High-priced prostitutes from out of town have been advertising their services on a popular Internet classifieds site, then coming into the area for a succession of hotel rendezvous, Anne Arundel County police said.
Among four arrests announced yesterday, two of the four suspected prostitutes are from California and Illinois, while the others live in Washington, D.C.. and Laurel. All were arrested in the past three weeks at hotels near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and charged with illegally soliciting sex.
The arrests followed a months-long investigation by the county's vice unit, which has been trolling the Internet in search of "full-service" female escorts - women they suspect of prostitution.
Police snared the women after reading ads posted on Craigslist that offered services for $140 to $300.
Prostitutes arrange several weeks' worth of appointments in advance, then fly into a city to meet with clients, police said in a statement yesterday. They then travel to their next destination.
Experts said the online classifieds site Craigslist has become a favorite way for prostitutes to find clients and set up operations in cities where they don't have a network.
"The Internet facilitates the mobility and the outreach to clients, and there are a number of Web sites, including Craigslist, that these workers use to announce their presence in a particular city during a particular day," said Ronald Weitzer, a sociology professor at George Washington University. "It's becoming a favored strategy."
Weitzer said that the popularity of the Internet has likely led to a growth in high-priced sex workers, who charge up to $1,000 for services, and their affluent clientele has also grown.
In a high-profile local case, Brandy Britton, 42, of Ellicott City is accused of advertising escort services on a personal Web site and charging up to $300 an hour for sex out of her $500,000 home. Her trial is scheduled to begin today in Howard County District Court.
But a spokeswoman for Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said Internet prostitution in the county is unusual.
"Normally, in the cases we handle, the women are local and have a drug-abuse problem," said Kristin Riggin, the spokeswoman. "And typically they are prostitutes who give service either in exchange for drugs or for money to buy drugs."
Anne Arundel County police said they have been investigating high-end Internet prostitution cases for the past five years. "We surf the Internet for new postings," Steven Torbeck, a detective in the vice unit, wrote in an e-mail. "Usually it is a small operation. One female doing freelance."
One of the women arrested in Anne Arundel, Ashley Smith, 20, of Washington, said she works independently and doesn't have a pimp. An undercover officer arrested her at the Holiday Inn in Linthicum on July 19.
"I don't really want to do calls in the house," she said in an interview. "I want to go somewhere where people have money. I usually try to go to an airport." Lately, Smith said, she has been working in Virginia and Maryland.
Smith, who also goes by the names Ashley Price, Jessica Price and Sarah, advertises exclusively on Craigslist because it is free. It is also effective. Smith said she gets as many as 30 calls a day from a single ad. She said she has been in the sex trade for two years and earns between $10,000 and $30,000 a month.
Like the police, she also surfs Craigslist - but she does it to determine her fees. "Some women charge really high, other charge low. I try to charge in between," she said.
Smith received $300 from an undercover officer for a "full-service" experience, which is code for sex, according to charging documents.
Another of the arrested woman, Emily Earlene Fritz, 18, of Costa Mesa, Calif., was arrested Aug. 1 at the Hilton Garden Inn near BWI, according to the documents. She charged $150, according to the documents.
Kelly Nicole West, 20, of the 200 block of Brock Bridge Road in Laurel was arrested at a Motel 6 in that community after an undercover officer gave her $140 for "full service," according to the charging documents.
The fourth woman, 26-year-old Carlena Monite Perry of Schaumburg, Ill., was arrested July 19. There are no court records on file in her case.
Melissa Farley, a research psychologist at the Prostitution Research and Education Center in San Francisco, said that a year ago, Craigslist was running 25,000 ads for erotic services every 10 days.
"I think we should be talking to Craig about what he's doing, advertising prostitution under the umbrella of free speech," she said.
Sun reporter Nia Henderson contributed to this article.