The Trade: Why is it Hard to Catch Pimps by Following the Money?

from cash to digital by FamZoo Staff

Image from Flickr Commons

Pimps across the country take in hundreds and thousands of dollars by selling women and girls. According to information shared by law enforcement officials and offender respondents in a recent report by the Urban Institute, pimps often set cash quotas their girls must bring in every night.

While prices vary region to region, pimp to pimp, and girl to girl, some pimps take in a thousand dollars or more a night from one girl. And most control more than one girl.

That’s a lot of money. Theoretically, you should just be able to follow the money and trace things back to the pimps, right?

If it were that uncomplicated, law enforcement would be all over the situation.

But even in cases of organized indoor sex trafficking, like brothels and massage parlors, it’s not that easy.

For one thing, the business is largely cash-based.

For another thing, pimps are smart. They know law enforcement is going to be looking at their mansions, at their big shiny cars, at all their expensive things—and they know how to hide things in plain sight.

Here’s a quote from the report:

“The money made from trafficking is largely cash-based and pimps have been known to use Green Dot cards so that cash isn’t traceable through bank accounts.”

Green Dot cards are basically prepaid debit cards. You can load them with funds and use them just like a debit card—buying everything from a cup of coffee to a luxury car. You can shop with them online, and even use them to get cash from ATMs.

And the expensive assets themselves?

“Assets of street-based/Internet pimps are reportedly typically difficult to seize by law enforcement since pimps purposefully hide their assets to avoid seizure. For example, if pimps own houses, they are typically under someone else’s name. And although they tend to drive expensive cars, the cars are usually leased. In addition, law enforcement reported that for tax purposes, some of the pimps they encounter have record labels or modeling businesses.”

These businesses are also used for money laundering, and to recruit girls by promising them singing or modeling careers.

So pimps know how to evade the law pretty well. Often, during prostitution busts, the girls are the ones who are picked up and arrested, while the pimps slink off in the background and get away. It’s just easier to see and find the victims than the ones who control them.

If we’re talking about operations like brothels, it doesn’t get much easier.

“. . . Some brothels are highly organized and networked across the country, and others are less highly organized. Until now, law enforcement has not been able to link these brothels back to people organizing and recruiting in other countries.”

Some massage parlor owners get very savvy in business and finance. For instance, the report mentioned that Asian massage parlor owners often invest their money in “local, ethnically-owned and operated community banks, real estate, and other legitimate businesses in the United States and overseas.”

Sometimes groups of women come over to the US and all get massage licenses, then they go to a bunch of different cities throughout the country, and even move from place to place. Having different girls cycle through keeps a brothel’s clientele interested, and it helps the girls evade detection by the law.

It’s not easy to untangle the system and follow the money. One Law Enforcement Official said:

“The question is, and I don’t know the answer to this, is, ‘How organized is the system across all of the cities?’ Very similar scheme you can see across all of the major cities around the country. Then the money goes back and we can pretty much get it to Hong Kong, but we’re not going to get it to China.”

Proving that trafficking is taking place—as opposed to the girls working as voluntary prostitutes—is difficult in and of itself. Many of the girls are intimidated into saying they’re willing, and some former victims eventually do become willing, especially if working in brothels is the only thing they’ve known.

The difficulty of proving trafficking means officials look for any violation that might be taking place, such as money laundering or tax evasion. But the traffickers and pimps are pretty savvy when it comes to managing finances—and even about transporting funds. They know when the law has caught onto their tactics, and they change what they’re doing.

One Law Enforcement Official described a raid on an organized network of erotic massage parlors with ties to Korea:

“In that one, several people were put away for the structured money laundering, and we actually did pull some of the businesses and take a lot of their money, but of course it was not enough, because every time we caught on to what they were doing, they would stop what they were doing, whether it was Western Union, whether it was the Post Office. Every time we caught on they stopped and then they started sending [the money to Korea] in a different way.”

Traffickers and brothel owners often invest their money in multiple ways, in smaller institutions, so that officials just don’t know where to look for the assets until they get really deep into the investigation—and sometimes there aren’t the resources for that kind of deep investigation, especially when nobody is sure whether trafficking is even taking place.

Those are a few reasons it can be hard to follow the money or seize assets to take down pimps and traffickers.
L. Marrick is a fiction writer and freelance copywriter. 50% of proceeds from her book Working Girl, a memoir of her time working for a professional escort, go to sex trafficking non-profits. She waxes poetic about swords and the Renaissance Faire at her author blog. She looks all professional-like at her copywriting site. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter @LMarrick.

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