A report published by Buzzfeed News finds that an  alarming number of American massage parlors are acting as hubs for sex trafficking and prostitution. In excess of  9,000 of these salons are now doing business across the United States, the study says. The illegal massage parlor industry is the second-biggest form of human trafficking in the country after escort services, raking in an estimated $2.5 billion a year.

The report, done by Polaris, an organization that fights human trafficking, indicates that many of the thousands of women who work in the illegal massage businesses are not voluntarily engaging in prostitution but instead are victims of human trafficking. The report also found that cultural shame combined with elements of force and coercion sometimes leads trafficked women who are arrested to tell police that they were engaging in sex work of their own free will.

Massage parlors accounted for 2,949 calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline from 2007 to 2016, according to Polaris, which spoke with more than 1,300 victims of sex trafficking. Their findings show that traffickers often prey on vulnerable women through a word-of-mouth network, advertisements in the victims’ native language and chat apps that are popular in China and Korea, such as WeChat and KaKaoTalk. They promise steady wages, visa support and housing to the women, many of whom are trying to support children and who often do not know the nature of the work they will be expected to do.

Rochelle Keyhan, lead author of the Polaris report, said, “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.”

Buzzfeed continues:

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.

“There has been a massive increase in these establishments. We keep trying to shut them down, but they are always part of a chain,” Barry Hall, a lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s human trafficking bureau, told BuzzFeed News. “If it has a sign outside that says, ‘massage,’ it’s a hand job parlor and the women in there are forced to perform sex acts all day long for literally nothing.”

Because prostitution is illegal in most states, the law is often not on the trafficking victim’s side. Spa and massage parlor raids meant to bust trafficking often result in arrests of documented and undocumented immigrants who may not know their rights and sometimes become deportable. Some cities, like Los Angeles, have instead focused on crackdowns on customers and have arrested dozens of men. Los Angeles County now requires routine inspections in an attempt to catch sex-trafficking massage businesses.

“It is clear to me that massage parlors in our communities and across the country have become safe havens for human trafficking,” L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn 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.”

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.