Fake massage businesses operate as commercial front brothels claiming to offer legitimate services such as massage, acupuncture, and other therapeutic, health, and spa services, but in fact offer commercial sex to customers. Women in brothels disguised as massage businesses typically live on-site where they are coerced into providing commercial sex to 6 to 10 men a day, 7 days a week. Fake massage businesses frequently operate in strip malls, office buildings, and sometimes, residential homes, in urban, suburban, and rural areas in across the United States.
Who are the traffickers?
Fake massage businesses generally operate within a network of traffickers, similar to organized crime of other varieties. Each fake massage businesses is managed by a Brothel Keeper (sometimes referred to as a “mamasan”). The location may be financed by business owner, who operates multiple locations from behind the scenes.
Who are the facilitators?
The continued operation of fake massage businesses would not be possible without the support network of many facilitating actors. These facilitators include the Asian “taxi drivers” who work for the network as transporters, to ensure the network is able to move women from location to location, across state lines, on a regular basis.
Recruiters may operate within the victims’ home countries, offering opportunities for a better life overseas, with higher pay and more specialized work. Recruiters offer victims the false hope of making a professional career in the United States with the ability to support others back home. The long-term profits of the offered job seem to far outweigh the immediate costs required for travel, visa processing and licensing, and so many women take out loans from family, friends and other lenders, leaving them financially vulnerable when the circumstances change. Recruiters are also present in large cities the United States, such as New York City or San Francisco. These recruiters offer job opportunities across the country and work with travel agencies to arrange for transportation.
Women may also be smuggled into the country so that they may be induced into commercial sex in the massage industry. The smugglers and travel agencies who knowingly falsify immigration documents, instruct victims on the story they are to tell officials and arrange for transportation facilitate the sex trafficking of women in fake massage businesses.
Once assigned to a fake massage business location, the brothel keepers may rely on veteran women to maintain order and compliance from other women working in the establishment. While these women may also be trafficked and exploited, they prepared to spend less time providing commercial sex acts and more time managing other victims.
How are fake massage businesses advertised?
Fake massage businesses advertise openly in newspapers, magazines, billboards, phone and online directories, as they maintain perception that they are legitimate and registered businesses. Increasingly, these operations rely on internet-based advertising, through sites such as Backpage.com, Eroticmp.com, Eros.com, and USAsexguides.info.
Who are the victims?
The victims are most often Asian women, of diverse ethnicities and nationalities, including Korean, Thai, Chinese, and ethnically Korean-Chinese citizens. These women may have come to the United States on valid visas, fraudulent visas, or may be undocumented or have been smuggled into the United States. Most victims of sex trafficking in fake massage businesses are adult females. One fake massage business may involve one or two victims or several victims.
Human trafficking spans all victim demographics and the vulnerabilities traffickers exploit are unique and specific to each victim (e.g. a developmental disorder, past child abuse, cultural beliefs). However, the NHTRC sees recurring vulnerabilities among sex trafficking victims in fake massage businesses. Some examples of these include (and are not limited by):
Existing debt: Financial need or indebtedness plays an important role in most women’s entry into a fake massage business. Credit card debt, immigration debt, or smuggling fees, or financial need, leave the women vulnerable to recruiters, who appear to be offering legal jobs.
Immigration Status: Most of the women trafficked into brothels posing as massage businesses are not U.S. citizens, and many do not have documented status. Traffickers use the threat of deportation as well as document confiscation to maintain control of immigrant women. Without legal status, the women frequently fear and distrust police or government authorities. Immigrant women are vulnerable due to language barriers, unfamiliarity with their legal rights in the US, or the lack of a local support network.
When does it become trafficking?
Employers at fake massage businesses use force, fraud, or coercion to exploit women in commercial sex acts. Common means of control used in these types of brothels also include:
Force: Isolation and confinement to the brothel; regular and frequent transportation to other locations or other cities by drivers working for the trafficking network; physical or sexual abuse.
Fraud: False promises of a better life; misrepresentation of the work, working conditions, and immigration benefits of the job; visa fraud.
Coercion: Heavy debts, increased through exorbitant fees for food, personal items, transportation, and “security”; restrictions on communication to family or others outside the network; threats of deportation and arrest; confiscation of passports and visas; rumors of or witnessed violence at the hands of traffickers or police used as threats.
* An individual under the age of 18 engaged in commercial sex is considered a victim of sex trafficking regardless of the presence of force, fraud or coercion.