Massage parlors promising “happy endings” are at the center of international human trafficking schemes involving underage girls and illegal immigrants.
These establishments are starting to crop up in greater numbers across the city again after previous crackdowns by authorities in 2014, and their crimes extend far past prostitution. With the assistance of sites like Backpage.com, the owners of these sex shops can update advertisements daily and better avoid scrutiny from law enforcement.
For those who argue these establishments commit victimless crimes, authorities note these parlors are typically staffed entirely by women, many of whom are forced to live at the store and are often underage. Illegal immigrants are specifically preyed on and threatened with deportation if they do not follow instructions.
The NYPD has arrested 11 people on prostitution charges in Staten Island through April 2017. Criminal complaints show five of the people arrested do not have U.S. citizenship and five provided their work address as their primary residence. All but one woman identified themselves as Asian and/or Pacific Islander.
“Human trafficking is up 50 percent in the city alone — that’s a huge red flag that this issue is permeating and it needs to be addressed aggressively,” Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican running for mayor, told Staten Island Live regarding the massage parlors. “Unfortunately, we know that this is a human trafficking issue, it’s not just prostitution.”
Authorities arrested eight members of the Rendon-Reyes gang in Brooklyn in April on charges of human smuggling and sex trafficking of minors, which they allegedly participated in for a decade. All eight members face a lifetime in prison if convicted. Detailed statistics on human trafficking are difficult to assemble, but officials estimate thousands of women are trafficked into New York each year.
Officials in New York City say poor enforcement of immigration laws is aiding the human trafficking business. Women are often kidnapped from other countries and subsequently brought to the U.S. Their lives and the lives of their families are threatened in order to terrorize the victims into obedience.
“I consider forcing a woman or a child to perform sexual acts and be victims is something that should be taken seriously and I think that’s the type of message we’re sending if we don’t enforce [people being in New York illegally],”
Authorities successfully closed six of these massage parlors in 2015, but more continue to open. Malliotakis and other local lawmakers say there has been a steady increase in calls reporting shady massage parlors popping up in their communities.
If you think human trafficking, massage parlors and prostitution are limited to urban areas, you would be mistaken.
Lunchtime two weeks ago, Lower Merion Police moved in on a nondescript building, serving a warrant investigating a suspected prostitution operation. The Rock Hill Road establishment in Bala goes by the name Therapy Zone.
“We’ve had it under surveillance for a few days, and a number of things are occurring here consistent with prostitution,” said Sergeant Gavin Goschinski.
Lower Merion Police say those things would be security cameras, a lack of formal advertising and secure exterior doors where clients need to be buzzed in.
“We encountered one female inside the establishment. She’s a Russian citizen. We were taking her in for interviews and to determine if she needs to be connected to services relative to human trafficking,” said Goschinski.
Law enforcement has also been investigating Therapy Zone and similar suburban businesses. Apparently finding a massage parlor with sexual services isn’t very difficult. We found a website which claims to locate massage parlors that engage in prostitution.
For a small fee, you can read reviews that include the names of the women, sexual favors offered and price. The site claims there are more than 230 erotic massage parlors all over the tri-state area, including over 80 in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia police detectives Ashley Capaldi and Kate Gordon are part of the department’s new Human Trafficking Unit. They say the women working in the massage parlors are often the victims of human trafficking, who come to the US heavily in debt and are forced into prostitution.
“You said it cost $70, 80, 90 for me to come here, and I’m supposed to be trying to support my family at home and here, and it’s virtually impossible to ever break that cycle,” said Gordon.
“Until now, no one is ever coming for the person who owns the house, who runs the house,” said Capaldi.
According to court records, Lower Merion Police questioned several so-called “Johns” who left Therapy Zone. The “Johns” allegedly admitted to receiving sexual favors and told police during initial visits, they were asked about what sexual favors they wanted, given a price and assigned a number for booking appointments.
Police say they watched as women of Therapy Zone would discard condoms in the trash cans of other businesses.
“Our surveillance found the women who open and operate the business are dropped off a door or two away and that they come in, they operate during the day,” said Goschinski.
Investigators across the region say putting erotic massage parlors out of business is tough.
It’s supply and demand.
They close one parlor, another opens down the road in another name.
In Bala no one’s been charged yet. They continue to investigate allegations of prostitution and human trafficking.
“This is a brick and mortar operation with a significant investment. We hope to disrupt the organization today, and then follow-up with it and see where money is traveling, who owns it and that sort of thing,” said Goschinski.
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