JUPITER, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 22: the Danger sign is seen on the front door of the Orchids of Asia Spa in connection with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is charged with allegedly asking for sex on the 22nd of February 2019 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
While the accusation of the New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft asked a prostitute in a “spa” in Jupiter, Florida, generated news, but also the awareness of the deeper buried problem with regard to the prevalence of sex and human trafficking in seemingly legal massage parlors in the whole country.
“Massage parlor networks are a primary place where human trafficking happens … The US is full of them. You can go to almost any city and find one – or many,” said Amy Roth Sandrolini, a spokesman for The Exodus Road, who fights global prostitution.
Illicit massage businesses (IMBs), as they are referred to by law enforcement, have long been known to use beauty-and-spa-messaging as a front for their thriving sex business. But what is of increasing concern now is how the IMBs serve as a dark and sinister hub for sex and human trafficking.
A detailed analysis by the anti-slavery non-profit group Polaris in 2017, more than 9,000 illegal massage businesses to be up and running nationwide – “hiding in plain sight in strip malls, dotting the sides of roads, and on busy commercial strips in every state.” And while most of the companies seem rather modest, they also made the big money – at least $2.5 billion per year, according to the report.
The study found women being trafficked into the sex industry arena were mostly new arrivals from China or South Korea, are mothers with significant amounts of debt or financial pressure, and speaks little or no English. The women are often lured into the business by to hear “all massage is sexual in the United States,” or that “the police in the United States are corrupt” and will only support the dealers, and not this one.
The dealers are also known to seize passports and to take or to refuse money from the women, that the victim helpless. The women are then threatened and accused of “costs” for things like rent and “training”, making them vulnerable and indebted to their trafficker.
Neither Kraft nor any of those mentioned in the last week of the Florida bust – on a list that includes a Wall Street-billionaire – are responsible for all the trade to pick up. And Kraft categorically denies the existing costs of recruitment. But what are fate, researchers seem focused on casting a much wider net, which exposes the extent to which both prostitution and human trafficking exist in the region.
Brandon Bouchard, director of media relations for Polaris, said that if law enforcement continues to conduct raids and sting targeting prostitution operations, “it is crucial that they do so in a victim-and trauma-informed way that does not criminalize the people who are forced to provide commercial sex services.” That is the reason why many of the women involved in the arrests are considered to be victims, according to the enforcement of the law.
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The IMBs are also “announced” on a series of public message boards and websites online. These websites usually require only the checkoff of a box that gives the visitor of 18 years of age or older, together with a disclaimer of the site is “zero tolerance” for underage prostitution.
But once inside, the websites offer troves of “reviews” of the various spas and salons, including explicit information about who gives what, and where – together with the appreciation of the physical appearance of the “masseuse.”
But beyond the disturbing and lucrative character of the individual IMBs, there is often a still wider and more malicious criminal enterprise in which to play. According to the Polaris study, “the average IMB connects to at least one other IMB, as well as non-massage locations such as nail salons, restaurants, supermarkets, and dry cleaners.”
“There are networks that are involved in the illegal massage parlor business; if there are large criminal networks running narcotics,” Sandrolini said.
These connectors are used for the move of the women from the states that are ports of entry, such as New York and California, IMBs across the country. Overwhelmingly, these related companies are used to launder the money earned from the IMB,” said the Polaris report. “Networks in general, under shell companies that obscure the identity of the real trade profiteers.”
“Florida’s human trafficking bust in massage parlors is just the tip of the iceberg. This happens everywhere in the country,” said Kevin Malone, president and co-founder of the AMERICAN Institute Against Trafficking in human beings, and former general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Noting that many of the IMBs are managed by the Chinese organized crime, Malone said that the women involved “are taken, mostly to New York, where they are trained what to do. They are on a circuit of illegal massage businesses, often not more than a few weeks in a certain location. They live in the massage business for yourself, until they are moved to a new location.”
Concerns have been raised that the local police do not often have the resources needed for the dismantling of such deep and nuanced networks, allowing this exploitation to thrive.
“A number of things could lead to an investigation,” Sandrolini said. “There may be assumed to be prostitution, money laundering, immigration, or flags, or a tip from a citizen or a potential victim. We know that there is a section of hints and tips that lead to prostitution, and then there are tips that overlap with human trafficking.”
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So most of the shakedowns rely on multi-agency investigations, which can take months. The mass Florida probe targeted salons from Palm Beach to Orlando, with nearly 200 arrests, after a period of six months investigation into possible human trafficking.
“Go sit undercover, and it is sad that the word has to get out that the boys can come to a ‘happy ending’ for that specific salon is now on the radar for law enforcement to look into,” said a Florida-based prostitution survivor, who now works closely with the police to the aid of other victims.
In this Oct. 27, 2015 photo, Dawn Stenberg, of the Junior League of Sioux Falls, in the vicinity of the group of anti-human trafficking billboard in Sioux Falls, S. D.
Outside Florida, the cost in the states of Wisconsin, Texas, Massachusetts, West Virginia and California have been filed in recent months against spa owners allegedly run prostitution businesses. Usually, as in the Florida case, police begin their research by scouring online reviews, then the performance of video surveillance. Law enforcement will often conduct routine traffic stops on the left to obtain more information.
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Nevertheless, the experts have determined that a number of the main symptoms that may point to nefarious sex and labor trade activities take place behind the curtain is drawn.
“These trade rings typically work by setting up a business storefront in each area. It could be residential, urban, or suburban,” added Helen Ricci, a patrol sergeant with the Georgetown University Law Center. “There are common features in these establishments, the signs massage services for a much lower than the average surface market rates, the strong presence of video-surveillance cameras at entries and exits, locked doors and a buzzer, covered windows and doors to limit visibility from the street or passers-by.”
Detective Chris Boughey, of Peoria, Ariz., told Fox News that law enforcement is often alerted to these situations, with the neighboring businesses.
“Most of these salons are located in strip shopping centers. Some neighbouring entrepreneurs will see increased traffic in and out of such establishments and contact with law enforcement. Sometimes, law enforcement to receive anonymous tips from the events on these devices,” he said. “We had one case, that the wife of one of these men who are the police after her husband back home. He feels guilty, the man told his wife what had happened. She was not too happy and called the police.”
Boughey said the research process is a challenge. The language barrier is often problematic, especially in rural areas, when it comes to conducting investigations of suspicious locations. However, they use the resources they have – by sending undercover officers in establishments and the use of recording devices – to collect much evidence as possible.
“These cases are hard to prosecute at the establishment level. The johns are easy, but it is a felony offense. They are usually given a citation and released. A task force approach is the best way to deal with this situation, as these establishments cross legal lines and follow the money, takes time, and building the confidence of these women is difficult,” he continued. “Most of the departments and cities do not have the resources to work these incidents as they should be. In addition, there are a few agencies equipped to handle, house, etc. these women. The bottom line is that these women are victims. They are isolated, threatened, and do not have the resources or the people to turn to.”