48 Investigates: Organized prostitution disguised as massage par - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

48 Investigates: Organized prostitution disguised as massage parlors

It is organized prostitution operating under the guise of massage therapy. (Source: WAFF) It is organized prostitution operating under the guise of massage therapy. (Source: WAFF)

The sign may say massage but it’s really for much more. It is organized prostitution operating under the guise of massage therapy.

It can set up overnight, in an old home, a trailer or even have a legitimate looking storefront.

Right now, eight businesses advertising massages are under investigation for prostitution across the state and four of those are in North Alabama.

"If your massage therapist is at a truck stop and they are open till two o'clock in the morning, they're probably not legitimate," said Alabama Massage
Therapy Board Investigator Mike James.

Last year, James helped bust 16 massage parlors for offering sex, including Royal Spa sitting along Highway 72 in Madison. The spa was in business since 2006 until it was shut down.

Investigators found it was tied to a multi-state prostitution ring connected to gang activity.

"Organized gang activity occurs at the money level. The girl that works here or at a spa, she may not know who the boss is," added James.

These operations are run by human traffickers and it boils down to modern day slavery.

"She works a circuit and they move her every week, every two weeks from location to location. They are working their bondage off is what they're doing,"
said James.

Alabama is a hotspot for human trafficking simply because of the major highways running through it.

"From California to Nevada, to Texas, Louisiana, there here. Then Georgia, a lot of contacts in Georgia then they work the east coast," explained James.

James is the only investigator working for the Alabama Massage Therapy Board that issues licenses to businesses and therapists.

Under state law, he can go in without a search warrant to inspect businesses suspected of prostitution but still has to coordinate with local district attorneys and law enforcement to make the arrest.

However, resources and manpower is an issue. Most times, he's working off a tip from legitimate therapists who report shady practices.

It's easy to find through a Craigslist ad, Backpage.com and even a website called Rubmaps that allows users to narrow a search by city based on reviews of others who claim to have received erotic massages.

We pulled up a review of a business in Huntsville where users claimed to have received sex acts during a massage.

"Never in a million years would we have a presence on any of those websites," said massage therapist Denise Sullivan.

As a legitimate massage therapist, Sullivan said sex work hiding behind massages is giving the industry a bad name.

"As massage therapists, we spend thousands of dollars going to school to learn this trade. We love what we do so when we get associated with those other businesses it's very offensive and insulting," added Sullivan.

Even more insulting, when she gets a phone call looking for more.

"They'll be very vague. What kind of massage do you want? Do you do full body massage? What's included? Then I become very suspicious," said Sullivan.

She wants the board to do more. Such as making the license process tougher, at least requiring license photos, fingerprinting and background checks.

The average age of a sex trade worker at these spas is 50-years-old.

In all of this, it's easy to forget, the woman behind this kind of sex trade are victims.

State lawmakers just passed a bill this legislative session to better protect them.

House Bill 433 allows for a 72-hour hold placed on a foreign national who does not speak English if the person is arrested for the crime for prostitution to ensure access to certain resources, such as health care, shelter, and counseling.

State Representative Jack Williams who sponsored the bill made it clear, his goal is to make Alabama a bad place to pimp and a bad place to purchase.

Sullivan warns of what to look out for in spotting a business that might be engaging in prostitution:

  • When you walk in the door, state law says their license has to be publicly posted. If you don't see a license, ask to see the license. If they don't have a license leave.
  • Pay attention to location, how and where they are advertising services.
  • Pay attention to their hours of operation
  • Blacked out windows and camera surveillance outside are also indicators something more could be going on.

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