Hidden in plain sight amid South Florida's suburban storefront malls is a booming adult industry that local leaders and law enforcement officials worry may be a large-scale breeding ground for sexual slavery and human trafficking.
It's known as the "body-rub" business, a world of open-til-late massage parlors better known for blacked-out windows and neon signs, provocative ads and rumors of "happy endings" for cash than their therapeutic merit.
In recent years, experts say, there has been an "exponential" surge of massage parlors in South Florida, particularly in Broward County where many of the parlors advertise their proximity to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. And many elected officials are concerned.
"At my urging, we are actually looking at how to regulate them," Hollywood Mayor Peter Bober said. "I think there's too many of them, I think they do absolutely nothing to enhance the city."
One reason for the boom in storefront massage parlors over the past decade, say law enforcement officials, are the marketing possibilities and access to customers offered by the explosive growth of the Internet. A federal agent who investigates human trafficking also highlighted the historically weak regulation in Florida of massage businesses that feature foreign women, where proper identification of workers was an issue.
The focus turned to the laws requiring licenses to be displayed and forcing workers to have appropriate identification.
"There was a bit of a loophole," said Carmen J. Pino, assistant special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Office of Homeland Security Investigations in Miami . "Thankfully, the state has come down [on this issue] in the past months and is saying now there's more licensing, more oversight."
One reason for law enforcement's concern: The possibility that such businesses are engaged in sex trafficking, that is, the sexual exploitation of their female employees by force, fraud, or coercion for financial gain.
There is nothing illegal about a licensed massage therapist providing a massage to a customer in a licensed establishment. Massage establishment licenses and individual massage therapist licenses are required for the lawful practice of massage, and both are issued by the Florida Department of Health.
What is illegal is a masseuse accepting cash tips for sexual services, or a customer trying to solicit them.
Adriane Reesey, a community specialist with the Broward Sheriff's Office, said the growth of suspect massage businesses in South Florida has taken place over the past two years and "just taken off, it's been exponential" in the last six to eight months, and government and law enforcement are trying to play catch-up.
"I think it slowly crept up on us; I think a lot of folks weren't necessarily paying attention to it," said Reesey, who leads the Broward Human Trafficking Coalition, an association of law enforcement officials, health workers and community advocates that is trying to raise awareness of the problem.
"We are, with this issue, where we were with domestic violence 20 years ago," Reesey said.
FBI conducting raids
Along State Road 7 and Stirling Road in Hollywood and Davie, dozens of storefront massage parlors now compete for the lunchtime professional trade and late-night gamblers.
But the parlors are seemingly everywhere in South Florida. In Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, the Florida Department of Health has licensed about 3,600 massage businesses of all sorts — from chiropractors and spas to the storefront massage joints. One website lists at least 270 South Florida businesses that provide massage and spa services. Commenters on the site seem to be "mongers," or people who frequent massage parlors seeking sexual services.
Broken down by city, the site lists 32 massage and spa businesses operating in Fort Lauderdale, 24 each in Hollywood and Pompano Beach, 20 in Boca Raton, 19 in West Palm Beach, 11 in Hallandale Beach, and 10 in Deerfield Beach. Cities like Davie, Plantation, Tamarac, Sunrise, Pembroke Pines, Margate, Dania Beach and others round out the list with single-digit totals.
In recent months, the Sun Sentinel has learned, the FBI has been conducting raids at a number of the massage establishments in Broward County, seizing files, computer equipment, surveillance cameras and other property.
"They're targeting the Chinese/Oriental spas," said Miami defense lawyer Albert Quirantes, who represents about a half-dozen massage therapists recently suspended by the Florida Department of Health, including the owner of one Hallandale Beach Boulevard parlor that Quirantes said was raided by federal agents.
Asked what the FBI was seeking, Quirantes said the agents
seemed to be looking for evidence of human trafficking and sexual slavery. He said the therapists he represents have nothing to do with such practices.
"The fact is that the government is going a little too far with this human trafficking investigation and is just overreaching," Quirantes said.
For its part, the FBI refused to say anything.
"As a matter of policy, we do not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation," Jim Marshall, spokesman for the FBI's Miami Division, said by email. Officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami and U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement also declined to speak about the probe.
Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper confirmed a federal investigation is under way, but declined to say more.
"I can't really comment on what's been going on because of the federal case," Cooper said. "I just want to let you know that we consider it a serious thing."
At the state level, new anti-human trafficking legislation has been in effect since July 1. Operators of licensed massage parlors in Florida now must be able to present government-issued identification for any employee to law enforcement officers or state health inspectors. The measure is intended to make it harder to import illegal immigrants to work in the business.
In September, state regulators cracked down on masseuses with suspect credentials, revoking the right of 161 licensed massage therapists to give massages. Of the suspended therapists, most of whom appear from their names to be Asian women, 32 are based in Broward, 10 in Palm Beach County and a dozen in Miami-Dade, according to Department of Health records.
Accused of having obtained their Florida massage licenses by fraud, the masseuses are alleged to have bought phony educational certificates from the Florida College of Natural Health in Pompano Beach. Officials of the school blamed a "rogue employee" they said is no longer working there.
Among the masseuses are the women represented by Quirantes. "They are not knowingly guilty of anything," said the lawyer, who said his clients were "victims" bilked by the former college employee. He said none of the women he represents has been involved in prostitution, and they operate lawfully.
"None of my clients have anything to do with any human trafficking," Quirantes said.
Few details were released when Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Surgeon Gen. John Armstrong announced the mass license suspension on Sept. 19, but a press release said the enforcement action was part of an ongoing investigation involving the Florida Department of Health and the South Florida Human Trafficking Task Force.
"There have been ongoing concerns expressed by law enforcement, and we have been supporting their active investigations," Armstrong said.
A big business
Since the suspensions, law enforcement agencies who make up the South Florida task force have been unwilling to provide further details, saying they don't want to compromise the investigation.
But human trafficking experts, investigators, and federal court documents do offer a general overview of how human trafficking plays out in the massage industry. They say that while massage parlors often have been used as a front for prostitution, what's increasingly evident is that some of the so-called prostitutes are actually victims of exploitation.
"We're not talking about a prostitute, we're talking about a victim," Pino said.
Bradley Myles, CEO of the Washington-based anti-human trafficking organization Polaris Project, said human trafficking victims in the massage industry appear to be controlled by criminal networks. They move the women between different hubs, including New York, Los Angeles, South Florida, Atlanta and the Washington, D.C., area.
Recruited from their home countries in China, South Korea and Thailand, the women are promised legitimate jobs as massage therapists in America. Some are smuggled into the U.S., often through Canada or Mexico, while others fly in using legitimate or fraudulent visas, human trafficking experts say.
In general, law enforcement and human trafficking experts believe victims of massage parlor human trafficking are coerced in the same ways as other labor trafficking victims. The traffickers confiscate their passports and IDs, threaten them with deportation if they try to speak out or flee, and warn them their families back home could be harmed.
In some cases, they are told they must keep working to pay off a smuggling debt, which never seems to go away. They may be forced to live in bedrooms in the back of the massage parlor, and they may be monitored 24/7 by surveillance cameras. Once they're compelled to perform one illegal act, they're told that if they try to stop, they will be handed over to local authorities, who will deport them back home. Even worse, their families will be told of their shameful behavior.
Living in constant fear, the victim learns to cooperate — or else.
There is big money to be made in massage parlors. In February, two defendants
were sentenced to 13 months in federal prison for running two illicit parlors in Montana that made at least $1.1 million over five years, according to federal court documents.
"The actual women who are in a location, who are living and sleeping and spending their time there, are only one part of a much broader web," Myles said. "The network is a stacked deck, and it's very much stacked against the women."
"I'm not ashamed"
In an effort to speak to women who worked at the businesses, the Sun Sentinel in recent weeks visited 10 body-rub businesses across Broward, making multiple visits to some. Nine were licensed by the state as massage establishments, while the 10th, which calls itself a spa, was not.
Of the massage parlors, seven were listed as the addresses of suspended therapists, according to the state Department of Health. Some establishments were the scene of multiple suspensions, including one Hollywood location where, according to state records, six of the suspended therapists had worked.
At four of the businesses, workers said they couldn't talk to the Sun Sentinel and only the manager could speak for them. At the other half-dozen locations, a woman identified herself as the owner or the manager, and declined to let the massage workers talk to a journalist or to the Mandarin-language translator who accompanied him.
For some local elected officials, equally unable to speak to the workers, that is a troubling sign.
"A lot of times when you go there, their boss does the talking for them, and if you try to engage them in conversation, they won't speak to you," said Davie Councilwoman Susan Starkey, who has spoken out at council meetings against human trafficking. "It's a really disturbing thing."
The women who identifed themselves as owners or managers denied their businesses offered sexual services for money. Some told the Sun Sentinel they were the victims of racial profiling.
"I don't want people thinking of masseuses as escorts — we're not," said Lisa Wong, owner-manager of East Village Spa in Davie. "We're educated; we're hard-working people. I'm not ashamed to be a massage therapist."
Oriental Massage, on State Road 7 south of Broward Boulevard in Plantation, posts Internet ads promising massages from "pretty Asian girls" who will "wash you down like a baby." The most recent ad was posted to a website that carried ads for adult body-rub services on Saturday.
Owner Shiying Peng, whose Florida massage license was among those suspended this fall, was asked why the ads were still being posted. She said she had paid for them in advance, and that they were published automatically. She said she was no longer giving massages at the business, only answering the phone and collecting her mail.
"Some people who come to the front, they ask [for a happy ending]," Peng said, after turning away one would-be customer during an interview. "I say, 'Sorry, maybe you will find it in a different place.' "
Peng said she is a legitimate business owner and has no involvement in human trafficking or prostitution.
"I'm a good person," she said. "I don't do bad things."