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Can forcing credit card use change behavior?

Tyler Metzger

Craigslist, the online classified service, has been under intense scrutiny the past few months. After medical school student Phillip Markoff allegedly used the service to meet and later kill 25 year-old Julissa Brisman, the Web site was deemed an enabler. And that’s when accusations that ads posted on Craigslist, which receives more than 20 billion page views a month, help facilitates prostitution started flying.

Can credit cards help Craigslist's prostitution troubles?

Craigslist’s potential answer to its PR nightmare? Credit cards.

In November 2008, under pressure from attorney generals around the country, the service started requiring a $10 fee and a valid phone number to post to the “erotic services” section of the site. The charge had to be put on a credit card, which could be subpoenaed if something went wrong during the transaction. All the money collected would be donated to charity as well.

Jim Buckmaster, the president of Craigslist, said at the time he didn’t view it as a penalty — it was a way to raise accountability. A legitimate business “should have no problem providing a phone number or credit card credentials,” he said.

Even though there was a 90 percent drop in erotic service postings after the rule was implemented, it wasn’t enough for many policymakers after the news of Brisman’s death hit.

They now want more. South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster said that the Web site has to either remove its “erotic services” section by May 15 or face a potential criminal investigation.

What are the alternatives? Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal proposed in a letter April 22 that financial incentives could be granted to users who report postings that violate terms of service. He also added that Craigslist could charge a “significant fee” on the credit cards of users who breach the terms of service.

So again we see the threat of credit card involvement as a means to a political end — cracking down on immorality. I think people posting to the erotic services section have more problems to deal with than small fees on their credit card bill. (Think back to high school health class). Plus, it would be easy for any card-savvy Craigslist poster to buy a Visa, American Express or Discover gift card and use it to discreetly purchase ads. That way it’s untraceable. Terrorists know that, why wouldn’t erotic service providers?

But besides technical attempts to dodge tracking, does requiring a credit card really have any effect on what we do? My answer: No. I throw my card down at bars and leave it for the next day; I swipe it at secondhand clothing stores and ignore the fact that my issuer might consider that purchase a sign of financial distress; I even face fines when I use it to get cash when I’m in a bind.

For me, my card provides me a freedom I rarely ponder, and I think many people feel the same way. That’s why a lot of us are in debt, and that’s why requiring a credit card will do little to stop prostitution on Craigslist. It didn’t work in November, and it won’t work now.

If Craigslist wants to deter prostitution, the obvious thing to do is to delete the erotic services section. Many critics say that isn’t enough, though, because pimps will still post to the personals sections and use keywords that clientele are smart to.

A way around this is to charge people’s credit cards per keyword. Want to say you’re a “masseuse” offering a “naughty sweet treat” or a “GFE”? Well that’s going to be $200 per word that’s been deemed as dangerous. It’s linguistic extermination. Or why not create something similar to the sex offender’s database that includes the names of all people posting to dodgy sections. This information could be taken from the card the person used to purchase the ads, or could be a required field when posting.

The threat of a credit card charge doesn’t alarm many, but if the fee or risk is high enough, it can scare off even the most dangerous of criminals.

Update (5/13/09): Craigslist has taken advice from many of its critics, including me, and will close its “erotic services” section. Starting Wednesday, posting to the category will be disallowed, and the entire section will be deleted in 7 days, according to a statement by Jim Buckmaster, the company’s CEO, who said the change was was “strictly voluntary.”

Replacing the “erotic services” section is a category named “adult services,” which will also open Wednesday for all sites in the United States. The difference between the two sections is still a little hazy, but in order to post to the new category, the user must be a “legal adult service provider”. Each post will be personally reviewed before it is published on Craigslist, and will cost $10. However, once the post is approved, it can be reposted for $5. The money will continue to be donated to charity.

“We are optimistic that the new balance struck today will be an acceptable compromise from the perspective of these constituencies, and for the diverse U.S. communities that value and rely upon Craigslist,” Buckmaster said.

See related: Your credit card is a tattletale, Master Peter Ginger and Craigslist, Prepaid card offers anonymity, porn

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  • Michael O’Brian

    You pretty much hit the nail on the head: It’s there so it doesn’t spill over into other parts of the site. Or they can waste time/money squashing errant posts if they do close down that part. If they filter or ban it, erotic business will just move elsewhere. Not that I think the guys at Craigslist will care, they’re not about making more than they need.
    We (society) can accept that prostitution is going to keep happening like it always has or we can continue fighting the idea. Shoot, prostitution is already illegal…what’s the plan make it more illegal?
    People meet online and do nasty things (Chris Hansen has proved this enough) to each other all the time. Why is this one murder so different from the others?

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