Dubai: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are fast becoming hotspots for escort agencies and call girls to ply their illegal trade in the UAE, an XPRESS investigation has revealed.
Following a crackdown on their websites, a large number of escort services have now flocked to these popular sites to market themselves and hook up with potential clients in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman and Sharjah.
Some have even set up their own Facebook homepages and groups with local cellphone numbers of their representatives displayed prominently alongside titillating images.
It's not a hoax. And it takes no more than a phone call on the various etisalat and du numbers listed on the social networking and video sharing websites to prove it.
"You want a girl, eh? I have Asian girls… You can come anytime... we are in Dubai Marina… the rates are Dh1,000 for one hour and Dh 3,000 for full night…" Lisa, a woman claiming to represent Dubai Escort Service said, her voice betraying a heavy East Asian accent.
Another call - this time to a Dubai-based Indian escort agency also on Facebook and "specialising in air hostesses and models" - elicited a similar response from a woman who introduced herself as Rashi. "We have in-call and out-call girls. You have both options, for in-call, you have to pay Dh2,000. For outcall the charges are Dh 3,000. They are available any time. Come to Ghusais and give me a call. We have many girls… you can take your pick," she said.
The recordings of both these exchanges are on tape with XPRESS as are conversations with many high-end courtesans and agents, not affiliated to any escort group, but blatantly using Twitter, Facebook or YouTube to operate in the country.
A call to a number picked from a FB post about the ‘availability' of a ‘catwalk model' had us talking to an agent called David. "Where are you putting up, Sir? Yes.. the model is here.. we can have her sent to you this evening, or even now, if you want. She's game for everything," David said.
The real game changer in the murky world of escort services, though, is YouTube. And in ways you would have never imagined. To maximise visibility, escort agencies have uploaded videos and slides of their girls, interspersed with steamy Hollywood and Bollywood clips. While scenes and themes change, the only thing that remains constant on the screen is the local contact number. Posing as a client, we dialled an etisalat number mentioned on a YouTube upload on girls from the subcontinent. It was promptly answered by a woman who identified herself as Katrina. She went about the business right away. "Where do your want the girl, in your apartment, or in a hotel? SMS me your e-mail address... I will send you the pictures of all our escort girls. You can choose and decide."
For internet regulators, the ease with which ‘pleasure providers' are able to connect with ‘clients' is worrying, considering their efforts to keep cyberspace clean.
For years now, the UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) is the government-appointed body responsible for ensuring that internet subject matter and imagery involving sex, racism, hate crimes and terrorism are not disseminated in the country. It faced some tough challenges but it always rose to them - coming down heavily on websites advertising escort services and those offering personal dating services.
But for once the TRA appears to have been stumped. A casual search on Facebook and Twitter kicks up scores of escort agencies and adult entertainment groups in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Not one to be left behind, prostitutes working independently, too, have skipped the streets and joined social networking sites, sidestepping madams and other intermediaries who'd otherwise take a share of the revenue.
"Loveable, cuddable, sexable, flexible, I'm just so damn incredible," reads a recent FB post by L.L, apparently an independent courtesan, who's offering a ‘VIP escort' in Dubai between March 3 and March 27. An e-mail address has been given for those willing to respond.
Surge in business
While actual figures are hard to get by, an escort agent requesting anonymity said they are "soliciting more clients since they moved "business" on Facebook.
Not surprising, considering a staggering 45 per cent of the UAE's population has an account on the social network goliath. Here are some other incredible facts: the UAE ranks among the top 10 nations in the world in terms of Facebook penetration. But it's second to only the Netherlands in terms of active members. More than 60 per cent of Facebook users in the country are male, 50 per cent in their 20s. The growth is highest among youth between the ages of 15 and 29, who make up around one-third of the total UAE population.
Micro-blogging service Twitter too commands a huge presence here. The country is home to around 40 per cent of all Twitter users in MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. Escort agencies see a big business potential here and are going all out to tap it. At least six of them are on Twitter in Dubai alone, some with over 200 followers.
The tweets are explicit and, invariably, accompanied by a local cellphone number. One such tweet was from Jenny claiming to be from Hong Kong. "Come baby, I will give you a juicy time," she said, rattling out the direction of a Barsha apartment when we called her.
The TRA classifies the use of social media for the flesh trade under the Prohibited Content Categories, specifically "Dating". "The licensees are required to block access to these types of pages and they are actually implementing that on many of them. If any internet user reported such pages to the licensees, the licensees will block it in accordance with the current procedures. Depending on the type of the case and the violation, there are other authorities who are responsible for prosecuting offenders and violators which the TRA fully cooperate with and support to enforce the laws," the TRA said in an e-mail statement to XPRESS.
According to Major Saeed Al Hajiri, Director of Electronic Crimes, Dubai Police, if they come across a cyber crime related to Facebook they will certainly investigate it. "It depends on the case and the complaint. Since Facebook's main office is in the US, there are a lot of complex laws to deal with. But, most importantly, we have to first look into the complaint, and then we'll go from there," he said.
Curiously, in New York too, prostitutes are relying on Facebook to engage clients. Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociology professor at Columbia University who has been analysing prostitution trends in the Big Apple estimates that the average escort in New York now finds 25 per cent of clients through Facebook.
Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (last revised in October 2010) forbids users from posting content that is pornographic or contains nudity. It doesn't have a specific policy dealing with prostitution but Andrew Noyes, a spokesman for the social networking website, says they take a hard stance against illegal activities.
"We'll take down content, disable accounts, and take further action including escalating illegal activity to law enforcement. We strictly enforce this policy through proactive investigations and response to user reports," he was cited as saying in a US media report.
On Twitter all content is the responsibility of the person who originated it. "We may not monitor or control the content posted via the services and we cannot take responsibility for such content," says a note on Twitter.
Meanwhile tweets such as "I am the greatest thing you've ever had...available for your most intimate desires... Call 050-1X6 XX XX...now" continued pouring in as late as Wednesday evening.