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Craigslist's free-wheeling red-light district is about to get a lot tamer under strict new measures announced Thursday designed to rein in prostitution and other illegal services.

The website, where 40 million Americans turn each month to find jobs, tennis partners and the occasional dominatrix, has quietly rolled out new restrictions for those posting ads to its erotic services section. For the last few months, they've been required to register with the site first, a process that involves a computerized telephone verification routine. Within the next week or so, they will also have to have a valid credit card and pay a fee for each ad they place.

The new curbs were hashed out between Craigslist principals and the attorneys general of 40 US states and territories. Law enforcement officials have long complained that the website, which is one of the most popular web destinations, is a hotbed for illegal prostitution. Until now, Craigslist has largely relied on user feedback to weed out ads and content deemed inappropriate. The new screening policy represents a new tactic designed to make it hard on people who flout the sites' acceptable usage policy.

"If we catch you posting inappropriate ads, in additional to us suspending your account, we'll also blacklist your phone number," Craigslist chief executive Jim Buckmaster told El Reg. Inappropriate ads are defined as "anything that's not in full compliance with all applicable laws."

Craigslist has also agreed to turn over registered phone numbers to law enforcement officials with a valid search warrant.

Once credit card verification goes into effect, Craigslist expects erotic services ads to decline by 90 per cent. Buckmaster saw a similar drop shortly after the implementation of telephone verification, which requires people registering accounts to enter a valid landline or permanent cell phone number.

A computerized service then calls the number and a robotic voice reads off a series of digits that must be entered into the website registration form. In recent weeks, the number of ads posted to erotic services has picked up as people have figured out ways to circumvent the measure.

Buckmaster said all the money generated from erotic ads will be donated to charities that work to prevent child exploitation and human trafficking.

One method of getting around the system is to use services such as AdBomber, Adsoncraigs.com and 24 Hour Posting Services, which offer software tools that make it easy to blast Craigslist with lots of ads. Some provide additional services, including one that's designed to thwart telephone verification by identifying disposable phone numbers that posters can register.

Craigslist has sued 14 such companies in federal court in San Francisco and sent cease and desist letters to many more.

Law enforcement officials and many Craigslist members largely applauded the changes. We're not sure how big a change to expect. At time of writing, there were nearly 1,400 ads listed in the erotic services section for Hartford, Connecticut, alone, one of 550 cities where the site operates and the home turf of Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who spear-headed the changes.

One advertised the services of an "Open minded, fun, friendy [sic] girl" with a "Smokin hot body!!" It asks: "REady for the Most Incredible GFE from a Super Hottie??" ®

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