Busted

NYC Brothel Customer? The Feds Now Have Your Number

Eleven Manhattan Korean ‘massage parlors’ that allegedly offered girls up for explicit sex acts were busted on Wednesday in a widespread sting.

04.14.16 9:20 PM ET

Depending on the neighborhood in Manhattan, a person could go to Fantasia on the Lower East Side, Asian Flower in Murray Hill, Rose House in Midtown or eight other “massage parlors” offering a premium-priced “girlfriend experience”—meaning condom-less sex acts, priced at a premium—according to charges the feds unsealed Wednesday.

And if your phone number was one of the 70,000 different ones that called any of the 11 places, all of them knew about you—and now the government does, too.

The places operated as a sort of fetish franchise, with owners sharing information on customers and warnings about cops. The women who worked there came from South Korea, often rotating between the parlors to appeal to customers looking for “new girls,” according to the 30-page criminal complaint filed in New York’s Southern District Court, which charged 11 owners, workers and ad placers with money laundering and conspiracy.

“The Brothels were independently owned, but assist each other,” the complaint reads. “For example, the Brothels share a customer list, employed overlapping groups of women, and exchanged information regarding law enforcement.”

As to the 70,000 numbers, those were on a “list [that] was divided into multiple categories, including, among other things, ‘approved’ customers and suspected law enforcement. In addition the list contained notes about the customers.”

A person with personal knowledge of many of the establishments and people named in the charges, and who asked to remain anonymous, praised the government papers for accurately describing the mechanics of the sex business, and elaborated on that list:

“If you call up, they have a laptop with a database and they tap in the last four numbers and you’re blue, yellow or red”—for “good,” “marginal,” or “no way”—“so they all have it and it’s very accurate. Plus brief notes.

“If it were you for example,” the person told a reporter, “and you divulged who you are, it would say ‘Daily Beast editor, dark hair, beard, nice guy.’ Or ‘asshole,’ depending on how you acted.

“They log whatever name you give them unless you’re stupid enough to have your name on your phone but a lot of these guys use burners. The guys who are married and the guys who are important, they get trick phones specifically for this.”

The federal investigation tracked $1.4 million in allegedly laundered funds over five years, with much of it “washed” through Bitcoin, gift cards and other difficult-to-trace transactions. But that’s likely a small fraction of the money the operations brought in, the person with knowledge of the businesses said (and back of the envelope math also suggests).

“I would say that at $1,000 a day, they break even,” the person said. “And bear in mind that often the owner also works in the room, so when she gets booked she’s getting it all.” For other workers, the house usually take $100 from each customer, with them paying $200 an hour, or $350 for a “girlfriend experience.” “A good place will bring in 20 to 30 guys on a good day. After the first ten, it’s all profit.

“The GFE thing, the house still gets $100. Bear in mind that most of the owners work in the room so they’re respectful—like, nobody wants to do that shit so let the girls make the extra money.”

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South Koreans can travel to the United States fairly easily with a visa waiver, the criminal complaint notes, so “the women can arrange for their travel themselves” for the most part, with no need for the brokers who once facilitated bogus tourist and student visas for women they then connected with brothel owners here.

“Make sure you put in that nobody’s trafficked and that everyone was doing it of their own volition,” the person with first-hand knowledge of the business said. “If it was a shithole and it was dirty and the girls were doing cocaine all day, that’d be one kind of thing. But that’s not the case here. These girls are here to work, and make money.”

Or, as the charging papers detail, most women now make their own way to the States, with no need for brokers and at least “(s)ome of the women fully intending to work illegally as prostituted women upon their arrival.”

Among the 11 people charged were son-and-mother duo Ryan “Lion King” Kim and Hoi Ham, who allegedly discussed how to hide their money on the chat app KakaoTalk and quoted in the charging papers. At one point, Ham says she’s worried that the website the brothel advertises on “leaves evidence.” Kim tells "mom" that she should use that evidence “when filing taxes. As teaching piano.”

Even after this law enforcement bust, there are still a lot of “piano teachers” working in Manhattan. Along a stretch in Midtown, ground level is all sandwich shops, bank branches, hotel lobbies, and kitsch gift shops. One story up, it’s clairvoyant parlors, tailor shops and a lot of “Asian spas.”

On Wednesday evening, another spa, which advertises “massage” services on the sex-work website Backpage, had its marquee posted above a ground-floor hobby shop, where a clanging train bell played on constant loop in the building’s lobby.

Hot Lips, another massage parlor on the same block, which was named in the Southern Court indictment, could not be reached by phone or doorbell.

Still another massage parlor on West 45th St. was also charged. To get to that one—which, the person with knowledge of the parlors said, was exceptional in that it also provides actual massages—you need to know where to find it. Located in a narrow, nondescript office building, the Manhattan Rainbow Spa posts no signage or advertisements outside or in the lobby. The building security guard operating the elevators quickly surmised that a Daily Beast reporter (the one without the beard) did not have an appointment upstairs.

The reporter then called the spa from the lobby and heard voice on the other end. It was the only time any of the brothels had answered a call all day.

The reporter asked: “Have the police been there?”

“No, no,” the woman on the other end replied. A long pause, and then: “Are you calling for a massage?”