Getting the Word Out

by Karen Karpinski

Fake Massage Businesses at a Glance - Excerpts from Polaris Project

In the past week it would have been difficult to ignore or be unaware of the Massage Parlor stings and arrests taking place in Franklin and Brentwood.  It has also not been that long since we were talking about another bust in Green Hills.   Various people have commented about how shocked they were since these are in the wealthier areas of our community.  In reality, that’s exactly where such places are normally located.

Fake massage businesses operate as commercial-front brothels to offer legitimate services such as massage and spa services.  They are distinguishable, however, from other legitimate massage businesses in that they provide commercial sex to customers.  They frequently operate in strip malls and office buildings and advertise in mainstream public venues such as newspapers and magazines as well as online sites like Craigslist.  But unlike legitimate massage businesses they often utilize cameras to screen and monitor clients as they enter the establishment and may have locked doors and use a buzzer system for entry. 

Fake massage businesses operate as an extensive, sophisticated organized crime networks with multiple controllers who act in connection with each other.  The various actors within the network include:

  • Behind the scenes business owners who set up and finance the business
  • The Brothel Keeper or “Mamasan” who manages each individual location
  • “Kitchen ladies” who function as a helper to the mamasan
  • “Secondary brothel keepers” who function as a future mamasan
  • Informal Asian “taxi drivers” who work for the network as transporters
  • Recruiter and smugglers
  • Attorneys who are paid by the network to represent an actor in the network in any legal matters

Women found in these businesses typically live on-site, 24 hours a day.  They are rotated at a certain frequency and they stay inside for practically the entire time while at a specific location.  The victims are most often Asian women who come to the US on both valid and fraudulent visas, or may be undocumented and smuggled into the country. Rarely do these businesses include minors. Not all the woman meet the standards of human trafficking, but in general businesses control these women through psychological abuse, threats, documentation confiscation, isolation, debt bondage and occasional physical abuse.

Clients are generally any age or nationality and are often middle to upper class professional males.  A massage business with an all-male clientele is a strong indicator that commercial sex may be taking place.

Vigilant volunteers and observers can continue to bring these businesses to the attention of law enforcement and be responsible for the rescue to women who are unwilling participants.