women were then arrested for prostitution when they offered officers sex in exchange for money.

"We've found that the same problems that go with prostitution on the street occur in the hotel [rooms] that these girls rent," says Chris Moffatt with the MPD's Organized Crime Unit Vice Team. "You still have pimps. You still have drug dealers. You still have violence. It's no different, except now they're online."

Nine of the 12 women arrested in the sting were under 30 years old, but Moffatt says the online ads aren't limited to younger women.

"A lot of the girls we've arrested online, we've also arrested on the street," Moffatt says. "Some of them work exclusively off the Internet, and they tend to think of themselves as higher class.

"There are some who work both the street and the Internet," Moffatt continues. "They'll charge one price on the street, but when they put an [online] ad out, they'll triple the price."

Whether prostitutes use the Internet or work the street the old-fashioned way, most of them set up face-to-face meetings with clients in local hotels. In the most recent sting, women were arrested at the Airport Inn on Brooks, a Motel 6 on Sycamore View, the Comfort Suites on Thousand Oaks, and various other hotels.

Hotels involved in the sting will not face charges, but Moffatt says police make a note of prostitution occurences at each hotel. With enough incidents, the hotels eventually could face a nuisance action.

As for the women arrested, all of the cases in the most recent sting are pending in general sessions court. Prosecutor Paul Hagerman with the district attorney's office says the women are facing misdemeanor charges.

"In Tennessee, it doesn't matter how many times you're convicted for prostitution, a misdemeanor is the maximum punishment," Hagerman says. "With prostitution cases that come through our office, these women have some of the longest records of conviction. I've seen one woman who has been locked up 30 times."

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