Two people suspected of running Bay Area-based escort site MyRedbook were arrested yesterday in a Mountain View FBI raid, the latest in a series of federal law enforcement investigations into locally operated online marketplaces.
During the raid, the FBI seized and shut down two domains, myredbook.com and sfredbook.com. A third domain, mypinkbook.com, was not listed in the indictment against alleged MyRedbook operators Eric Omuro, 53, and Annmarie Lanoce, 40, but appears to be offline as well.
MyRedbook allowed escorts and masseuses in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area, Sacramento, Central California, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Reno, Seattle, and Portland to post advertisements for their services. According to the Internet Archive, sfredbook.com was converted to MyRedbook in 2002, and the site has been operational ever since. The site was free to use, although users could pay fees for premier placements of their ads. In the aftermath of the raid, sex workers who used the site to advertise their services are fearful the shutdown of MyRedbook will compromise their safety.
In a statement posted Wednesday evening on the website of the Bay Area chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, spokeswoman Patricia West wrote, “Many Bay Area sex workers have been able to improve their working conditions by using MyRedbook, as the site provided a private, discreet venue for negotiations that otherwise often happen in a public venues [sic] or on the street.”
The statement also appears to reference the shutdown of MyPinkbook, a message board used by women in the adult entertainment industry to share references and resources.
"Today we also lost extensive online forums for a community of sex workers to keep each other safe, screen clients, and blacklist predators," the statement read. SWOP Bay Area will host a meeting Thursday night from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. for sex workers affected by the shutdown.
Several sex workers who spoke to The S.F. Examiner on condition of anonymity said the FBI's removal of MyRedbook left them fearful of a law enforcement crackdown and, in some cases, unable to find work. While some women told The S.F. Examiner they used multiple websites to advertise their services, others solely used MyRedbook to find clients and earn their income.
"Rent is due in five days," said one woman who goes by the name Jolene Parton. "I'm really worried that there's going to be street sweeps in the coming weeks because so many workers have been forced off the Internet."
The loss of MyPinkbook was especially troubling to Parton. "I've found a lot of resources on Pinkbook," she said, noting that users kept records of bad dates on MyPinkbook. "It was a really great resource that is now gone."
Omuro and Lanoce appeared in federal court in San Francisco Wednesday afternoon. Both were charged with one count of interstate travel in the aid of a racketeering enterprise. Lanoce pleaded not guilty and was released on a $250,00 unsecured bond. Omuro, who faced an additional twenty-four counts of money laundering, did not enter a plea and was released on a $500,000 uninsured bond. He is scheduled to appear in court Friday to enter a plea.
Omuro and Lanoce are both expected back in court on July 10 for a status conference.
The raid that swept up Omuro and Lanoce followed two other recent FBI investigations, that of alleged Silk Road operator Ross Ulbricht and alleged bomb-maker Ryan Chamberlain, that focused on the online sale of illicit goods and services. Ulbricht is accused of operating a dark net drug and weapon marketplace; Chamberlain allegedly attempted to purchase ricin on a similar site. MyRedbook, however, was marketed as a forum for escorts and massage parlors to advertise legal services and operated in plain sight of the agents that would eventually shut it down.
“According to information available on the publicly accessible website as of the date of its seizure by the FBI,” U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag’s office wrote in a statement, “The website hosted advertisements for prostitutes, complete with explicit photos, lewd physical descriptions, menus of sexual services, hourly and nightly rates, and customer reviews of the prostitutes’ services. The website used acronyms for numerous sex acts, which were defined in graphic detail in the website’s ‘Terms and Acronyms’ section.”
Rather than use Tor or other anonymizing techniques used by Ulbricht and Chamberlain, Omuro and Lanoce are accused of using a series of aliases to protect their identities. Omuro went by the names Steve Bucher, Craig Armstrong, Ed Cook, and Red; Lanoce went my Madison Monroe and Maddie, according to the federal indictment released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Maxine Doogan, a founder and organizer of the Erotic Service Providers Union, says she met Omuro at an event but did not know his real name.
“We knew it was going to go down,” she said of MyRedbook. “We had been talking about it going down since it opened.” But even though she anticipated the demise of the website, the ESPU opposes its removal, Doogan says. “We believe in a free society, in freedom of speech,” Doogan said. “We believe that [advertising] is protected, constitutional free speech.”
Additionally, Doogan expressed concern that, rather than helping sex workers escape from trafficking, the site’s removal would put them in harm’s way. She said some workers in the union were in “deep distress” because they relied solely on MyRedbook for their income and had lost a network of references that they used to keep themselves safe.
In the shutdown of MyRedbook, local law enforcement is also losing a resource — the net with which it fished for pimps. In 2011, South San Francisco police used the site to arrest several suspected pimps. "I'd rather not get into how we use it, at this point," Chief Michael Massoni said. However, he did not see the shutdown as a large setback for law enforcement. "It's one resource out there, not the only one," he said. "We'll just have to be a little more creative."
Sgt. Danielle Newman of the San Francisco Police Department said SFPD had also used MyRedbook to conduct sting operations on pimps during an enforcement operation coordinated by the FBI called Operation Cross Country. In a press release regarding the MyRedbook shutdown, the U.S. Attorney's Office said the Oakland Police Department was involved in the investigation into MyRedbook (OPD did not return a request for comment).
"It may alter how we conduct our investigations in the near future, but we will adapt and change as the circumstances change," Sgt. Newman said of the MyRedbook shutdown. "We support any enforcement actions taken against websites that promote human trafficking and illegal activity."
Al Serrato, a deputy district attorney for San Mateo, said that a new website like MyRedbook would likely become popular in the wake of the shutdown.
"Obviously, something will come up in its place," Serrato said. "There are a number of websites out there that we find advertising occuring and it's always coded. It normally appears to be an escort service, but is being used to set up dates, often with exploited or trafficked victims."
Even though Redbook's disappearance may temporarily effect local law enforcement, Serrato said, "I think it's a positive development that law enforcement dealt with that website because it was being used, in our experience, for that kind of activity."