Anatomy of a Police Investigation of an Internet Site
There are only two things that are certain in life, taxes and death. Of course, the cliché doesn't mention that you die only once while taxes happen every year!
In this article, we take a look at the specific investigation and resulting arrest warrants associated with the BigDoggie.net escort site in Florida. The specific purpose of this article is to educate you on the steps taken by authorities to penetrate [no pun intended] the site, not to discuss the legal issues associated with the site or the merits of the investigation. Further, this information is based on public information provided by the investigating agencies, not the individuals involved in the site. As a result, the merits and accuracy of the statements of the authorities may be taken with a grain of salt. Regardless, the information supplied is an example of methods used by authorities to crack a site.
BigDoggie.net allegedly provides a paid forum for escorts and individuals looking for escorts. Florida authorities assert that the site has been promoting prostitution since approximately September of 1999. The "promotion" involved providing subscribers with information, methods of access, ratings, and descriptions of the quality and characteristics of prostitutes as well as providing information on law enforcement operations and how to avoid said operations.
Following a two-year investigation called "Operation Flea Collar," arrest warrants were issued in mid-June for the arrest of eleven people with more arrests expected. Various charges being made include racketeering, conspiracy to racketeer, committing prostitution, deriving support for prostitution, aiding and abetting prostitution, procuring prostitutes, maintaining an establishment for prostitution and tampering with evidence. Of the charges asserted, the racketeering elements are the most serious.
BigDoggie.net first came to the attention of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in the summer of 2000 when the Office received a complaint from an anonymous individual. Investigators from the Sheriff's Office and the Statewide Prosecutor appear to have first investigated and prosecuted individuals involved with a site, PrivatePets.com, which advertised on BigDoggie.net. Following that prosecution, the authorities sought the best means for infiltrating BigDoggie.net and the underlying organization. The initial efforts were fruitless, so the authorities undertook a few unique approaches.
In early 2002, the Vice Section of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in Florida began monitoring various meetings between the escorts and alleged site owners. Authorities took down license plate numbers for vehicles, noted the identity of individuals at the meetings and may have tried to actually attend a few of the meetings although the information in public documents is not clear on this subject. While providing the authorities with information on individuals involved in the site, said information did not create a basis upon which to seek warrants.
In February of 2002, authorities took the unique step of establishing their own escort service web page that offered a profile, but no photographs of "Peggy in Tampa." "Peggy" was then added to the escort listings on BigDoggie.net. In that there were no photographs, the Vice "newbie" listing was ridiculed and members allegedly asserted that the listing must be a law enforcement sting. In an effort to overcome this problem, the authorities added pictures of a detective "M. Grow" to the site, but the listing still received no response.
After "Peggy" flopped, the authorities set up another web page promoting "Millennium Babe", a confidential informant. This time, the authorities included photographs, escort information and relevant fees. Millennium Babe received a number of inquires according to authorities, but "the availability of the patrons" could not be reconciled with "Millennium Babe."
In March of 2002, the "Vice Webmasters" hit pay dirt with their third effort. "Lia Nice", a confidential informant, appeared on a web page in street clothes and a bathing suit with information on how to contact her and the fees involved. "Lia Nice" was then advertised on BigDoggie.net. The authorities allege that "within a few hours," they were receiving "thousands of hits" and hundreds of subsequent offers for "dates" from members on the BigDoggie.net site. The Vice Office agreed to a few dates and arrested six individuals for soliciting prostitution within two weeks of the initial posting of Lia Nice on the site. Interestingly, a number of these individuals agreed to cooperate with authorities and posted positive reviews of "Lia Nice" on the site. This, of course, resulted in more interest from subscribers. The authorities subsequently created escort profiles for "Tallahassee Jack" and "Marcus Arelius". Authorities assert that these names were eventually banned from the site as escorts, but two were subsequently allowed to join as members.
At about that time, the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office learned that the Orlando Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation was also investigating BigDoggie.net. Working together, the two organizations collected further information that subsequently led to the issuing of warrants to arrest the alleged owners of the site, prostitutes, managers of prostitutes and individuals using the services of the prostitutes on the site. In June of 2002, the warrants were exercised and a number of arrests were made including the two alleged owners of the site.
The above compilation of information is an educational example of how authorities investigated an adult oriented site. Of particular interest is the fact that the authorities took two years to conduct the investigation and did so at a significant expense. Further, Webmasters must realize that it is not illegal for police to become a member of your site for the purpose of investigating the site. Statements on various warning pages and terms and conditions that include "you are not a police authority" language are not an effective means for keeping authorities out of your site.
As has been previously reported by multiple sources, the Justice Department has been "ramping up" its effort to investigate the adult online industry. In light of the above situation, the anticipated investigations could take some time. Regardless, investigations are undoubtedly underway and it is important that Webmasters make sure they are in compliance with relevant regulations. Is the sky falling? If you fail to acknowledge the changing landscape of the online adult industry, it may be.
The above discussion is intended to be a general commentary on the above scenario. Each situation is different and this article is not intended as legal advice for your specific situation. Further, nothing in this article is intended to create an attorney-client relationship. If you have additional questions, please contact J.D. Obenberger at AdultInternetLaw.com.
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