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Chicago's sheriff on Thursday filed a lawsuit against Craigslist, saying the site may be the No. 1 source of prostitution in the United States and is straining his department's ability to enforce the law.

The suit claims that changes Craigslist enacted in November to its erotic services section have done little to curb prostitution, sex trafficking and child pimping on the site. It seeks a court order requiring the site to close the section and to pay the costs the department incurs in cracking down on hookers and Johns who use the it.

"The sheriff conducts stings through Craigslist regularly," the complaint, filed Federal Court in Chicago said. "However, the deluge of erotic services postings taxes its resources. The sheer number of daily postings has made it impossible to stymie Craigslist generated prostitution."

Over the past two years, Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart has arrested 200 people through Craigslist on charges ranging from prostitution, juvenile pimping and human trafficking. More than 150 of those came in the first 11 months of 2008, accounting for 3,120 police hours at at cost of slightly more than $105,000.

Under the new requirements announced in November, erotic services advertisers must first register with the site using a computerized telephone verification routine and pay a $5 fee (most ads are free). The site promises to turn over telephone and credit card information to law enforcement agencies with a valid court order. The changes were hashed out in an agreement between Craigslist and 40 state attorneys general.

But the changes have done little to curb prostitution on the site, the lawsuit contended. Pimps and prostitutes continue to post more than 300 posts per day to Chicago's erotic services section.

The lawsuit cited a study published on Compete.com that examined eight US cities for one month and concluded that the erotic services section consistently garnered the highest number of individual visitors, almost twice as the next ranking Craigslist category.

"While defendant does not profit from erotic services per se, erotic services is the catalyst behind Craigslist being the ninth most popular website in the country," the complaint stated. "Erotic services enables defendant to charge fees of up to $75 per post for job openings due to the significant web traffic garnered by erotic services."

It also cited studies estimating Craigslist is the "single largest source for prostitution, including child exploitation, in the country."

A Craigslist statement said prostitution and other illegal activities on the site are strictly forbidden.

"Misuse of craigslist to facilitate criminal activity is completely unacceptable, and we continue to work diligently to prevent it," it said. "Misuse of the site is exceptionally rare compared to how much the site is used for legal purposes. Regardless, any misuse of the site is not tolerated on Craigslist."

The statement listed 18 steps the site follows to prevent illegal activity, including the blocking of ads that contain language indicating a high likelihood of violations to Craigslist terms of use, the removal of inappropriate ads that come to its attention and its prompt response to inquiries from law enforcement agencies.

The lawsuit is available here (PDF), and background on Craigslist's erotic services section is here. ®

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