Prostitutes use computers to track officers, authorities say

Monday, August 23, 2004

The Associated Press

CLAYTON, Mo. -- Police departments use computers to catch criminals and log their arrests. Now, authorities say, prostitutes in Missouri are using the Internet to share information about undercover police officers.

Even the commander of the St. Louis County vice squad, Rick Battelle, found his own cell phone number was listed.

"That was the shocking thing," Battelle said. He said the number had been given out once to try to apprehend a suspected prostitute.

Police said they usually keep computerized files on prostitutes, trying to record where they have worked and the false names they have used.

At the same time, prostitutes have increasingly advertised over the Internet, sometimes referring to themselves as "escorts."

But county detectives told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch they found technology that combined the two: a database passed through the Internet to help prostitutes share information as they try to elude officers.

Police said they had been following two women from Springfield through message boards, e-mails and Web sites. The women used the technology to screen clients and spread the word about their business.

On Aug. 4, an undercover officer met the women at a hotel in Maryland Heights. When the women accepted money for a promise of sex, additional officers raided the room.

They found two laptop computers, which they said was not unusual for women who work over the Internet.

But they also found a Web site on a computer, listing the officers' cell phone numbers, undercover names and details about their cars.

Police were told only a prostitute with a secure log-in could get access to the Web page -- and only someone with several prostitutes to vouch for her could get the log-in.

The two suspects were arrested and released pending filing of charges. No one has been charged in connection with the Web site, though officers are looking into it.

County police Capt. Thomas Jackson said officers routinely change details when they work undercover.

"Information about our officers is useful to prostitutes only when it's fresh," he said. "It doesn't stay fresh for long."

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