By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Apr 02, 2009 at 2:20 PM Photography: Andy Tarnoff

The cliché has been played out in the movies and on television thousands of times: a man pulls up to a suggestively-dressed woman; she leans in the window and asks what he's looking for; a price is negotiated and she hops inside ... everybody knows how the story ends.

It's the familiar song-and-dance of the stereotypical call-girl. And while many in Milwaukee have heard stories about notorious pick-up zones, the truth of the matter is the world's oldest profession, like everything else, has gone high-tech.

Consider it another example of the internet changing the way people do business.

Sites like Craigslist, Heaven or Hell and The Escort Review take the guesswork out of finding a companion for the evening -- or even a few hours. On Craigslist alone, dozens of advertisements are posted for courtesans under "Erotic Services" every day.

The police department's vice squads, as documented in 2006 by's Andy Tarnoff and Drew Olson, are still busy setting up sting operations in certain areas of the city. But just as officers work the streets to smack down solicitation, they're also doing the same job without even needing to leave their desks.

The Milwaukee Police Department has been working to combat the online offerings provided by various Web sites with a number of enforcement programs. A detective with the MPD vice squad, who asked to remain anonymous, says the department has made hundreds of arrests over the last five years.

But the police aren't just looking for the prostitutes.

"Nobody is left behind here," the detective says. "We go after the Johns just as much as we go after the prostitutes."

The department enlists undercover officers to make calls to various providers. Once a price is established over the phone, the officers arrive at a designated meeting place and place the suspect under arrest when money is exchanged.

At the same time, the police will often post an ad online and wait for a call ... the wait usually isn't long. If the caller offers money in exchange for a sex act, a meeting is made and arrest is made.

The women posting ads are much different than the stereotypical street-walkers. While those women are more often than not addicted to cocaine or heroin, and turning tricks just to get their next hit, the women posting online are, according to the detective, a little more sophisticated.

"There's kind of a hierarchy to the industry," he says. "The street prostitutes, quite frankly, are hopelessly addicted to controlled substances. They're walking around on the street, engaging in sexual acts in somebody's car in exchange for $20 or $30 just to get money to buy more cocaine.

"Those aren't the girls advertising on the Internet. The majority of those girls are operating as a sort of business enterprise or are doing it to supplement their income. There is a higher level of sophistication with these girls, running it as a business."

The detective is quick to point out that Craigslist, a popular site for selling just about anything, isn't the only guilty party in this high-tech operation. But because of its simplistic format, and the ability -- previously -- to post ads for free, the site is often a prime target.

"Craigslist has been a popular choice with prostitutes because of charges on other sites," the detective says. "But we conduct investigations on a number of Web sites, not just Craigslist."

In response to concerns from lawmakers, police officers and citizens, Craigslist instituted new policies last year that required erotic services posters to pay a fee and be validated with a credit card and phone number.

In addition, the company filed a lawsuit against 14 companies and posters believed to be using the bulletin board to exploit children, offer sex for money and for human trafficking.

According to the company, revenue generated by the posting fees is donated to charity. Also, the telephone data provided by posters is made available to law enforcement agencies to assist in criminal investigations.

Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster contends the amount of illegal activity taking place via the popular Web site is much smaller than is alleged, but nonetheless feels it was prudent to step up the company's measures.

Prostitution is often called a "victimless crime," but the detective disagrees. He points to the number of crimes that can stem from prostitution; including robbery, battery, drug crimes and sometimes, murder.

"What goes along with prostitution is sex crimes, robberies and health risks," he says. "It's not a victimless crime. It's not something we think is victimless. If you look at a street prostitute, she's not out there because she's a nymphomaniac. She's out there because she's hopelessly addicted to heroin or cocaine.

"Historically, serial killers have preyed upon prostitutes. They get into cars with strange men and drive away. They become victims of rape. They get taken advantage of by pimps that are out there. They're going out, engaging in prostitution and the pimps take the money from them. There are a lot of instances of exploitation out there. The women are victims."