A search of the word “Woburn” last Tuesday on a website popular for its adult-services listings yielded four postings by women advertising sex for a fee.
Four postings are unusual for a Tuesday afternoon, said Woburn Police Chief Robert J. Ferullo Jr. Usually, it’s a lot more. And not just in Woburn, Ferullo said.
“Naughty Sara,” for example, said she caters to traveling businessmen looking to stave off boredom in Woburn, as well as 30 other communities from Newton to Andover and parts of Boston.
As prostitution increasingly transitioned from dark alleys and street corners in cities to the online world over the past dozen or so years, suburbs themselves have become hubs of the sex trade industry in hotels, residences, and businesses, such as massage parlors, serving as fronts for prostitution activity, according to observers and law enforcement officials.
While sex-for-pay may have increased in the suburbs, it is also likely that the uptick reflects tougher enforcement and better tracking tools leading to more recorded cases. In the nearly three years since the state adopted a comprehensive human-trafficking law, Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office has charged 15 individuals in connection with sex trafficking. Every one of those cases is directly tied to suburbs outside of Boston, including Braintree, Chelsea, Plymouth, Revere, Tewksbury, and Wellesley.
On Feb. 21, a Chelsea man and a couple from East Boston were found guilty by a Suffolk Superior Court jury of running a “sophisticated human trafficking operation” out of both cities, as well as transporting numerous women to various locations to engage in sexual acts with their customers, sometimes as many as 15 times a day. It was the first case out of Coakley’s office tried under the state’s sex-trafficking law.
The same online sites used to order a smorgasbord of sexual activity anywhere and everywhere are also being monitored by law enforcement agencies throughout the suburbs, as local police step up efforts to combat prostitution and human trafficking. While enforcement once focused on the prostitutes walking the streets, it has now expanded to include the johns, Ferullo said.
“About every other week, two or three times a month, we’ll conduct [sting] operations,” he said. “We’ll either use an undercover female officer in a hotel and advertise in that direction, or we’ll actually just go to an Internet-driven service that provides us with the advertisements.”
Most online escort ads include sexually suggestive or explicit photographs, mainly of women in local hotels, which often help police identify a prostitute’s location by the pattern of a bedspread or curtains, said Braintree Police Chief Russell W. Jenkins. Part of his department’s enforcement efforts now include a close relationship with the managers of the six hotels in town, who eagerly contact police if they suspect prostitution activity.
One of the latest hotel calls didn’t come from a manager, but from an apparent sex-trafficking victim from Lynn, Jenkins said.
“We had a case where we got a call from a girl being held against her will at a hotel in town,” he said. “She was sick, so she wasn’t working for her pimp, but he threatened her with a knife, took all the possessions and clothes.”
Her pimp was eventually found in another part of town and arrested, Jenkins said.
Pimps will often prey on women and girls with histories of drug problems, sexual and emotional abuse, or who have run away from home, ensnaring them with tactics including kidnapping, coercion, and most frequently seduction, said Lisa Goldblatt-Grace, director and co-founder of My Life My Choice, a program of the Needham-based Justice Resource Institute aimed at preventing the sexual exploitation of girls.
‘Prostitution has moved indoors. It’s less street outreach and more about girls not being visible.’Lisa Goldblatt-Grace, Director and co-founder of the Needham-based program My Life My Choice
“Girls feel a sense of loyalty and agree to [sex-for-pay] when he says, ‘I’m short on rent,’ or ‘I can’t pay the car,’ ” Goldblatt-Grace said. “Girls are being sold in hotels in all communities, suburban and urban. . . . Prostitution has moved indoors. It’s less street outreach and more about girls not being visible. You can drive around downtown on a Saturday night and say, ‘We’ve cleaned up the city,’ and the truth is the girls are all over the hotels.”
Beyond fostering relationships with hotel managers, police in Brookline, where prostitution spillover from Boston has been a long-recurring issue, have made connections with several residential building managers who lend police vacant apartments to perform stings, said Detective Sergeant Thomas Ward.
Since November, the department has been posting ads on popular escort sites targeting a wide range of sexual interests, including men seeking to trade drugs for sex, and men seeking to have sex with minors.
“We’re attacking the demand,” Ward said.
In that time, Brookline’s vice unit has netted johns on 56 charges including enticing a child under 16; distributing obscene material to a minor; trafficking cocaine; and drug possession with intent to distribute. The unit also has made 19 outstanding-warrant arrests and issued multiple traffic citations.
Even though some in the online sex forums have warned others about the Brookline stings, many simply can’t help themselves.
A Quincy man arrested last month after answering a fake ad from Brookline police, “had read about the stings, but he was so determined to meet, that he did it. ‘I was lonely, I just wanted this to happen,’ is what he told us when we arrested him,” Ward said.
The man had a criminal record in several states, including Massachusetts, where he’d been arrested for aggravated rape.
In Boston, the breakdown of johns is 50/50 between Boston and suburban residents, said Jake Wark, spokesman for the office of Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. Two online sex stings early last month netted Boston police detectives seven local johns and 11 from the suburbs, including Braintree, Brookline, Chelmsford, Lexington, Middleton, Newton, Plymouth, Stoughton, and Stow.
Goldblatt-Grace said the flip side of technology being used to sell sex is that it has also raised the level of awareness that prostitution and human trafficking are a widespread problem. The organization has seen an increase of referrals from law enforcement agencies for 13- and 14-year-old girls, instead of around 17 as in years past, which means they’re being rescued soon after entering the industry.
“What’s great about that is not that it’s happening to younger girls, but that it’s earlier notification,” she said. “Things have changed. [Police enforcement] has gotten a lot better, but we still got a long way to go.”Katheleen Conti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.