A bead of sweat fell from Jim R.’s forehead as he gazed with pain in his eyes at one of his local massage parlors in Lake Forest, Calif.
“The massage therapist women will say they’re from Asia and that they need money and more tips. They then, they will tell me how much I will give them as they point to my groin area,” Jim, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, told The Epoch Times.
“I found out about these special parlors through links on pornographic websites, and I think at this point every city in SoCal has them now.”
Jim, who is disabled, started using illicit massage parlors (IMP) offering prostitution services in January 2021. Many of these IMPs have a high probability of using women who are victims of sex trafficking.
The county’s financial affluence makes it a destination for vacationers and creates a high demand on the sex industry. These prostitution operations often shield themselves within massage parlor fronts that have legal business licenses and legitimate massage therapy certifications.
“One of the parlors I’ve [visited] is right above a busy Starbucks,” said Jim. “Men pull up to that massage place in nice cars and just take off a half hour later and go home. Websites freely tell you where these places are, and I feel guilty. I hate myself and my addiction for going.”
A 2019 Heyrick Research report (pdf) assessed that more than 84 percent of illicit massage parlor businesses have management and victim workers (VW) who originate from mainland China. Many of these businesses also commonly use workers from Vietnam, Korea, and Thailand.
Women working within the confines of these prostitution rings average between the ages of 30 and 50 years old and are often fleeing difficult financial situations from their impoverished homes. They obtain B1/B2 tourist visas through businesses that promise document assistance, transportation, and jobs. The women are typically charged around $30,000-50,000 for this service.
This debt, along with high-interest rates, makes it nearly impossible for VWs to pay the money back, and the shame of sex work keeps those recovered from human trafficking in Orange County from choosing to return to their home nations.
At a massage parlor in Lake Forest just four doors down from a pre-school, a masseuse in her mid-to-late 20s entered a massage therapy room wearing a slim, white dress, cut to one foot above the knee. She is from the Chinese province of Sichuan and is said to have arrived in America four years prior.
The room was clad in powder pink with one small lamp for light, and it was filled with stacked boxes of tissue paper that were placed on a shelf within an arm’s distance from the massage table.
It was 10 minutes into the massage when she delivered her first request in broken English for an undercover reporter to flip over while her hands reached for the groin area, which was denied. This was requested three more times during the 30-minute massage session. Her last request was softly spoken and included the words “tips … tips.”
After her final request, the massage ended abruptly.
“May I have tip? Please, I can only have tip.”
Her eyes were now slightly watery.
“Are they paying you okay here?” the reporter asked.
“They don’t pay,” she said.
“We only get tips … Please.”
After receiving a tip, she gestured the reporter to walk down the dark hallway leading to the front of the business. With a look of confusion, she slowly closed the door behind him. It’s clear that most of her customers pay for her to perform sexual favors, and she was spared on this day.
Tips for sex acts, which include the notorious “happy ending” that IMPs are known for, will typically earn VWs $50.00 to $300.00, but it is unknown how much they keep for themselves when the day is over.
Like others in her situation, women trafficked into illegal massage parlors are always monitored by the person handling them, and they are regularly shuffled to other IMPs every few weeks.
“It keeps them from having a connection with the community. It’s an intentional goal to get the keep them on the move so they can’t connect with a customer who’s regular and figure out what’s happening,” I-5 Freedom Network director and president Brenda Wells told The Epoch Times.
“They keep them imbalanced, so they don’t really know where they are at any given time. It’s just one way to keep them from making connections.”
Once these victims arrive in the United States, the women who speak little to no English will often have their passports and documentation taken from them by crime outfits who then trap them into sex trafficking. With no records on hand, the women receive constant threats, manipulation, and physical abuse as a way of control.
The i-5 Freedom Network organization’s anti-trafficking model was originally designed to help hospitality services around Orange County spot crimes as they happen. With sustainability in mind, Wells and her team have expanded their reach to bring the fight against trafficking to the local government level by connecting with city councils.
“Most of the massage professionals, the massage therapists who are licensed, deal with a primarily female clientele, as opposed to these illicit massage parlors where 80 percent of their businesses is male, and they’re the ones that are offering the low-priced $40 for 30-minute massage type of thing,” Wells said.
“In San Juan Capistrano, with a rough estimate of maybe 15 massage parlors, over 10 of them are illicit.”
Earlier this year, the city council unanimously agreed to place more stringent regulations on local massage parlors. Once a citation is issued after an investigation, an IMP is shut down and can no longer open another in its place.
“The revolving door business licenses are a thing of the past in San Juan Capistrano in regard to these illicit businesses,” councilman and former Naval Intelligence officer Howard Hart told The Epoch Times.
“We hope to be the vanguard of Orange County in moving in this direction. I’ve been in conversations with city council members from Laguna Niguel, Laguna Hills, San Clemente, and other areas … So, we’re very proud of what we’re doing and we’re especially grateful for the Freedom Network, who has been a great partner in not only educating our people about this issue, but helping us craft the appropriate ordinances that will allow us to hopefully drive these illicit massage parlors out of town.”
The city of San Juan Capistrano and the i-5 Freedom Network are confident these changes are paving the way towards combatting local human trafficking, but both Wells and Hart say that raising awareness is imperative for saving VWs in Southern California.
Illicit vs Licit
“We want to make sure we’re really clear on honoring the legitimate establishments and working towards supporting those victims in the illicit establishments in getting to the root cause,” Wells said.
“Legitimate massage establishments are getting sucked into this … it’s really important that we distance ourselves from any sort of conspiracy theories when it comes to what people believe is human trafficking, because what a lot of people are believing is true about what human trafficking looks like is not actually true.”
IMBs are normally located in plain sight within strip mall locations or next to popular food businesses. Common red flags are:
- Neon “OPEN” signs after 10:00 pm
- Windows that are blacked out and/or blocked
- Access to the business is from a side entrance, not the front
- Flowers, roses, and “Asian Massage” within the logo or parlor name
- Cheaper pricing than standard massage rates
- Customers are primarily men, frequently entering and exiting the establishment
- Listed on pornographic review sites has having prostitution services
- Workers suspected of living on the premises
- Usually located within a mini-mall type shopping area
However, legitimate massage parlors are also sometimes erroneously tied to prostitution services.
The Epoch Times investigated another massage parlor in Lake Forest that was said to be listed on websites that publicly share the locations of IMPs. The location was wedged between an upscale nail salon and a restaurant, and most customers entering the building to and from the building were female.
Upon entry, an elderly male massage clerk led the reporter through a visible open area where three customers were receiving heat stone therapy in a dignified environment. After allowing the undercover reporter to privately change, the masseuse, an Asian female appearing to be in her early forties, began the session and remained professional over the course of the massage duration. Although the massage was below market value at $50.00, no apparent signs of prostitution or human trafficking were found within the parlor’s business operation. Meanwhile, Yelp reviews gave the establishment positive scores and no suspicious comments were posted.
“It’s important that people are informed and that they’re educated on what human trafficking really looks like,” Wells continued.
“We can address the illicit massage establishments through ordinances and code compliance at the city level. And so that’s how we’re taking this issue on.”
A lawful way to bring attention to an illicit massage parlor to local government and law enforcement officials is to contact city code compliance officials through phone numbers and email addresses publicly listed on city websites.
“If a massage parlor is supposed to be closed at 9:00 pm and if they’re still open at 9:01 you can call in a code compliance issue,” Wells shared.
“The more people that call, the more the city will respond. Citations will start being issued and that will lead into more action.”
“A very fair estimate would be that there are over 200 of these kind of massage parlors, countywide,” Anaheim Police Department Sgt. Juan Reveles told The Epoch Times.
“Part of the challenge is that they work under the guise of a legitimate business. They have a business license and a storefront, and that’s one of the issues we have as we conduct investigations. We break down who the actual ‘money people’ are in operating these things.”
Reveles took charge of the multi-jurisdictional Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force (OCHTTF) in 2014. The task force has assisted approximately 1,220 victims of human trafficking since 2004, according to its latest report (pdf).
Reveles notes that the work comes with digging past the obvious signs of IMPs.
“You will be able to sit in front of a massage parlor with just the knowledge you have and make a pretty good guess that it’s probably an illegal massage parlor.”
“Because you’ll sit there for a couple of hours and realize that all the customers go in there and males, and that they are in there for a very short duration of time.”
Law enforcement officials must make a calculated determination on prioritizing their IMP investigations and creating a case. Variables in each investigation can include public and local government responses, if minors are involved, if schools are in the vicinity, and if crime leaders are on site for possible arrest.
Executed with limited manpower and resources, officers must also carefully conduct their investigations in a manner that provides long term solutions for VWs.
“At the massage parlor, you’ll have the workers, and you’ll have the office person, but that’s not really who’s running them. But that is what’s visible while doing an investigation. It’s about trying to impact who most likely who’s going to be held accountable or arrested for these violations.”
But Reveles notes that this is not a long-term solution in fighting Orange County’s IMP’s and recovering the women being sex trafficked within them.
“My goal is to get to (the human-traffickers’) top office, and the top people are insulated.”
“They pick somebody to be the manager and they pick somebody to get the business license for them, but these individuals will always claim that they didn’t know what was happening at the massage parlor.”
Once a decision has been made to send in law enforcement officials to make arrests and issue citations, officers face their next challenge in getting VWs to provide the information they need to mark them as being trafficked and move them into the recovery process.
“Are you a victim of pimping? Are you a victim of human trafficking? Can we help you with our resources? … I can tell you that the chances for successful cooperation from the workers is very bad,” said Reveles.
This is because VWs are groomed by their traffickers to not cooperate with law enforcement officers. In many cases, they are fed anti-police propaganda that scares them even more into never taking advantage of a rescue.
“I don’t call them rescues. If you go with that mindset, you’re going to fail,” Reveles said.
“They don’t want you there and they don’t want to cooperate with you. They think, ‘If you’re going to give me a citation, give me the citation and I’m going to go on.'”
Reveles and his team take the approach of identifying victims once the decision has been made to move in on an IMP. Once police officers declare lawbreaking has occurred to on-site staff and workers, the officers give VWs a chance to respond and allow them to communicate through a translator of their own choice.
“When you are trying to portray that we are independent from them but you use the same police interpreter, that doesn’t sense to them. We are trying to increase our chance to really set a situation where if they want to be cooperative, that there are services for them,” Reveles said.
“Our responses are in place for them, but very [few] take advantage of it.”
Despite the challenges, Reveles and his team are constantly on the move in their investigations to bring traffickers to justice.
“Since 2012, the OCDA’s [Orange County District Attorney] Office has prosecuted an estimated total of 773 cases for felony charges of human trafficking, pimping and pandering. Between 2012 and 2020, 94 percent of cases reviewed were filed, and of the cases that went to jury trial 95 percent received a guilty verdict,” according to the OCHTTF report.
With over 200 illicit massage parlors operating in Orange County alone, local awareness of these prostitution operations continues to be a key step in addressing the issue. With this awareness, customers of IMPs can be reminded that they are investing their money and time into human sex trafficking.
“You go to these places to feel better, but when the dust settles all, you have is a pile of depression. I am always angry at myself for doing this,” IMP customer Jim told The Epoch Times.
“I tell myself I’m never going to do it again, and it is never worth it.”