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Human trafficking, organized crime, and lax city codes: A recipe for enduring exploitation PART ONE

They are the Yelp for massage treatments offering additional services: URL snippet is this: Erotic massage parlor reviews | Find your happy ending. Note the description in your search tab: Asian Massage. Type in your zip code (beware of ensuing spam) and you will see how many of these are near you right now, and those are only the ones with reviews. Red massage is another site: Erotic Massage Finder |  Adult Sensual Massage Parlors. Or simply in Google, type Erotic massage near me. See what happens. This is how easy it is to use online review sites for the exploitation of other human beings. PS It is advertising known illegal activity

But first, 5 things to know about the illicit massage industry (IMI)

  1. Nationwide 84% of reported IMIs are operated by organized crime via a Chinese supply chain

  2. An IMI strategy is to choose communities of similar culture as workers or with racial diversity to operate under the radar

  3. Victims are lured by Visa brokers and charged up to $50,000 at 20-30% interest for the immigration process

  4. California hosts 25% of the illicit massage businesses (IMB) in the nation 

  5. IMBs target communities with lax code enforcement or business licensing requirements

Let's take a deeper dive...

Chinese Supply Chain: When we think of organized crime a scene from GoodFellas or The Godfather may come to mind: the Mafia who flaunts their association with bravado and bullying and the extorting of neighborhood businesses for a sizable skim. It seems one of the hardest facts to wrap our minds around is the vast organized crime network that operates the majority of IMBs. When it comes to the IMI, with added diversification in nail salons and other beauty service businesses, the crime network is internal, creating their own supply chain and workforce. 

Under the Radar The IMI seeks a low profile in communities that already have cultural diversity or existing Asian communities to blend in. But not in our neighborhood, I mean, we would know, right?

Is this happening near you? Some indicators

  • Cannot see in the windows of establishment

  • Cheap prices compared to market rates

  • Neon signage and open after 10pm

  • HIdden or discreet entrance serving primarily men

  • Primarily Asian workers and seem to live onsite

  • Name of business and menu of services have coded words known to seekers of illicit activity like rose, flower, or Asian Massage

  • Located near bars, embedded in industrial parks, in strip malls, or dual-zoned residential areas

  • A review on sites like Rubmaps or Red Massage

This crime network will open bank accounts under the victim’s name in order to launder money and add another layer of perceived legitimacy.

Ever wondered about the all the foot massage and reflexology places? In many states a foot massage license does not have the therapist requirements, so an even easier way to set up shop and avoid scrutiny,

Vulnerabilities and Visa Brokers Victims in the IMI fit a fairly common profile: Chinese or South Korean women aged mid-30’s to mid-50’s, with children, and economically vulnerable. Typically they are recruited in their home country but some are also recruited in the US. They answer job ads for restaurant or other vague work, the Visa broker goes to great lengths and expense to get them set up with a fake education or work history and new identities and passports to get a work or tourist visa approved. The cost is exorbitant, upwards of $50k with loan shark interest rates. The victims are now beholden in practical perpetuity.

California and IMBs California is a hub for these crime networks. According to an undercover vice agent In Orange County CA, a third or more of these establishments are owned by the same known cartel. Flushing NY and San Gabriel Valley CA are particular hotspots for recruitment and management of the larger operation. And an IMB may look like an independent mom-and-pop shop, offering enough legitimate services to minimize suspicion, but they are part of a much larger constellation of sites hiding dangerous labor and sex trafficking activity. 

Weak City Engagement  Each IMB is a shell company with a straw owner targeting cities and counties with limited codes, capacity, or awareness to respond to the issue. Going back to Rubmaps for a moment, the list of cities with IMBs near you is on the left side along with the number of establishments with reviews. A quick scan will indicate which cities are hosting more than their neighbors. In one search, the tale of 2 cities showed one with 27 and one with 2. The difference? One vice unit officer reported that they do not spend time investigating in the cities that do not have the rules in place to support the bust. So the town with 27 reviewed establishments is probably not getting much law enforcement attention for this crime.

Yet, even in the event of a successful closure for a criminal or code violation, the IMBs are allowed to reopen almost immediately in the same location under a different name, continuing business as usual. Among other options, a simple municipal code amendment prohibiting this practice has proven to be very effective in cities that have chosen to be proactive in addressing this form of trafficking and organized crime.

What can you do? 

If there is a location you are concerned about, DO NOT initiate your own investigation, instead, here are safe actions you can take:

  • Err on the side of compassion and assume the women working there are victims working under duress and not prostitutes out of choice

  • During the COVID-19 shut down massage is considered high risk and non-essential. If they are open or receiving clients in conflict with your state’s COVID plan, call local code enforcement for a Cease and Desist order (observe from afar). Even the IMI is not immune to the economic impacts of a shutdown

  • Review your city’s licensing and code requirements to see how they are addressing the issue

  • Reach out to your city council to see what position they take on the reality of IMBs

  • If they are open after normal operating hours as indicated with OPEN sign or otherwise, call local code enforcement

  • Engage your neighbors to call the minute an establishment is open after hours, a cascade of calls to code enforcement may result in additional action

  • Get educated on the issue:

  • Stay tuned for Part 2 where we address the story of the victims, the profile of a buyer, and a system set up to continue the cycle

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