There are many different signs that business may be a brothel/prostitute/sex worker hiding under the disguise as a massage business. While there is no way to tell 100% beyond a doubt, these indicators require more investigating which should be left up to the law enforcement agency in your area.
Some suspicious signs are:
- Very low cost massage services – signs advertising full body massage for way less than the going rate in your area. Many franchises offer low membership rates, but suspicious places are even lower than that.
- Open 24/7, open very late after regular business hours.
- Neon signs in the windows saying “Massage”. Suspicious places seem to have adopted neon signs as a way to let the hobbists/John’s know that this is the place for them.
- Covered windows or no windows at all especially in the front of the building/office space.
- Often hide behind Asian Massage. Asian Massage is actually a legitimate form of massage and legitimate Asian Massage Businesses will use the terms that they are Acupressure, Jin Shin Do®Bodymind Acupressure® , Amma , Amma Therapy®, Chi Nei Tsang, Jin Shou Tuina™, Nuad Bo ‘Rarn (Traditional Thai), Tuina, Medical Qigong, Five Element Shiatsu, Integrative Eclectic Shiatsu, Japanese Shiatsu, Macrobiotic Shiatsu, Shiatsu Anma Therapy, Zen Shiatsu, Shiatsu From the American Organization for Bodywork Therapies of Asia
- The businesses also have names that make it more obvious like Shangrala, Lucky Spa, Magic Touch Spa and will have the word Asian or Chinese in the name.
- Hide behind Foot Massage Spas. Many states will often have laws that exempt businesses who claim to be providing Reflexology (a specific type of foot massage) from having to be state licensed allowing businesses to hide behind the idea of giving foot massages.
- Hide behind Thai Massage which actually is a very legitimate type of massage that originates from Thailand.
- The business is listed on a hobbyist website like rubmaps . ch — not linking to this site but take out the spaces and head on over—you will be shocked to see the places that are in your neighborhood. There are occaisionally law abiding and legitimate massage businesses inaccurately listed on those type of sites so also look at yelp reviews and just look for one bad one.
- In most states, law abiding/legitimate massage therapists will have their massage license number on advertisments and on their websites. You can look before you book a massage to verify that they are indeed licensed which also means has specific training and passed background checks in most states.
The Board of Massage in States only have jurisdiction over licensed massage therapists who do things wrong, even though most states have laws that say you cannot use the words massage unless you are licensed to do so. When unlicensed massage is investigated, they often run into human trafficking which can be run by drug cartels which needs a whole other level of law enforcement to properly process those crimes.
How the Media Creates More Confusion
There are two main types of illegal activity that are being blamed on the massage profession when in fact they are not massage businesses nor do they have anything to do with massage therapy. The main activity is that many are using massage to disguise their business that is involved in sex work/prostitution/brothel. The other is that some of these places are also involved in human trafficking.
These places are often referred to incorrectly and placing the blame on massage therapists. The terms are being used incorrectly. Reports of “Massage Parlors” really means that it is a brothel disguised as a massage business. We need to start calling them what they are. Many people will think that they are just massage therapists gone bad…but they are not. Massage is Therapy. Massage therapists attend massage school, take and exam, apply for licensing and are subject to background checks.
Build Relationships with your local law enforcement agencies.
Begin the process of working with your local law enforcement agencies as soon as possible. Sandy Fritz in her article in Massage Magazine recommends doing this before problems begin. Create a handout/information sheet to give to law enforcement about your massage business and start with just introducing yourself. Learn about how your local law enforcement agencies work. Many are reaching out to communities to talk at coffee houses and having open houses to engage the community. Talk about how massage therapists are subject to sexual harrassment by clients and how it has affected your business.
How to Report Illegal Storefronts or Suspected Human Trafficking
You really won’t be able to tell if it is a issue of human trafficking or a brothel disguised as a massage business unless you know someone who went there for sex services and can confirm that trafficking is in place. While there are some key signs like having lower prices, covered windows, neon window signs, late/all night services, it isn’t always a brothel or human trafficking business. It is important to have a working relationship with your local law enforcement agencies so that you can call them up at any time and say “hey…I am not sure what is going on over there…but they are open all night and there are people living there (or whatever).”
Don’t worry about reporting a place for suspected trafficking or sex work. Your actions do not automatically get the business in trouble. The anti-trafficking groups have specialists to determine what is and isn’t trafficking. Your report might be the latest report from multiple consumers on a place or pattern. They can’t develop a pattern of trafficking behaviors without the efforts of concerned citizens who file reports. Worried about your identity? You can choose to be anonymous.
With your information in hand, investigators apply expert tools and education to make a determination about illegal activities. Take piece of mind knowing that your word is not the final word and innocent people and businesses are highly unlikely to get caught up in a series of unfortunate events.
Do you suspect the business is operating illegally? Report it!
- Start with contacting your board of massage. While they mainly deal with licensed massage therapists, they may be interested in knowing about the problem. Some do investigate.
- File A complaint with your local law enforcement.
- Work with your city/county council to bring awareness to the issues and work on solutions. See this example from a small town in WA State.
- Any place operating without proper business paperwork is suspect to trafficking practices. Contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
- The Federal Trade Commission accepts complaints regarding fraud and unfair business practices.
Report all suspicions to authorities. They can assist you with next steps. But know in advance it is a very simple process that takes very little time.
Most state laws for massage include language that says that only a licensed massage therapist can use the words massage. One of the problems is that an unlicensed massage business is usually the last thing on law enforcements minds and their already overburdened systems. Getting them to work with the massage profession is one of the challenges.
Contact your legislators and ask them to create laws that prevent storefront businesses from operating without business registration. Many local legislators have town halls, social events and other ways to contact them. Go and meet them and learn what is happening in your community in general. Let them know you are a massage therapist and explain the issue to them. Work with them to create laws and connect with law enforcement officials to make changes.
See this story of a small town in WA State that worked to solve the problem together.
Read and study this document: Untangling Massage, Human Trafficking, and Prostitution which outlines the problem and provides some ideas for legal solutions to the problem.
Start and run your own local network to work in your communities to solve issues like this and to promote the massage profession in your area.
Reclaim Our Name Initiative – Massage is Therapy.
Advocacy Toolkit from LMTbodypolitic.com/Usolmt.com