Tag Archives: Craigslist

“The Craigslist Killer” Moniker: “Journalistic” Jingoism and the Growing P.R. Problem at Craigslist


It turns on  alliteration sharper than a sword, besides plumbing the association of murder most foul  with the can-do-goodism of a people’s advertising daily named Craigslist – the internet upstart that  has, since 1995,   upended  the advertising model of the  old media; the same media that is now  blithely tarring the internet upstart  with the “killer” moniker.

What gives? The logic behind the knee-jerk association rarely stands up to scrutiny …. or  reason. Take the then most recent case in this  saga: The tragic killing of Garret Berki,  an 18 year old college student, following  a meeting in San Diego  at which the student was hoping to buy a MacBook Pro he had seen in the  Craigslist classifieds. The meet-up turned into a robbery which ended tragically  when the student who had been robbed of $600 and a couple of cell-phones,  cornered the  perpetrators in a residential cul-de-sac. One of them shot Garrett who died about an hour later from a wound to the chest. A  sad, tragic story if ever there was one, but the representation of it across printed and electronic media raises  questions about how old media operatives, who should know better,  have been labeling this story. Coincidence or collusion? You be the judge.

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Philip Markoff, Julissa Brisman and Craig Newmark’s Annus Horribilis


Craig Newmark is a nice guy who likes doing nice things for people he likes to call  “the community”. The only problem is that in 2009,  that community is no longer as small and as homogenous as the one Craig engendered in 1995;  the year he launched Craigslist as an e-mail list for friends and acquaintances in San Francisco.  On top of all the growing pains, the horrific killing of Julissa Brisman has taught Craig that it is harder to play the nice guy role when people are  screaming  “bloody murder” (figuratively of course) over intimations of freedom of expression, and Craigslist’s once touted virtues of  “community policing.

(Community policing is Craigslist’s system of screening out objectionable content after the fact through what is called flagging. A post that receives a certain number of flags from users is automatically removed from the website. In the case of the once-embattled Erotic Services section, Craigslist used to rely on so-called  community policing until several state lawmen threatened to sue the pants off of Craig in the wake several crimes that could be linked to his website.)

Julissa Brisman: The end of accomodation. Before her killing, anti-Erotic Services lobbies were chomping at the bit.

Julissa Brisman & the end of accomodation: Before her killing in a Boston Marriott on April 14, 2009,  anti-Erotic Services lobbies were chomping at the bit to get at Craigslist’s collective behind.

In the wake of all Craigslist’s troubles one could argue, and argue convincingly, that the legal saber-rattling by state attorneys general, comes a distant second to the prospect of losing the nice guy/philanthropic mantle Craigslist has earned over its 14 years of existence. There is a method to figuring this out, and it doesn’t fall far from the values of community,  service and doing things in innovative new ways that have been described as bohemian, if not downright “communist.” Consider this if you are an inveterate skeptic: The money Craigslist stands to lose defending nonsensical lawsuits  pales in comparison to the money it has left on the table by not charging for its classifieds in hot metro markets like San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles. Now about that “communist” moniker: If it is not a back-handed compliment to the man the world knows as Craig, then we don’t know what is.  But someone needs to tell those fire-breathing Attorneys General.

Under the fumes-fomenting spotlight of the media their  diatribes were nothing but blistering.  The Connecticut Attorney General, George Blumenthal,  accused Craigslist of promoting “pimping and prostitution in plain sight” and lambasted it as a “blatant internet brothel.”  South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster had threatened Craigslist with criminal investigation if the company’s executives had not removed the Erotic Services section by May 15 of 2009. And  Cook County Sheriff, Tom Dart, had described Craigslist as the “largest source of prostitution in America” and filed a lawsuit.

Throughout all of this, the political posturing and hypocrisy by South Carolina Attorney General, Henry McMaster, did not go un-noticed.  The selective prosecution of Craigslist when there are other publications that are  publishing way more graphic sexual content, has raised more than the ire of Craigslist. McMaster is treading on thin ice atop a sewer lake without a harness.

Philip Markoff  the de facto end of Craigslist's presumed innocence. The death of Julissa Brisman was unlike the others. Craigslist could not weather the perfect storm it created.

Philip Markoff  and the de facto end of Craigslist’s presumed innocence. The death of Julissa Brisman was unlike the others. Craigslist could not weather the “Andrea Gail”-like  storm it created. The issues run deeper and wider than rhetoric, but that is not the stuff of tabloidry …. or Public relations.

The Julissa Brisman Killing: The Julissa Brisman killing was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of creating a public relations atmosphere in which Craigslist felt extremely vulnerable, inspite  of being protected by Federal Law CDA Section 230 which holds it not liable for content posted by users.  But the Julissa Brisman killing was different. The seven Attorneys General couldn’t have asked for a better test case, not to mention public relations milieu that would synergize with with their campaign while putting Craig and company on the defensive.  In the wake of the killing, the lawmen did what any good politician would do: They ratcheted up the attack on Craigslist’s  Erotic Services and threatened all kinds of lawsuits in addition to the few that they had filed already.

Craig’s first instincts were to stand his ground, but when arguments about the effectiveness of community policing of the Erotic Services became untenable, he blinked …  Well,  in a manner of speaking. Craigslist C.E.O. Jim Buckmaster experienced a similar change of mind, if not heart.  The Craigslist Erotic Services was (as a result) deactivated starting on May 13, 2009 (05/13/09) with ads that were already posted being allowed to stay up for 7 days before being deleted.  The section has been replaced by the newly constituted “Adult Services” – a less gauche spread along the lines of the adult classifieds in the Yellow Pages or city metro weeklies you see in any major city. The genius of this compromise can turn out to be in its potential for allowing opposing parties to simultaneously claim victory. However CNN quotes Connecticut Attorney General, George Blumenthal as saying that they will be watching Craigslist like a hawk “to make sure prostitution and pornography do not migrate and move elsewhere.”

“We will be monitoring closely to make sure that this measure is more than a name change from ‘erotic’ to ‘adult’ and that the manual blocking is tough and effective to scrub prostitution and pornography,” he said.

“Our continuing investigation will assure that these steps are substance, not just spin, and that Craigslist really shuts down its open online red-light district.”

What this whole drama has proved is that inspite of  legal or legalistic justifications, Craigslist is still vulnerable to being found guilty in the court of public opinion. Playing Mr. Nice Guy comes at a big price.

In The Beginning Craig Newmark Created ….. Things were much simpler when Craig started his little website  in 1995. The community then was a rag-tag collectivity of San Francisco friends, acquaintances and fellow geeks  that he cobbled into a social network through a humble e-mail list.  The list  advertised local events,  shindigs and various forms of entertainment for overworked and under-entertained techies who needed a social lifeline. That was long before the e-mail  list morphed into a burgeoning website plugging anything from computers to companionship.  And that  was about a decade and half before a med student named Philip Markoff would instantly be dubbed the Craigslist Killer,  for allegedly killing an escort he found through the  Boston metro Craigslist. The name stuck like crazy glue while a coterie of lawmen from Massachusetts to South Carolina started circling the San Francisco upstart like famished sharks.

Craigslist’s response to the crisis was as slow and shoddy as George Bush’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina. Someone at H.Q. should have sounded the ship alarm concerning the potential seriousness of socio-legal-cum-P.R. backlash in the wake of the Boston killing.  Fairly or unfairly, the fall-out from the Julissa Brisman death is gonna follow the San Francisco company’s  for a long, long time.

This is a strange dock for the reticent San Franciscan who would rather be battling spammers, seeding community enterprises or traversing the internets as  Craigslist’s ambassador at large.  Jim Buckmaster, may be C.E.O. and  indispensable spokesperson in the current crisis, but Craig Newmark remains the heart and pulse of the organization. He may not be as savvy and smooth at dealing with the media at this juncture, but he is adapting and hewing to his best instincts, which is part of what made Craigslist what it is today.

Vignettes in progress:

A tale of two killings: The Julissa Brisman was not the first time someone had been killed through a connection made on Craigslist. (Google Katherine Ann Olson for a comparative case that raises interesting questions about how the current case is being treated. ) The reading of what went into those transactions and placing of ultimate culpability is what has created the perfect firestorm engulfing Craigslist right now. Be that as it may, tales of Craigslist’s demise are just way too exaggerated. The insidious threat to Craigslist’s heart, mind and soul may lie more with spam and the possible up-ending its free ads platform than in the morality-inflected debate pulsing the realm right now.

Is this the posture & mask of a killer? Philip Markoff in Boston Municipal Court, on April 21, 2009. Shades of Jeffrey Dahmer? Time will tell ....

Is this the posture & mask of a killer? Philip Markoff in Boston Municipal Court, on April 21, 2009. Shades of Jeffrey Dahmer? Time will tell ….

The Phillip Markoff Story (A possibly chilling vignette straight out of a Coen brothers flick): The break in the Julissa Brisman case came hours after police released new security camera photos showing a clean-cut, 6-foot-tall man casually fingering his Blackberry as he non-chalantly walked to and from around the scene of three crime scenes.  Was this sheer coincidence or evidence of murderer in action? Was the casual mien the tell-tale sign of a cold-blooded killer?

The exterior presentation reminded people of another cold-blooded killer from a different generation; Ted Bundy, the serial killer who charmed his way into the confidence of many a young woman. The possibility that Philip Markoff could have been another Ted Bundy in the making is extremely unsettling. Killers who look clean-cut and normal are more unsettling than three-headed monsters.

Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? Markoff as preppy med student suits up. The possibility that he was Mr, Hyde in the making is scarier than the stuff of Friday the 13th.

Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? Markoff as preppy med student suits up. The possibility that he was Mr, Hyde in the making is scarier than the stuff of Friday the 13th.

The portrait of Philip Markoff  coming into slow focus is a Rorschach of sorts. What you get depends on who you talk to:

His then fiance, Megan McAllister, first described him as  “beautiful in and out.” The rosy portrayal may have been willful …. as in willful act of a woman in probable denial. She has since backed off her support in tortured press releases through her attorney. The bottom line is that she ended up shelving plans of marrying the young med student.

Some of the few friends Markoff had have described him as smart but geeky and awkward at times. They say he had  a goofy smile and was often the butt of collegial jokes. A female pre-med associate, who fought off  his aggressive sexual advances one drunken evening, describes him as ” very intelligent but definitely lacking in some social skills.” (Was Philip Markoff Leading a Double Life? 48 Hours Mystery)

The 48 Hours special, “Seven Days of Rage: The Craigslist Killer” fleshes out this story further.

Craigslist: A Victim of its own success spiked with  schadenfreude?

The sense that Craigslist is perhaps being singled out for “sober behandlung” is not imaginary (Backpage.com adult entertainment for years mined the same raunchy terrain that CL did.) But that choice may have been  influenced more by Craigslist’s popularity and efficacy than anything else.  In other words Craigslist has probably become a victim of its own success in terms of its high profile and penetration of major metro markets and upending of  the older and more costly media models. Read that newspapers, magazines and weeklies.  The ill-will that Craigslist has created is no doubt creating waves of  schadenfreude, not only within the old media, but sleazy Craigslist wannabes that are chomping at the bit to monetize the figurative crumps that fall from the table of this highly lucrative market.

Be that as it may, the practical indictment of the Craigslist flagging regime in Erotic Services hints at some of the shortcomings users have been carping about in other sections of Craigslist. Will this lead to the throwing out of baby with the bathwater as  more moderated/paid postings take out the freedom and instantaneity of posting that made Craigslist such a hit with users?

Stay tuned. 

copyright© 2009 cyberaxis.wordpress.com

Appendices:

“Craigslist Killer Phillip Markoff Commits Suicide” (ABC News)

Craigslist Killer Gets Arrested – 2 CBS News Interviews    (CBS, Youtube)

Craigslist strikes adult services under pressure (Christopher Leonard, Associated Press)

Craigslist computer and electronic classifies in new york and san francisco under bot spam attacks (Cyberaxis)

Scapegoating Craigslist is not going to solve the problem of underage prostitution (Don Hazen, AlterNet.Org)

Craigslist computer and electronic classifieds in New York and San Francisco under spam-and-scam attacks!


In the face of unrelenting  spam-and-scam attacks of the computer/electronic classifieds in super metro areas like  New York and  San Francisco, what does Craigslist have up its sleeve to combat these virulent onslaughts?

We here at  Cyberaxis first broached this story after we noticed an unrelenting campaign of spam flooding the New York and San Francisco classifieds from China.  The spammers were posting with impunity bordering on contempt. (We first noticed this around February of 2009, but  it is highly probable that they started much earlier. Craigslist has not responded to our queries.)  The spammers’ prodigious output was swamping the computers and electronics classifieds and affecting Craigslist users’ ability to find local items for sale. If nothing happens in the next couple of months the San Francisco computers and electronics classifieds section might just go down like the New York one – the micro-equivalent of the parasite killing the host. (See the “Update” appendix at the end of this post.)

The big question: Now if spam-and-scam artists can hit Craigslist at will like this, what is there to stop Craigslist haters  (or their operatives) from hitting it across the board with nonsense postings just to undermine its free ads platform as a means of promoting their own schemes? Think of the Craigslist user in San Francisco, Los  Angeles, New York, Chicago and Atlanta. Where do they go right now if they want to browse or post in the computers and or electronics section? Get the point?

Updated list of  other U.S.  Craigslist Sites that are increasingly being hit: (As of 05/12/09)

San Francisco Computers and Electronics Classifieds

New York Computers and Electronics Classifieds

Los Angeles Computers and Electronics Classifieds

Chicago Computers and Electronics Classifieds

Atlanta Computers and Electronics Classifieds

Boston Computers and Electronics Classifieds

Major Warning to Craigslist Users: Now it turns out that this spam is most probably linked to an unsophisticated but effective wire scam, if a post out of the Miami Dade  ads computers & tech section is anything to go by.

Please see a copy of the post and vital anti-scam  information here:

cyberaxis.wordpress.com/2009/05/03/spam-and-scam-artists-attacking-craigslist-computerelectronic-classifieds-for-chinese-websites/

Do people who send money to unknown businesses when the conspicuous warning on Craigslist is clearly against that deserve to be scammed? The answer is yes with a qualified no. With very minimal exceptions, people should not be sending their hard earned money to strangers even on a websites  as well known as eBay.

The Chinese spammers on Craigslist  have been using location blurbs like “Come on baby ….. Shengcunyishangshenghuoyixia” or “Beijing, Beijing” (a sardonic play on New York, N.Y.) in an apparent attempt  to  taunt  Craigslist flaggers and moderators.  Spam is nothing new to Craigslist, but this recent onslaught seems to be unrelenting in a way that raises a lot of questions.

Could these barrages be  probes by tech emboldened bandits to test the integrity of Craigslist’s anti-spam  system? Could they be trying to see how the automated  and human assisted controls (flagging and moderation) can withstand unrelenting attacks. Could Los Angeles, Dallas, and Washington D.C.  be next? The current attacks seem to go beyond simple attempts to con people  out of their money. The brazenness seems to speak to a certain desire to prove something to Craigslist.

Craigslist Honchos: Craig Newmark and Jim Buckmaster outside their humble headquarters - What effective strategy do they have to deal with virulent spam?

Partners in "crime" of free advertising for the people: Craigslist legend, Craig Newmark (left) and C.E.O. honcho Jim Buckmaster outside their humble San Francisco headquarters. Newmark's paradigm shattering ads coupled with user generated content hobbled newspaper advertising from coast to coast.

The Craigslist’s flagging system often seems overwhelmed and while the IT department has quite a few tools in its toolbox, like lowering the flagging threshold,  it doesn’t seem to be commensurately effective against the spam in question.  The ace up the attackers’ sleeve  seems  to be the  newer software  designed to game or bypass Craigslist controls. Craigslist’s ultimate threat of blocking IP addresses of spammers and or hackers doesn’t seem to even come close to fazing these guys.

Charging for posts in computers, as some have suggested  would have the salutary effect it has had in real estate, employment and more recently the erotic section, but as a more global strategy,  it would threaten the very attribute that has distinguished Craigslist from its competitors, namely, free advertising.

The influx of spam from  off-shore operatives  also threatens the local focus of Craigslist websites which are really  independent location-based sites linked by a sub-domain. The mantra to “deal locally with folks you can meet in person” has, for the most part, served Craigslist well and minimized the scams that have wracked eBay over the years.

The law of unintended consequences: Even before the closure of the much maligned Erotic Services, there had been a glaring irony in all of this. In November of 2008, Craigslist had caved into pressure from law enforcement and associated groups by instituting a screening process which required credit card and telephone number verification, not to mention the then new $5 per post charge. The concession was meant to help police in their investigation of illegal activities like the exploitation of minors.

However the unintended effect of this that it immunized the Erotic Services section from eggregious spam while the more up-and-up electronic and computer classifieds were left to fend for themselves.   None of the  religious-cum-law-and-order types  had seen this coming.

Evolution of the Beast: The technology to defeat Craigslist’s controls have  been evolving faster than Craigslist’s  ability to deal with it.  But the problem goes beyond Craigslist, which is a bit downstream when compared with web and  e-mail giants like Yahoo, Google and MSN and Hotmail. The collapse of CAPTCHA sometime early in 2008  did not bode well even  for downstream  operations like Craigslist which relies on CAPTCHA derived controls to distinguish human posters from automated or bot posters. Be that as it may, conspiracy theorists have already started speculating about who may be behind the more recent onslaught against Craigslist, which certainly does not have a shortage of enemies, within and without, if you get my drift.

The Tech World article by Steven J. Nichols-Vaughn (Computerworld U.S. ) zeroes in on this problem:

“It’s not just free email sites that can be made to suffer, though.

John Nagle, founder of SiteTruth, a site that tries to identify bogus businesses and their websites, wrote in late May on Techdirt that while spam on the popular online classified ad service Craigslist “has been a minor nuisance for years … this year, the spammers started winning and are taking over.”

Craigslist tried “to stop spamming by checking for duplicate submissions,” Nagle explained. “They check for excessive posts from a single IP address. They require users to register with a valid email address. They added a CAPTCHA to stop automated posting tools. And users can flag postings they recognise as spam.”

According to Nagle, waxing sarcastic, “Several commercial products are now available to overcome those little obstacles to bulk posting. A tool called CL Auto Posting Tool is one such product. It not only posts to Craigslist automatically, it has built-in strategies to overcome each Craigslist anti-spam mechanism.”

It’s not the only one. There are, he added, “other desktop software products [such as] AdBomber and Ad Master. For spammers preferring a service-oriented approach, there’s ItsYourPost.” The result? “The defenses of Craigslist have been overrun. Some categories on Craigslist have become over 90 percent spam. The personals sections were the first to go, then the services categories, and more recently, the job postings.”

Of course, you don’t have to pay anything. There are now free CAPTCHA crackers available online.

Craigslist is fighting back. The organisation is now using phone verification for some ads. Crackers, in return, are working on a way to break Craigslist’s phone defences. With combat costs mounting, it’s hard to see how Craigslist, which has always been a free service, can continue to survive with its no-visible-means-of-revenue model.

It’s not, as the Craigslist situation shows, that malicious email is the only problem coming from broken CAPTCHA security. Paul Wood, senior analyst at MessageLabs, a UK-based e-mail security company, says, “MessageLabs have already begun to see examples of spammers exploiting other techniques once they have bypassed the CAPTCHA of Google and Hotmail – for example, using Google Docs to create spam content and including the link in the spam email messages, evading traditional antispam techniques that rely on identifying known spam domains in URL.”

Steven J. Nichols-Vaughn Tech World article (Computerworld U.S.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Update as of 4/25/09 (See spam-and-scam alert in main post):

The San Francisco “Computers and Tech” page seems to be  much more aggressive at beating back the waves of spam that are swamping its New York counterpart, especially at night. And the probable explanation for this has more to do with hyperactive user flagging than in-built spam controls (which are for the most part the same across all Craigslist  sites with the possible exception of flagging thresholds.)

SF Bay Area Craigslist is the local village market in the  Bay Area ever since its  its inception in 1995. Its presence is as built into the cityscape as the Golden Gate Bridge and the waterways that flow into its meandering bay. The locals are as protective of Craiglist as yokels are of the local village market.

The SF Bay Area Craigslist also happens to be the busiest  Craigslist websites on the planet. Period. “Touching” this website (figuratively speaking of course)  is like touching the edge of a fast-spinning mill wheel. This applies as much to legitimate users as to  spammers who try to swamp its classifieds.  It is interesting to marvel at this phenomenon, but Craigslist  clearly needs to come up with a more solid solution to the problem of spam. Flagger-fatigue can easily set in and leave the San Francisco website looking like New Orleans after hurricane Katrina.

copyright© 2009 cyberaxis.wordpress.com

World spam activity map. Source: Postini Inc.

World spam activity map. Source: Postini Inc.


Appendices(Related Reading):

Beware of Craigslist Scams: CBS Video

http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4858957n

Chinese Scammers Launch New Offensive by Lain Thompson

Inside Craigslist’s Increasingly Complicated Battle Against Spammers