New law would help in fight against North Carolina's thriving illicit massage business
Posted July 20
Updated July 21
"We weren't aware of who they were, where they were or what they were doing,"
Charles Wilkins, general counsel, North Carolina Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy.
An advocacy group says there may be hundreds of illicit massage parlors in North Carolina. Chances are you drive by one all the time or even shop near one and don't realize what's going on.
North Carolina has a new tool to find massage parlors that sell sex and the bigger problem associated with them.
That bigger problem is human trafficking, or modern day slavery, and, in some cases, organized crime.
These are not legitimate spas. Investigators estimate one illicit massage business they busted in Apex made a million dollars a year. And with major interstates like 95 and 40, North Carolina has become a destination for human trafficking.
They advertise on places like Craiglist and Backpage. Some promise a regular rotation of new girls. Others set ground rules like "No law enforcement." And they're all "Eager to please."
You won't find their reviews on websites like Yelp, but one site offers an AMP list – which stands for Asian Massage Parlors – where they're rated on how easy it is to get sexual favors.
Meghan Carton and Rochelle Keyhan work for Polaris, a leader in the global fight against human trafficking. They estimate there are as many as 9,000 illicit massage parlors in the country.
"It's a lot bigger problem than a lot of people realize," Carton said.
"This is organized crime, just like every other type of trafficking. It's just sort of more hidden and we're not talking about it," Keyhan said.
Last year, police raided Touch of Asia massage parlor on East Williams Street in Apex. They seized records, cash and found two women operating without a massage license. A search warrant shows officers watched the business for over a month and routinely saw women being picked up and dropped off in cars registered in New York.
They spoke to a customer who admitted to spending $90 to $100 for sexual stimulation.
It turns out the raid at Touch of Asia was the last stop in an investigation that included parlors in Cary, Garner, Wilmington and Burlington.
It led to two major arrests: Mengxun Wang and Quan Chun Li.
Records accuse Wang of heading up the criminal organization. Quan Chun Li is accused of transporting the women and collecting money.
Both are charged with felony promotion of prostitution and felony promoting a criminal enterprise.
"These are big money operations," said Charles Wilkins, general counsel of the North Carolina Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy.
Late last year, the board revoked Wang's license and those of several others after conducting undercover operations at parlors across the state.
"There were a good number of complaints from legitimate licensees and the public about a spring up of a lot of massage businesses," Wilkins said.
The legislature just passed a human trafficking law which will give the massage board more power to regulate parlors and hold owners accountable for illegal activity.
"We do think that there is some aspect of human trafficking in the illicit, improper, unlicensed illegal massage business, and it's going to take a good amount of effort to fight all of that," Wilkins said.
WRAL Investigates went through years of board cases and found links between other Triangle area parlors – all with ties to another man Hong Wei Zhang. In June, he was charged with allowing illegal massages, after being on the board's radar since 2011. Records show Zhang and his wife had connections to two parlors on Capital Boulevard, one on Duraleigh Road and one on Six Forks Road, all in Raleigh.
One woman found at one of the parlors told a detective she was recruited from New York after agreeing to pay a middle man $16,000.
Carton says that debt traps women.
"Women are moved frequently," she said. "They're moved because the buyers want new women and new experiences, and women are moved over because they're trying to pay off that debt."
The board named eight women found during the sting at Super Relax Asian Massage. Many of those names also appeared in disciplinary orders from other locations.
WRAL Investigates found cases where people were charged with practicing without a license and promoting prostitution. Polaris urges law enforcement to keep digging to uncover and prosecute the real crime – human trafficking.
"We start realizing the exploitation and trafficking happening in these businesses and the organized crime profiting from the exploitation of vulnerable women," Carton said. She also hopes customers realize that visiting these parlors for sex is not a victimless crime.
"There is this myth and this narrative built up that this is a willing participant, it's an easy business, it's something where everyone's happy, and this is a quick business exchange, and that's just not the case," Carton said.
Gov. Roy Cooper signed the human trafficking bill on Thursday.
The felony charges against Wang and Li are still pending.
With new parlors opening all the time, the massage board urges people to contact them if you suspect illegal activity.