Two San Francisco-based escort websites were shut down by the FBI and U.S. Internal Revenue Service today and their two alleged proprietors appeared in federal court on charges of facilitating prostitution and money laundering.
The sites MyRedBook.com and SFRedBook.com advertised free listings for services ranging from massage parlors, strippers and dominatrixes to escorts throughout the western U.S.
But a federal grand jury indictment unsealed today alleges that the alleged proprietors—Eric “Red” Omuro, 53, of Mountain View, and Annemarie Lanoce, 40, of Rocklin – used the sites primarily to advertise and promote prostitution in violation of state law.
Omuro and Lanoce were both arrested today and made an initial appearance on the charges before U.S. Magistrate Nathanael Cousins in San Francisco.
Both are accused of one count of using mail and the Internet to facilitate prostitution.
Omuro is additionally charged with 24 counts of laundering alleged profits of the enterprise. The indictment seeks the forfeiture of more than $5 million in money and property representing alleged profits, including accounts at four different banks, investments, a BMW, a Mini Cooper and the websites’ domain names.
A notice placed by the FBI on the homepage of MyRedBook.com today announced that the site’s domain name was seized by the FBI and IRS.
“This domain name is subject to both civil and criminal forfeiture,” the FBI wrote in its notice. “This seizure is based on probable cause to believe that this domain name was involved in money laundering derived from racketeering based on prostitution in violation of state and federal law.”
U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag said information formerly publicly posted on the site indicated it hosted advertisements for prostitutes, including explicit photos, hourly and nightly rates, acronyms to describe sex acts and customer reviews of the prostitutes’ services.
Although the site could be viewed for free, it charged fees for premier placement of ads and for a “VIP Membership” that allowed access to special services such as private forums and better search features, Haag said.
Omuro is accused of using numerous aliases to move funds from the site into his control. The FBI conducted several raids this morning connected to the case, according to FBI spokesman Peter Lee. One of the locations was the 200 block of Houghton Street in Mountain View, an address apparently associated with Omuro.
At today’s court session, Lanoce pleaded not guilty to the charges and was released by Cousins on a $250,000 unsecured bond, according to the court docket.
Omuro, who did not enter a plea, is due back in Cousins’ court at 9:30 a.m. Friday for identification of a defense attorney and entry of a plea. He was released on a $500,000 unsecured bond.
Both were ordered to appear July 10 before U.S. District Judge William Orrick, the trial judge assigned to the case, in San Francisco for a status conference.
Bay Area sex worker advocates expressed concern today that the seizure could affect sex workers’ livelihood and safety—including those doing legal work.
Oakland-based sex worker rights advocate Sabrina Morgan said that MyRedBook helped sex workers to screen and protect themselves from potentially violent clients and that its absence could put already vulnerable women in danger.
She said that in addition to providing listings, MyRedBook enabled sex workers to talk to clients before meeting them and to talk to other sex workers about potential clients for referrals.
The site contained both a public forum and a private forum just for workers.
“Clients on the site would need references,” and a good reference from another worker was an indication that a particular client was safe to see, she said.
“Taking the site offline means that type of networking and resource sharing is pushed further underground,” Morgan said.
While other websites offer similar services, there is nothing remaining like MyRedBook, Morgan said, as others charge a fee to create listings and operate on a national scale.
Kristina Dolgin, a spokeswoman with the Bay Area chapter of the Sex Worker Outreach Project, said that the loss of MyRedBook as a free resource for sex workers could put an already marginalized community further at risk.
“They’re going to have less safe interactions and be put into situations where they can be put at risk of violence,” Dolgin said. “To those who can’t afford switching to another website, this is completely detrimental.”
Some members of the Sex Worker Outreach Project are consulting with attorneys out of concern that the FBI’s targeting of MyRedBook could lead to charges filed against them.
Dolgin said the FBI might have gained IP addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and other personal details of Bay Area sex workers.
“It’s a very scary thing,” she said.
The site has previously been used as a law enforcement resource for investigators targeting pimps and human traffickers. Officers have posed as clients or offering services in order to arrange meetings and make arrests.
Scott Morris, Bay City News