Recently, a police crackdown in Tampa shone a light on the issue of human trafficking in Florida and how these illegal practices operate.

A close look at how law enforcement in Florida is tackling human trafficking lets us see how criminals evade laws—and the effect this problem has on legitimate massage therapists.

Fake Establishments

In April of 2017, the investigative unit of a Florida news channel known as “8 On Your Side” broke a story exposing more than a dozen illegal massage parlors operating in the Tampa area.

In talking with police detectives, Channel 8 learned that prostitutes and sex trafficking networks had been using these fake establishments for quite some time to offer sexual services via massages, largely without worry of being penalized legally.

In fact, over a five-year period, only one business had been forced to close and just two arrests had been made, according to “8 On Your Side.”

This ability to escape legal action was largely because the workers knew how to detect an undercover officer, such as asking clients to shower before the “massage” to see if they were wearing a wire.

They also engaged in other actions designed to help avoid arrest, like using their fingers to draw their prices in the air.

To make matters more difficult, Tampa police reported that they generally only respond to this type of issue if a complaint is made. This made it easier for illegal massage businesses to operate, giving them an even greater opportunity to earn big money.

A Big Dollar Business

In their report titled Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses, the Polaris Project estimates that illicit massage businesses, or IMBs, earn revenues of roughly $2.5 billion per year.

Rochelle Keyhan, Director of Disruption Strategies at Polaris, said that Florida has been a hot spot for IMBs, with roughly 1,000 establishments. This is second only to California, which is thought to have around 3,000 IMBs.

Keyhan explained that, in the case of trafficked workers, they generally come from China or Korea and enter through one of three main ports of entry: Flushing, New York; San Francisco; or Los Angeles, California.

Once in the U.S., they travel to Florida via Interstate 95, a route known for sex trafficking travel.

Additionally, most of the time IMBs do not employ certified massage therapists, said Keyhan, though many have massage experience in their originating country.

Though, to appear more credible, some will purchase massage therapy certificates in bulk from fraudulent massage, making it harder for authorities to separate reputable massage businesses from illicit setups.

Human Trafficking in Florida: A Long-Term Problem

Keyhan further shared that, although this issue is just now getting media attention, it’s not a new problem.

Polaris has been working on trafficking issues since the early 2000s, collecting research to gain a clearer picture of “what this type of trafficking looks like and what it takes to tackle it.”

Then, after receiving funding a little over three years ago, it decided to tackle IMBs first because they are operating in plain sight, with roughly 56 percent advertising on social media sites like Yelp to grow their clientele.

Though Tampa is taking positive efforts to close fraudulent massage businesses, these efforts are limited because of a lack of time and resources, Keyhan said.

However, code enforcement operations and the Department of Health in Tampa are “making good steps” toward creating stronger ordinances designed to deal with this issue more effectively, she said.

Neighboring areas are also following suit, with Hillsborough County considering the creation of massage therapy ordinances.

This is critical, said Keyhan, because “if one city cracks down, the trafficking network just moves to a close city,” one that isn’t enforcing the issue as tightly. Therefore, a uniform enforcement is needed to put an end to these types of businesses.

Local communities are becoming more involved as well, thanks to efforts by individuals like Joe Manson, founder of Clean Up Kennedy.

“A lot of people don’t know about the amount of illicit massage businesses operating in their communities and how they affect the people who are practicing legitimate massage therapy,” Manson said. “People don’t realize the abuse and harassment that LMTs [Licensed Massage Therapists] experience because of how these ‘massage parlors’ blur the line between sex work and massage therapy.”

The Impact on Real Massage Therapy Businesses

So, what impact does illicit massage businesses actually have on reputable therapy practices?

“To use a massage establishment as a guise for illegal sexual activity with human trafficking is harmful to all parties involved, plus our massage industry as a whole,” said Selena Belisle, instructor at the Florida-based CE Institute.

“The Florida Board of Health and Florida Board of Massage both recognize that this is an extremely serious problem and they have spent the past several years educating massage therapists and the public about what we can do to help,” Belisle said.

The Florida State Massage Therapy Association also holds monthly meetings to help educate local massage practitioners.

Belisle said that the basic message is, “if we see something that is wrong, or if we hear about something that is wrong, we must take the initiative and report this to the board so that it can be investigated.”

Belisle said she feels that many therapists struggle with this request because they either don’t want to get involved or don’t feel they have enough proof to make a report.

“This is the wrong approach,” Belisle said, adding that it is the therapist’s duty to report any potential illicit activity. “The investigators have the burden to determine if a crime is being committed,” Belisle said, “not us as therapists, so we must report anything unreasonably suspicious and allow the investigators to do their job.”

“What’s more important is that filing such a report of suspicious activity could save someone from human trafficking, could stop illegal activity from occurring under the guise of professional massage, and could help strengthen our industry if these illegitimate practices are investigated or shut down,” Belisle said.

“Turning a blind eye to suspicious and illegal activity under the guise of a massage establishment is not helping anyone, and it is definitely hurting our industry,” she added.

About the Author

Christina DeBusk is a freelance writer dedicated to providing readers relevant, research-backed content related to health and wellness, personal development, safety, and small business ownership.