Page last updated at 17:46 GMT, Tuesday, 6 October 2009 18:46 UK

Cracking down on clip joint scams

By Sarah Bell
BBC News

Two people have been jailed after threatening an undercover policeman at a so-called clip joint in Soho, central London. Had he been a genuine customer, he would have been another victim of what is a well-established scam.

Clip joint sign in Soho
Clip joints operate in cities across the UK

Footage captures a man throwing his wallet onto the floor and offering to pay anything to escape.

He shouts: "What's the problem? I'll pay whatever it is ... what, £300? I'll pay, I'll pay ... take my wallet. I don't want to be hurt. Leave me!"

Unfortunately for those fronting Twilights, this was an undercover policeman armed with a hidden camera and microphone and he had caught them red-handed.

Kingston Crown Court was told that in December last year, a man fled the bar, in Rupert Street, in fear of his safety after being threatened and ordered to pay £300.

Stacey Crossley, 34, and Agnieszka Wolowska, 28, have since been found guilty of blackmail and false imprisonment.

Crossley was jailed for three years and his co-defendant was locked up for 14 months and recommended for deportation to her native Poland.

They were arrested by uniformed police officers as they chased the undercover officer outside.

'Adult entertainment'

The scam involves customers, often foreign tourists, being enticed inside hostess bars with false promises of "adult entertainment", Westminster Council explained.

The bars, known as clip joints, employ women to stand outside or near their premises and bring the customers in for a small charge, in much the same way as other licensed bars and clubs employ staff to hand out leaflets promoting their offers.

Once inside the clip joints, customers are served soft drinks, usually by a pretty young woman.

But when the customer goes to leave, they will usually find themselves faced with a charge of several hundred pounds for having been in the woman's company.

Camille Gordon
Camille Gordon, a hostess, was stabbed to death in 2004

If they refuse to pay, the customer may be threatened with violence by bouncers or frog-marched to a cash machine and forced to hand over cash.

The authorities believe it is a greatly under-reported crime as many victims are too embarrassed to admit they have been caught out.

In March 2004, a 23-year-old hostess, Camille Gordon, was stabbed to death by a disgruntled customer outside the Blue Bunny club in Archer Street, Soho.

The man, who had spent only 10 minutes in her company, had been charged £375.

He left after a row but returned a few minutes later and stabbed her in the chest.

Her killer, who may have been an American tourist, has never been found despite police releasing CCTV footage of him.

'Constant battle'

Clip joints have operated in cities across the UK, but it is a practice Westminster City Council, which covers Soho, says it has successfully clamped down on in recent times after a long battle against the problem.

Stacey Crossley and Agnieszka Wolowska
Crossley and Wolowska were convicted of blackmail and false imprisonment

It says the case follows the closure of the final two clip joints in the area, including Twilights, which was fronted by the pair.

There were about eight a couple of years ago.

A spokeswoman for the council said closing down clip joints had been a "constant battle" because as soon as one was closed, another opened up.

In 2007, the problem prompted the council to use Bluetooth technology to automatically send text messages to the mobile phone of anyone within 100ft of a known clip joint.

The message warned: "£5 to get in, £500 to get out. Criminals operate some of the hostess bars in Soho."

Most people who were ripped off were simply too embarrassed or scared to report the matter to police
Councillor Daniel Astaire

Part of the problem in the past was that clip joints exposed a legal loophole.

They did not need a licence to operate because they did not serve food or alcohol or provide entertainment.

But in September 2007, the London Local Authorities Act reclassified clip joints as sex establishments, meaning they required the relevant licences.

Councillor Daniel Astaire, Westminster City Council's cabinet member for community safety, said: "Today's hearing marks the end of a long battle to close down all known clip joints in Westminster which lured in men under the false premise of adult entertainment, then charged them exorbitant rates for soft drinks in the company of so-called hostesses.

"Most people who were ripped off were simply too embarrassed or scared to report the matter to police and, as these venues exploited legal loopholes to operate on the fringes of the law, our powers to close them down were extremely limited."

He said the council had been working with the police to reduce the number of clip joints as part of wider plans to clean up Soho and the recent change in legislation had "helped hammer the final nail in the coffin of this despicable trade".

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