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Asian massage parlors in Fargo-Moorhead: Illicit or legit?

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Editor's Note: This story was published on February 25, 2018.

FARGO — Some of the businesses have a professional appearance, decorated with plants and Asian adornments in their waiting areas.

Another is tucked into a tiny attic space inside an older building, dimly lit with stains on the carpet. A futon mattress rests on the floor next to a massage table and a menu of services states customers must pay up front.

The lone female employee, who doesn't speak English, is asked through a translation app on her phone whether commercial sex happens there.

No, she replies, shaking her head.

Most of these massage parlors advertise on the classified ads website backpage.com and offer a "table shower," where the customer is washed or rinsed while lying down, a service not typical of other massage businesses.

The Forum and WDAY-TV recently made these observations during visits to seven massage parlors in the metro area that identify as Asian massage by name or appearance — two in Fargo and five in Moorhead, three of which popped up in just the past few months.

The influx has caught the attention of police departments in both cities, though none of the massage parlor owners or workers have been charged with crimes.

A report released in January by the anti-trafficking group Polaris estimates more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses are operating in the U.S. as fronts for commercial sex and human trafficking, second in prevalence only to escort services for that sort of criminal activity.

Fargo Police Lt. Shannon Ruziska said he's not aware of any current or past allegations of human trafficking involving local businesses, but they're on the lookout for signs of it.

"We're not going to go out and harass these businesses because they're Asian and they're doing massages, but if we get an allegation that something illegal is happening, we will always look into that," Ruziska said.

Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger said the same is true in his city.

"We're hoping these businesses are legitimate, but if they aren't, they're going to be scrutinized," Ebinger said.

Both made it clear that if trafficking is happening here, police will go after the traffickers only, and that any victims will be referred to local agencies for help and resources.

Hard-to-prove allegations

Fargo police received a complaint in 2014 that illicit acts and massages without proper draping were happening at Asian Health Massage at 3003 32nd Ave. S.

Ruziska said they sent an undercover officer in, but were not able to confirm the allegations.

In April 2017, Gold Star Massage, then at 3218 20th St. S., abruptly shut its doors, shortly after officers went in to ask about its backpage ads and licensing.

Police weren't able to verify any criminal activity, but a woman who works nearby has her suspicions.

Dana Soto said she often saw the male-only customers of Gold Star park far away from the business so their vehicles wouldn't be seen next to it. "I think that it wasn't a legitimate massage," Soto said.

In July 2017, police received a complaint about Oriental Sport Massage at 1531 S. University Drive.

The complainant said when her male friend became aroused during a massage there, the employee tried to remove the towel around his genitals and asked if she should "keep going."

The man decided not to speak with police — an example of why these allegations are hard to prove.

"We don't have a good direct witness yet that we can pin a case down," Ruziska said.

Stricter requirements ahead

One of the new parlors in Moorhead, Good Day Spa at 2507 8th St. S., recently received a written warning from the city after police found several employees sleeping in the business and later determined an unlicensed worker was giving massages.

As a result, the city is drafting a new ordinance regulating massage businesses.

"There have been comments that they're coming over here because it's easier to get licensed here than in North Dakota," said City Clerk Michelle French.

North Dakota has some of the more robust massage therapy training requirements in the country. Massage businesses in the state are regulated by the North Dakota Board of Massage, which requires therapists to have 750 hours of instructor-based training and continuing education every two years.

Minnesota is one of only a few states that do not regulate the massage therapy profession. Instead, cities and counties may adopt their own laws.

Under current ordinance, the city of Moorhead requires a massage therapist to have 500 hours of study. French said Moorhead will aim to replicate what's on the books in North Dakota.

'They're basically slaves'

Illicit massage businesses hide in plain sight in strip malls and city centers in all 50 states, according to Polaris, often creating criminal networks amassing a total revenue of about $2.5 billion annually.

However, the victims of human trafficking at those parlors receive little, if any, of the money they earn, according to Debra Persinger, head of the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards, based in Overland Park, Kan.

"The money goes to the owner. They're in servitude. They're basically slaves in that circumstance," Persinger said.

According to the Polaris report, most of the women recruited into massage parlor trafficking have recently arrived from China or South Korea, are in their mid-30s to late 50s and speak little or no English.

They may answer an ad seeking a massage therapist, only to learn too late that sexual acts are part of their job duties.

Melissa Williams, a trafficking navigator for Youthworks in Fargo, said some of the women carry heavy family debts and are fronted money or a place to live by their traffickers, who use threats of violence, arrest or deportation against them.

"There's a lot of shame that goes into it, there's a lot of fear and coercion," Williams said.

Red flags

During The Forum and WDAY-TV's recent visits to the seven parlors, most of the women encountered either declined to be interviewed or said they spoke no English.

In a few cases, a woman stepped away from a client she was working with in order to see who'd come through the front door.

Some women were willing to answer questions about the parlors where they work. They said the businesses do get requests and calls from people asking whether they have sex-related or "special services," but said no such thing is offered.

Several of the women said they were the only ones working that day.

All of the seven businesses have extended hours of operation, open until 10 p.m. in some cases, seven days a week.

Persinger, who's one of the voices nationwide working to curtail human trafficking in the massage profession, said long, late hours of operation can be a red flag for an illicit massage business. So are backpage ads, the aforementioned "table shower," obscured windows and businesses where you have to ring a doorbell or be buzzed in to enter, she said.

An unwanted stigma

The proliferation of illicit massage businesses nationwide is particularly troubling to the people who work in legitimate operations, and to those who train therapists.

"It is a stigma that gets associated with everyone in the industry that we are trying to separate ourselves from," said Jane Nyberg, who leads the massage therapy program at Josef's School of Hair Design in Fargo and Grand Forks.

Nyberg is dismayed because many people who could have improved health with the benefits of massage therapy may never seek it out.

"There are some people out there who've had a bad experience or are just too scared to take the chance because of some of the things they've heard or seen go on," she said.

She said instruction about proper therapist-client relationships begins Day One. "It starts with the way you hold yourself, the way you dress, the way you approach someone, the choice of words you make," Nyberg said.

She suggests that consumers ask to see a massage therapist's license, which should be in plain view. License renewal cards should be posted as well.

The status of a therapist's license can also be checked via the North Dakota Board of Massage or the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards' websites.

Not a 'victimless crime'

Some customers may unwittingly find themselves in an uncomfortable situation at an illicit massage business. Many others will deliberately seek out such establishments.

According to the Polaris report, the businesses are particularly attractive to people who wouldn't otherwise buy sex because of the risk.

On multiple user-generated websites, including rubmaps.com and spahunters.com, would-be customers can look up reviews of parlors in their area.

They can read about which women provide which sex acts and their physical attributes. Paid subscribers get the most detailed information.

In her job as a trafficking navigator, Williams works with at-risk youth and young adults, some of whom are trying to get out of the commercial sex trade.

Williams and police encourage people to report anything suspicious.

"I get why people are a little bit nervous and reluctant to come forward, but that makes it difficult for us to prove a case," Ruziska said.

Williams reminds people that commercial sex and human trafficking are not "victimless crimes."

"Why would somebody choose to have sex with multiple strangers every single day?" she said. "Who would choose that?"

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