Police, regulators try to keep up with illicit massage parlors
Posted August 9
Raleigh, N.C. — Massage parlors that sell sex are often part of illicit networks that stretch across North Carolina and other states, making it difficult for law enforcement and state regulators to catch up with them.
Many of the women who work in the businesses are breaking the law by offering massages without a state license, but investigators say many are victims themselves.
"This is a big problem, and this is a big problem in North Carolina," said Charles Wilkins, general counsel of the North Carolina Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy.
"This was not going to be a problem you could solve by going to one establishment and issuing a citation," said Maj. Rick Hoffman, who has spent five years heading up the Raleigh Police Department's efforts to crack down on human trafficking.
A group that fights human trafficking says there may be hundreds of illicit massage parlors in North Carolina. Women are often moved from one business to another to keep them working off debts and to keep offering customers new rotations of women, the group says.
"When you think about advertising for legitimate businesses, legitimate businesses advertise their services, not their employees," Hoffman said.
The networks make it harder to crack down on human trafficking and other crimes, he said.
"We take enforcement action, and we cite everybody, and they move one street over," he said. "We were playing checkers; they're playing chess. They've already established, if they close down here, a lease agreement is already ready, utilities are ready."
Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies are now sharing information and working together to shut down the illicit networks.
Last year, the state massage board hired a private investigator after noticing a flood of license applications from New York and getting complaints about licensees who couldn't speak English.
"We did determine that we had probably licensed people that really should not have been licensed," Wilkins said. "We found out that some of the schools that had diplomas that these people were sending to the board for licensure were diploma mills. We also found that some of the exams that were taken were being compromised in various ways."
Some of those licenses ended up on walls at parlors offering illicit services by unlicensed workers.
"We weren't aware of who they were, where they were or what they were doing," Wilkins said.
The owner of a massage parlor on Creedmoor Road in Raleigh was charged with twice bribing a police officer to leave her business alone. The officer, who was investigating whether women at the parlor were licensed to provide massages, was allegedly offered $2,500 in bribes.
"One of the things I'm trying to determine first and foremost is, do I have victims of human trafficking?" Hoffman said. "I don't want to issue a citation to an employee when the truth of the matter is they're being exploited."
Police raided Touch of Asia massage parlor on East Williams Street in Apex in October. Investigators seized records and cash and found two women operating without a massage license. A search warrant shows officers watched the business for more than a month and routinely saw women being picked up and dropped off in cars registered in New York.
Mengxun Wang and Quan Chun Li were charged in the Apex case with promotion of prostitution and promoting a criminal enterprise, both felonies.
WRAL Investigates dug through records and connected Wang to several businesses across the state. The state massage board subsequently revoked Wang's license, as well as the licenses of several others, after conducting undercover operations at parlors across the state.
"I think it is a substantial income to the persons who are running the businesses, owning the businesses and who are hiring unlicensed people," Wilkins said.
"There's a great deal of money that is involved, and obviously, the people doing the work don't have the money," Hoffman said.
A new state law designed to crack down on human trafficking will give the board another chance to vet licensees in North Carolina and hold the owners of illicit massage parlors accountable.
The law, which Gov. Roy Cooper signed three weeks ago, allows the board to more easily scrutinize licensees and find out more about who's running a massage business and who's working there. It also gives police more power to shut down businesses with license issues.
"I can tell you, now we're playing chess with them," Hoffman said of trying to keep pace with massage parlor operators.