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Originally published Wednesday, March 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Prostitution in a wired world

It may be the world's oldest profession, but prostitution is using some 21st-century tricks. The prostitution scandal involving New York...

The Associated Press

It may be the world's oldest profession, but prostitution is using some 21st-century tricks.

The prostitution scandal involving New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer lays bare some of the inner workings of modern-day sex work: text messaging to clock in the client, electronic fund transfers, a Web site featuring color photos, prices and rankings.

There has always been a distinction between indoor and street-level prostitution, and advances in technology have increasingly separated the two, said Ronald Weitzer, author of "Sex for Sale: Prostitution, Pornography and the Sex Industry."

Not only can prostitutes and escort services now run more efficient businesses, but they can leverage word-of-mouth advertising in new ways to build their brands and troll for clients. Online social communities built around the escort and sex-worker industries can solidify customer loyalty.

"It's commercial, but it's also social, so people do really form relationships," says Audacia Ray, author of "Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads, and Cashing in on Internet Sexploration" and a former sex worker.

"Clients become buddies," she said.

There are plenty of online message boards where clients or potential clients can discuss, rate and exchange information about individual women.

Such sites are natural places for escorts or prostitutes to advertise, linking to their own Web sites, a technique many sex workers use, Ray said.

Technology also eases the business end of things, Weitzer says. While clients are surveying potential companions, escort-service managers can look into clients with a background check or even a simple Google search.

Payment is easier, too.

"It's often convenient to have an account established with a balance, so if you have the last-minute urge, you don't have to worry about getting money into the account," says Norma Jean Almodovar, executive director of the sex-workers' rights organization COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) in Southern California.

Emperors Club VIP, the high-end prostitution organization Spitzer allegedly was involved with, claimed more than 50 escorts working in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, London and Paris. The pictures of the escorts showed scantily clad women with their faces hidden, and a list of hourly rates based on how many "diamonds" a model rated. The highest-ranked prostitutes cost $5,500 an hour, prosecutors said. Sometimes clients would arrange for wire transfers. Others would send deposits by mail. The agency also offers gift certificates.

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The prices that Emperors Club charged were far higher than many escort agencies — the going rate is typically $250 to $500 an hour — but such exclusivity remains a key selling point in the industry, said Ronald Weitzer, a professor of sociology at George Washington University.

Emperors Club was brought down when banks noticed frequent cash transfers from several accounts and filed suspicious-activity reports with the Internal Revenue Service, a law-enforcement official said.

The accounts were traced back to Spitzer, and public-corruption investigators opened an inquiry.

It's a long way from leaving cash on the dresser.

Cellphones are handy, too. According to court documents, some details of the alleged appointment Spitzer had with a prostitute were arranged via text message. She was even instructed by her home office to send a text message when he arrived so the office could start the clock ticking on his allotted time, according to court papers.

Devices such as the Webcam also have created new opportunities, Almodovar said.

For instance, if a customer is traveling and wants to talk with a prostitute, "he can just go on the Internet and she can be in her home, and he can be in Europe, and they can have long-distance sexual dalliances," Almodovar said.

But even with so much electronic evidence, authorities permit a lot of prostitution to happen without repercussion.

"On the one hand, they're advertised, openly. So you know it exists, and you're letting it go. But then they're not taxed, or prosecuted, unless it becomes a quality-of-life issue or [involves] a public figure they happen to run across. Think of all that cash," said Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Rich DeSipio, who is assigned to the sex-crimes unit.

And sex workers also can use high-tech measures to avoid getting caught.

High-end call girls might use bug- and camera-detection equipment to look for surveillance devices, said Jimmie Mesis, editor in chief of Professional Investigator Magazine.

But for every client who is revealed, no one knows how much prostitution remains hidden.

"The surprise should not be that [Spitzer] was a client, but that he got exposed," Almodovar said. "Despite the technology we have, 99 percent of them will never get discovered.

"If we didn't have so many clients, we wouldn't be prostitutes."

Newhouse News Service contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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