A fraudster who ran an unofficial lettings agency for hundreds of brothels and cannabis farms is facing deportation after being jailed.
Feng Xu handed over the keys for 446 properties from the south of England to Scotland to serious organised criminals.
He used more than 70 aliases and at least 31 fake passports to secure the flats and houses from high street estate agents, then paid the first month’s rent and deposit before allowing crime gangs to pay for the rest of the tenure.
Over three and a half years more than £4 million in rent was paid out to estate agents that had let the properties to him, unaware that they were being used to house prostitutes and sex slaves and to grow marijuana.
The case is the first time that the National Crime Agency (NCA) has prosecuted someone involved in supplying properties for such uses.
He was investigated by teams working in modern slavery over concerns that he was supplying groups involved in people-smuggling. He admitted 22 offences of fraud and money laundering at Birmingham crown court in October and on Friday last week was jailed for seven years and four months.
He faces deportation after serving his sentence because he came to Britain from China in 1996 on a student visa and became an illegal overstayer.
“We established that his day-to-day activity was involved in renting properties,” Daren Nicholls, senior investigating officer at the NCA, said.
“We see him as a ‘go to’ person, a professional enabler. He’s someone criminals have gone to when they’ve needed a property. That’s how he earns money.”
The agency has said that there may be others offering similar services. Investigators described how Feng, 43, would use fake identities to secure the flats, which were mainly two-bedroom properties in city centres or close to train stations so that they were accessible to travellers seeking prostitutes.
Feng, who claimed to work in IT, would then provide fake payslips and utility bills to companies carrying out due diligence on behalf of the estate agents and phone numbers and email addresses that were secretly controlled by him to support his story.
He was arrested in May after a surveillance operation in which he had been seen visiting estate agents and properties and taking trains up and down the country. He also visited a Cartier jewellery shop.
He first came to the attention of the authorities after police in Lincolnshire found that a number of properties had been let to the same person using different identities. Most were flats but two were farmhouses in Shropshire and Gloucestershire where the cannabis farms were located. The owners had not suspected that anything was amiss because the criminals to whom Feng was sub-letting the properties ensured the rent was paid, Mr Nicholls said.
He is thought to have made a couple of thousand pounds per property and the NCA said that his empire covered 34 police forces across the country, including in Scotland.
When he was arrested he was found with meticulous notes because “if you’re going to operate 70 aliases, you need to be organised and be able to deal with letting agents when they come on the phone”, Mr Nicholls said.
Martin Grace, branch commander at the NCA, said that the conviction “will have caused significant disruption to a number of different organised crime groups involved in prostitution, people-smuggling and drug production. While he wasn’t necessarily involved in those types of offences himself, he was an important enabler for those who were. Put simply, these crime groups could not do what they do without his services.”
Attempts are under way to find the women working as prostitutes.
Is sexism even worse when it comes from another woman? And why do some women try to professionally “out-jock” men?
These were my thoughts when I read about how actress Ruth Wilson left the television series The Affair because of what she claims is a toxic, inappropriate culture involving enforced sex scenes. As a fan of The Affair, I’d wondered why Wilson left so abruptly, with only one season to go. The Hollywood Reporter says that Wilson was labelled “difficult” for objecting to relentless nude sequences (demanded of her far more often than her male co-stars). Wilson refused to do a “rapey” scene against a tree. (A body double was used.) During filming of some sex scenes, monitors could be viewed by non-crew members.
There’s more gruesome detail, including a disputed report on Lena Dunham’s now-defunct newsletter and website Lenny Letter, where producer/director of The Affair, Jeffrey Reiner, spoke to Dunham, praising her nudity in Girls (“You would show anything. Even your asshole”), saying he wished she’d encourage Wilson to “show her tits or at least some vag”. Now it is reported that The Affair’s showrunner, Sarah Treem, also pressured Wilson (and others) into nudity, making remarks such as “You look beautiful” and “Everyone is waiting for you”.
Excuse me while I throw up into a bin. Why can’t women such as Wilson be beautiful and clothed – and why should they feel responsible for disrupting filming schedules for nude scenes they find so distressing they leave a hit show?
If this is true (Treem denies it, saying she’s a feminist), it’s grotesque on multiple levels. Like the recent story about Emilia Clarke dreading nudity on Game of Thrones, it seems that actresses who question the validity of nude scenes still risk being labelled “difficult”. (Note the similarities with porn, where women must not only perform but do so enthusiastically or risk disrupting the male fantasy.) With The Affair, there’s the added factor of alleged woman-on-woman betrayal.
I suppose it happens and not just on television sets. In ill-judged attempts to “prove themselves” in high-octane, male-dominated work environments, there are some women who try to outdo the jocks – doing everything from telling coarser jokes and showing bigger “killer” instincts to deriding other women for being “oversensitive/humourless” via, in this instance, badgering them to do nude scenes. Maybe these women justify the grotty sexism to themselves, rationalising that it’s not the same coming from a woman. Too right – it’s worse.
What a shame if Treem was part of this. Women in positions of power have the opportunity to support one another, not make it so that it isn’t just men that women have to worry about. A woman compelling another woman to do nudity doesn’t automatically make it “feminist”. Woman-on-woman pressure isn’t better. #MeToo has to include female behaviour too.
Hotel brands owned by Hilton, Intercontinental and Best Western are among a number of leading global chains accused of profiting from sex trafficking.
In a landmark case that lawyers claim demonstrates “industry-wide failures” to prevent sex trafficking, it has been alleged that women and children were held captive, abused and sold for sex in their guest rooms across the US.
A total of 13 women have accused a dozen hotel groups of wilfully ignoring warning signs that sexual exploitation was taking place on their premises.
The litigation, which was filed this week in a federal court in Columbus, Ohio, marks the first time the hotel industry has faced legal action as a group. It draws together 13 separate lawsuits filed in Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio and Texas.
New York law firm Weitz & Luxenberg – litigating on behalf of the women, many of whom were minors when the trafficking was alleged to have occurred – said the hotels “derived profit” and “benefited financially” by “providing a marketplace for sex trafficking”.
“It seems clear to us that these hotels knowingly put their own profits over the protection of the children, teenagers and young women who were being sold for sex at their hotels,” said Paul Pennock, trafficking and abuse practice group leader at the firm.
“We believe that they neglected their duty to take action to stop these heinous crimes for decades, and it is time for them to be held responsible for what they perpetuated through total inaction.”
One of the women in the complaint says she was held captive for six weeks in 2012 at various Wyndham Hotels locations, where repeated beatings broke her nose on two occasions, left her lip permanently scarred and caused an infection on her face. She was 26 at the time.
“I just wish that people realise how much [sex trafficking] really is here in the US,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a shady hotel or a nice hotel, it’s going on in all of them.”
An estimated 80% of all human trafficking arrests occur in or around hotels, the lawsuit claims. In 2014, 92% of the calls the National Human Trafficking Hotline received involved reports of sex trafficking taking place at hotels, according to the litigation.
Despite well-publicised industry-wide initiatives to tackle child and sex trafficking, including staff training to identify potential victims, the hotel chains named in the lawsuit failed to adequately implement such policies, and in some cases failed to implement any policies at all, the lawsuit claims.
“As well as the trafficking of enslaved children and exploited women in the sex industry, hotels should also be concerned about the risks of forced labour in ancillary services such as cleaning and catering,” said Aidan McQuade, former director of Anti-Slavery International.
“But this case should be a reminder to all businesses in all industries, not just hospitality, of something they should have learned over at least the past 10 years: unless you can establish effective systems to identify and remediate slavery and trafficking where it occurs in your supply chains and operations, you may well be the next held to account in the courts of law and public opinion.”
In July 2014, the Lancet, one of the world’s best known medical journals, devoted a special issue to sex work and HIV. The publication was timed to coincide with the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. One of the articles, led by researcher Kate Shannon of the University of British Columbia, caught Senior Abt Associate Michael Shively’s eye.
The article, which Shively refers to as “the Shannon study,” used forecast modeling to test HIV prevention scenarios and estimate their impact on transmission rates among female sex workers and their clients in three very different cities: Vancouver, Canada; Mombasa, Kenya; and Bellary, India. The authors plugged independent variables like “safer work environment” and “elimination of inconsistent condom use due to any client violence” into their model and estimated their effect on averting HIV infections over ten years. They found that the decriminalization of sex work and its resulting benefits would have the potential to avert 33-46% of infections over a decade.
This finding made international headlines. “Decriminalization of sex work could reduce HIV infections,” declared the Washington Post. “The evidence is in: Decriminalizing sex work is critical to public health,” affirmed the Center for HIV Law & Policy. The authors circulated their findings to influence Amnesty International’s policy on the decriminalization of consensual sex work, which the organization released in May 2016.
“This is a very consequential study,” says Shively. “This is presented as the state-of-the-art, capstone event of decades of research and it was received that way and it was presented that way by the authors. They’re basically saying, the evidence is in. We’re done here. We figured this out.”
A self-proclaimed “certified nerd” and long-time criminal justice policy researcher working with Abt and the U.S. Department of Justice, Shively says he was excited that a policy measure like decriminalization could have such a positive impact on the health of sex workers. So he decided to “look under the hood” to see how Shannon and colleagues got to their influential conclusion. What he found, however, was significantly less conclusive than the study seemed to suggest and, perhaps more importantly, than reporters and activists made it out to be.
Shively scrutinized the (more than 300) citations used in the study and its adjoining appendices, and recruited statisticians at Abt to validate the modeling. Based on their critical analyses, Shively says there are several ways in which the study lacks credibility.
A major limitation he cites is the “assumption used to simulate [the] impact of decriminalization on HIV.” For one, the model assumes that decriminalization of sex work will immediately result in several overly optimistic outcomes, for instance, 0% violence toward sex workers, 0% police harassment, 100% access to prevention and treatment services, and maximum condom usage. It also assumes that decriminalization will result in all all of these changes overnight, regardless of context or details of the legislation.
Shively presented his findings and concerns at a Commercial Sex Symposium in November 2017, arguing, “there is no evidence that fully decriminalizing prostitution produces any of the outcomes assumed by Shannon.”
Of course, this type of modeling can be useful, but only if a variety of reasonable assumptions are used to determine a realistic range of outcomes following decriminalization. “What Shannon really found,” according to Shively, “was that HIV transmission would be reduced if violence, harassment, inconsistent condom use, and barriers to healthcare were eliminated.”
The authors do not qualify their findings, and, instead, present their work as unequivocal. Shively says he is not necessarily arguing that the study is wrong, but that the data is not sound enough to base international policy decisions on. When Shively attempted to confront the co-authors of the study, he was not well-received.
“When you say that you’ve got hard science that proves something, it needs to be challenged [and] scrutinized, and when it doesn’t hold up, they should be welcoming scrutiny,” Shively says. “I don’t expect people to just accept what I’ve said, I want—I should get challenged on it.”
Shively doesn’t know what will happen next. He has plans to publish his critique of the Shannon study and says, “I don’t think this is going to end well for me.” Point in fact, a reporter who attended the November symposium castigated him during the question and answer session and was more or less given the last word. Shively hasn’t heard from her since, but said he would have been glad to address her concerns.
For anyone writing about research, as we do every day at Public Health Post, Shively’s quest to “advance knowledge, build science, [and] get closer to the truth” is an important reminder. It is easy to gloss over the nuanced methods and results of academic papers and focus on the data that support our positions. Shively set out to understand the Shannon study and replicate it—a standard scientific practice. By asking unpopular questions and challenging overly optimistic conclusions, researchers can be sure they are producing the most thorough, transparent, and accurate evidence possible.
QotD: “If someone had told me 10 years ago that so-called feminists would be demonstrating outside a lap-dancing club, waving placards in support of stripping for a living, I would have laughed”
I am, according to those who seek to legitimise prostitution, a Swerf — meaning sex-worker-exclusionary radical feminist. This is a fairly new insult brought to you by the nice folks that introduced Terf (trans-exclusionary radical feminist).
Swerf means a feminist who considers prostitution to be harmful and abusive, which it most certainly is, and I have been labelled a Swerf since the acronym first emerged online in 2013 on a website called Everyday Whorephobia. Before that I was merely a “pearl-clutcher”, “prude” and “anti-sex puritan”.
In 2017, during the Sheffield launch of The Pimping of Prostitution, my book on the sex trade, a group of blue-fringed “feminists” (and a few bearded men) picketed the venue, shouting slogans such as “Blow jobs are real jobs!” and “Proud whores!”.
Swerf and Terf — which when used together sound like a bad meal at a tourist-trap steak house in Leicester Square — are misogynistic insults aimed at us uppity women who refuse to accept the erosion of women’s hard-won rights.
The former prostitute Rachel Moran, whose memoir, Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution, laid bare the reality of the sex trade, was compelled to embark upon a lengthy defamation case against a pro-prostitution lobbyist who repeatedly claimed, over a period of eight years, that Moran had made up her entire story of child abuse, homelessness, substance abuse and being bought and sold on the streets of Dublin. The “happy hooker” crew cannot easily deal with the abuse and exploitation inherent in the sex trade, and often attempt to shame and silence its victims. Every high-profile sex-trade survivor who exposes the truth of prostitution comes in for similar treatment.
Where did this valiant attempt to sanitise the sex trade emerge from? The Labour Party officially supports blanket decriminalisation of the sex trade, but I am not sure Jeremy Corbyn realises that this means the removal of all laws against pimping, brothel-keeping and paying for sex. Many assume decriminalisation means stopping the arrest of those selling sex, but don’t realise it also means exploiters go free.
The Liberal Democrats also take the view that prostitution is a job like any other, and have ignored survivors telling them otherwise. One of the party’s prominent female members, Wendy Chamberlain, argued against criminalising the punters by saying that “sex work has been going on for thousands of years and sadly no policy will end it”. So has murder, but I have yet to hear calls for its decriminalisation.
When Caroline Lucas was its leader, the Green Party supported an increasingly popular strategy of criminalising the demand while supporting those in prostitution to leave the sex trade, but a bit of haranguing on Twitter soon had her changing her mind.
If someone had told me 10 years ago that so-called feminists would be demonstrating outside a lap-dancing club, waving placards in support of stripping for a living, I would have laughed. But this is what happened in Sheffield recently when Sophie Wilson, a 23-year-old councillor and the Labour candidate for Rother Valley in South Yorkshire, decided that the feminists campaigning to have the licence of the city’s branch of Spearmint Rhino revoked on the grounds that stripping is exploitation were, as she eloquently put it, “trashy Swerfs”.
The pro-prostitution lobby almost always holds up the “rights” of “sex workers” to “choose” to sell sex. It is interesting how the terms “agency” and “empowerment” are only ever applied to degrading things imposed upon women, such as stripping, pole-dancing and prostitution. While jumping on to the #MeToo campaign about sexual harassment and consent, the anti-Swerf brigade seem to forget that prostitution is paid sexual harassment.
De Wallen, a well known red-light district in AmsterdamANDREA PUCCI
One picket line I had to walk through was on my way to speak at Leeds city council about the disgrace of its “managed zone”, where men can shop for sex with a vulnerable, drug-addled woman without fear of arrest. The protesters were shouting “Swerfs off our turf!” and “Hands off our clients!”
When a woman was murdered in the zone by a punter, the subsequent evaluation of the pilot scheme, conducted by academics so woke they need never set an alarm clock, concluded that the initiative had been a success and that it should become permanent.
The anti-Swerf crew were given another shot in the arm in 2016, when Amnesty International adopted a policy supporting the removal of all laws relating to prostitution — or, as Amnesty calls it, “adult consensual sex work”. An internal policy document, leaked to me in late 2013, made it clear that senior personnel had already reached the conclusion that men have the right to pay for sex and that women often “choose” prostitution as a career. There was even a suggestion that criminalising the punters, or even sending them on a “re-education” programme, could be a serious human-rights violation.
When feminists support the sex trade, they are giving men permission to buy and sell the most disenfranchised women on the planet. To invent and use an insult against the women campaigning for an end to commercial sexual exploitation is grotesque and unforgivable.
To suggest that supporting prostitution is somehow woke and progressive is ridiculous. I recall the words of the late feminist author Andrea Dworkin: “Only when women’s bodies are being sold for profit do leftists claim to cherish the free market.”