Thousands of massage parlors across the US are acting as hubs for human trafficking and prostitution, raking in $2.5 billion a year in the process, according to a new report detailing a booming industry that preys on immigrants trying to support their children.
Billed as the first-of-its-kind, Polaris, a group fighting modern slavery, conducted a study of more than 32,000 reported human trafficking cases in 2017 and found that the illegal massage parlor industry is the second largest form of human trafficking in the country after escort services. More than 9,000 salons are currently open for business across the US, with locations in every state.
Often rundown, nondescript, and tucked into strip malls, the massage parlors accounted for nearly 2,949 reported cases of sex trafficking last year, Polaris reported, and they are popping up in every state across the US at alarming rates.
Examples of illicit massage parlors cited in Polaris' report.
“You see these every day. They look abandoned, empty and you think, 'Who would want to go in there?' That's the way you know,” Rochelle Keyhan, the report’s lead author, told BuzzFeed News on Thursday. “Would you want to go in there for a relaxing massage? Yes or no. If it's no, it's probably a place that's trafficking women.”
The victims are primarily immigrants from China or South Korea who speak little or no English, are burdened with debt, and desperate to help support their children.
The women are lured by advertisements and word-of-mouth, but are increasingly being targeted on social media platforms, specifically the highly popular chat apps WeChat and KaKaoTalk.
“These networks are very adaptable. They are finding these women in these apps and promising them better lives and steady wages in different languages and that's really difficult to detect and crack down on,” Keyhan said.
Thousands of Mandarin-language ads are constantly popping up across websites recruiting women for massage establishments. In California, 42% of these ads show multiple red flags of trafficking, such as taking care of visas, transportation, housing, and the possibility to make more than $4,000 a month.
After speaking to more than 1,300 victims, Polaris also found that many of the exploiters were former workers who moved up the ranks, become managers, or opened their own massage parlor.
“Women are trafficking women, which is a distinct aspect of this sex-trafficking industry,” Keyhan said. “They share the same language and background and so there's this natural trust there and then they exploit them”
These massage parlors are also rarely stand-alone operations. The average salon connects to at least one other business, as well as nail salons, restaurants, grocery stores, and dry cleaners, researchers noted.
California has the highest number of networked connections across the country. Parlors there can be linked to others in every state in the US, except Vermont, the report said.
“Ninety percent to 95% of the time that we perform an undercover investigative operation at a massage parlor, and those are usually based on complaints or tips, we determine that a prostitution offense has occurred,” Los Angeles County Sheriff's Capt. Chris Marks told ABC7 in November.
He also noted that there had been “massive increase” in sex-trafficking massage establishments.
“There's so many of them, it overwhelms our resources,” Marks said. “Any help we can get from any county department on inspections and violations, we want.”
BuzzFeed News reached out to several law enforcement agencies on how they are dealing with this form of human trafficking, but did not immediately hear back.
In the US, men find the illegal establishments by perusing sites like Craigslist, Yelp, Backpage.com, and the most popular, Rubmaps.com, where customers can post reviews about the women and services. Rubmaps gets an estimated 325,000 unique visitors per month and catalogs more than 7,200 open and active illicit massage businesses across the country, Polaris reported.
“On these review boards, buyers share information about their experiences with the businesses, including details of which women provide which sex acts, how much to tip, reviews of their experiences, and ratings of the physical attributes of the women,” the report states.
Here's an example of a review:
I’ve been here a couple of times and had a few different girls. This time was Anna. I liked her a lot and was happy to have
her. The place is clean and the tables are high quality so i like it. Anna took me back to the rooms and let me get naked by
myself and ready for her. She came and started working on me. She gives a good massage but she doesn’t like touching that
much. She seemed to shy away from my hands a lot. No problem. On the flip I made sure she knew I wanted to leave happy
and she didn’t seem to mind. Anna is a trooper and got to work on my prick immidiately. I was really really happy with her
work though I would like more next time. I am hoping if I go back a few times I could get some mouth action. I’ll keep tryin.
These sites boast hundreds of ads describing massages by “young Asian and Latina Girls. Hot.”
New Arrive Young girls .$5 OFF 1hr bodyDon't miss out 213-368-0086 (Los Angeles Koreatown Hollywood Downtown)”
Reviews, being open at odd hours, showcasing nude modeling or lingerie photos, and being cash-only are very clear red flags that a massage parlor is forcing women to perform sexual acts, Keyhan said. Covered windows, buzzers, and cheap prices are other indicators that a parlor is illegal.
Customers are primarily white men going in during lunch or after work, the report found. In Houston, for example, 192 illegal massage businesses served roughly 2,869 people per day and that the busiest time was between 12 to 2 p.m.
Some cities, like Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Seattle, have conducted several recent sting operations to crack down on customers and arrested dozens of men, Keyhan said. In Los Angeles County, officials are now requiring routine inspections to catch and eradicate sex-trafficking massage businesses. San Francisco recently regulated hours of operation, resulting in the shuttering of more than 100 illegal parlors.
“It is clear to me that massage parlors in our communities and across the country have become safe havens for human trafficking,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who helped create the legislation, told BuzzFeed News. “They operate with near zero scrutiny and we have seen a glut of new massage parlors open offering massages as low as $15 or $20.”
However, only 12 of the country's states have laws regulating massage business operations.
“It's one of those things you walk past every day and you might notice, but you keep going,” Keyhan said. “We want people to stop and do something about it.”