L.I. Couple Arrested for Operating International Escort Service

LONG ISLAND, NY—An investigation by federal and local law enforcement has resulted in the arrest of a Long Island couple accused of running an international escort service called Aphrodite Companions out of their home. Vincent and Melissa Lombardo, who recently moved to New York from Florida, were detained Wednesday and are currently being held without bond because of additional federal charges related to money laundering.

The government filed a 34-page complaint Tuesday that was prepared by a New York City Police Department detective who requested that the complaint be sealed, arguing, "I believe that sealing these documents is necessary because this case is an ongoing investigation. Based upon my training and experience, I have learned that criminals actively search for criminal affidavits and complaints via the Internet, and disseminate them to other criminals as they deem appropriate, e.g., by posting them publicly through online forums."

Magistrate Judge Cheryl L. Pollak decided to unseal the complaint Thursday, however, allowing the public the opportunity to read the charges and the investigative techniques utilized in this case. What comes immediately apparent upon reading the complaint is that the vast majority of the investigation was conducted digitally, and at no point was a monetary transaction for sexual services observed by a law enforcement officer or other undercover operative. In fact, the only basis for claims made by the government that illegal activity had taken place was by way of reviews posted online by alleged johns about assignations that had already been completed.

The detective, Myles Mahady, told the judge he was expressly concerned about revealing that email accounts belonging to the defendant were being subpoenaed, writing, "Premature disclosure of the contents of this complaint and related documents may have a significant and negative impact on the continuing investigation and may severely jeopardize its effectiveness," but in the same breath he also tells the judge, "Specifically in this investigation I have reviewed emails from the Pamela AOL Account [belonging to Melissa Lombardo] in which there are discussions about law enforcement activities that indicate that the targets are aware of law enforcement investigative techniques and methods to avoid detection."

That confusion aside, Mahady was probably more concerned about revealing the fact that much of the investigation was centered around not just emails but postings on the escort review site The Erotic Review, without which the case may not have been able to have been brought. Mahady explained in the complaint how the alleged relationship between services like Aphrodite Companions and The Erotic Review works:

"Aphrodite," he wrote, "furthers its prostitution activities through its relationship with an internet-based review website called 'The Erotic Review,' which is also known as 'TER', located at www.theeroticereview.com, in which johns can read and post reviews of experiences with different prostitutes.

"An individual can sign on to the TER website, join its service, and obtain a login code to gain access to detailed reviews of the prostitutes," he added. "The reviews often contain sexually explicit descriptions of the sexual acts performed by the prostitutes. On the TER website, each prostitute is assigned a unique 'TER Number.'

"Under each TER Number," he continued, "the prostitutes have a profile that describes their physical appearance including height, weight, hair color and also includes a list of sexual acts that the prostitute is willing to engage in. The prostitutes often use their TER Number to advertise their illicit services. The johns can visit the TER website to read the reviews of the prostitutes before soliciting them for services. Aphrodite itself is also reviewed on the TER website. On Aphrodite's own website, prostitutes frequently list their TER Number and provide a hyperlink that allows an Aphrodite website user to jump to the TER website simply by clicking on the link with a computer mouse."

Most of the Lombardo investigation, which focused on alleged activities that took place between January 2011 and July 2013, involved tying together all of the digital pieces to make a cohesive case. The government's reliance on emails is readily admitted by Malahy, who writes, "The investigation has revealed, primarily through a review of emails, that Aphrodite regularly offers discounts to customers who post reviews of escorts after an appointment. These reviews are usually favorable to the escorts with a view to boosting business for the prostitute and in turn the agency. Additionally, Aphrodite has developed a relationship with a content administrator within the TER community. In exchange for free sex with Aphrodite prostitutes, this individual posts inflated positive reviews of certain prostitutes and negative reviews of prostitutes who are no longer associated with Aphrodite, but instead with competing agencies."

Needless to say, this level of specificity implies that the New York City Police Department (as well as other law enforcement agencies) are monitoring The Erotic Review (and presumably other similar sites) in great detail, including to match up specific, if unidentified, johns with specific escorts, and that a rather sophisticated understanding of how the alleged relationships work is being developed by law enforcement.

Indeed, despite Mahady's claim that the intercepted AOL emails indicate that the Aphrodite principals were aware of law enforcement interest, the relative ease with which law enforcement was able to gather all the emails, banking records, website postings and other information it needed to make its circumstantial case—only engaging in field work twice, according to the complaint—shows how vulnerable online operations such as Aphrodite Companions are to digital snooping, regardless of alleged preventative measures taken by them to avoid detection or disguise subject-matter.

Of course, the fact that so much of the evidence that has been gathered by the government is second-hand, in the form of digital communications or website postings, also allows the defense to claim that no illegal activity actually took place, an argument the Lombardo's lawyer, Robert J. Del Col, is already making.

"They're alleging that prostitution took place in such far-away places as Nevada, California," he said. "My clients are in Florida and New York. How do they know what's going on between two people that they make an introduction."

Instead, he referred to the service provided by his clients as arranging "hookups," which presumably may or may not involve sex. In response, the government will certainly point to copious emails that it will argue prove the existence of an organized escort operation. "Emails demonstrate," Mahady writes at one point, "that Escort #1 and Escort #2 work for Aphrodite, engage in prostitution activity through financial institutions, and have transferred the proceeds of prostitution activity to Aphrodite accounts controlled by the LOMBARDOS."

Magistrate Judge Pollak may not have seen the need to seal the complaint, but she was convinced enough by its allegations to deny the Lombardos bail yesterday based on the federal money laundering charge. It remains to be seen if the remaining charges, based primarily on digital evidence, are equally determinative, but even if they are not, the one thing this case has made abundantly clear is that escort review sites like The Erotic Review are being reviewed by more than just johns.

The complaint is available here.