With massage parlors unlicensed, human trafficking is difficult to police

By: - April 3, 2023 5:00 am

Since the New Hampshire Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force formed in 2016, it has identified 50 illicit massage businesses in the state. (John Lamb | Getty Images)

Federal law enforcement officers have discovered illicit massage parlors in every New Hampshire county, with victims of human trafficking being forced to have sex with customers. The National Human Trafficking Hotline identified 75 victims in New Hampshire in 2021, most involving sex in illicit massage parlors and spas.

Law enforcement officers say the state’s lax licensing laws are helping those parlors stay in business. Local officials, advocates who work with assault victims, and the head of the state’s licensing agency agree. 

They argue that the Legislature’s repeated refusal to require massage parlors to be licensed makes it difficult, sometimes impossible, to monitor and investigate parlors for illegal activity, even when there’s been a complaint. Local ordinances have proven ineffective, they said, and criminal cases are a challenge because trafficking victims, who often rely on their employers for food and shelter, are too scared to cooperate. 

For at least the fifth time in five years, proponents are asking lawmakers to expand licensing to massage establishments; currently, only individual therapists must have a license. Gov. Chris Sununu is joining them, even as he seeks to repeal more than 30 other professional licenses. 

With two of three bills seeking to license massage parlors already defeated this year, proponents’ chances look iffy. Their last hope looks to be the state budget, which will likely be finalized in June.

Sununu included a massage establishment license in his budget along with more than 100 pages of other proposals that would significantly scale back other state licensing powers. With lawmakers saying they had too little time to consider all the changes, the House Finance Committee is recommending the full House eliminate nearly all of them, including the massage establishment license. 

If the House agrees when it takes up the budget Thursday, proponents would have to persuade the Senate to reinstate it. 

“The purpose of licensure is to protect the public, and our lax licensure laws … are allowing individuals to essentially utilize our licensure laws to legitimize criminal activity,” Lindsey Courtney, executive director of the state’s Office of Professional Licensure and Certification, said. “I can’t really think of a reason why we wouldn’t want to implement a licensing framework that would allow us to proactively prevent that from occurring.”

Lawmakers have cited several concerns, from the burden and cost of an additional license to fears that the licensing office will become an arm of law enforcement. There has also been skepticism about the existence of human trafficking in the state, even as evidence indicates otherwise. 

Since the New Hampshire Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force formed in 2016, it has identified 50 illicit massage businesses in the state, said Director Meg Chant, who is also the human trafficking project specialist at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. 

Between 2011 and 2020, U.S. attorneys around the country saw a 62 percent increase in referrals for human trafficking, from 1,360 to 2,198, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of the 1,342 people prosecuted in federal courts for human trafficking in 2020, 658 were convicted. 

Experts say those numbers are likely low because human trafficking, like other abuse, is underreported.

‘They refuse to open the door’

The state licensed massage parlors from at least 1989, when an establishment license was enacted, to 1996, when it was repealed. A legislative review provided by Bradley Greenland, a researcher with the House, suggested lawmakers believed local communities should regulate local businesses. 

Without that license, state inspectors can’t make unannounced visits to massage sites, as they can with hair salons, pharmacies, and other businesses that must be licensed. Nor can they demand to be let in when responding to a complaint. When owners of illicit parlors learn they are under suspicion, they relocate to another community, under a different name, Courtney said. 

Michael Porter, investigation bureau chief at the state Office of Professional Licensure and Certification, told lawmakers that illicit massage parlors don’t have to let him in to investigate a complaint because the state does not license them. It only licenses massage therapists. (Screenshot)

Michael Porter, investigation bureau chief at the state’s licensing office, told lawmakers earlier this year that his team has been denied entry when they’ve visited a site to investigate a complaint, such as one from a man who expected to get a massage but was propositioned with sex. 

“We approach a building … in a strip mall. In order to gain entry, you have to hit a buzzer,” Porter told the House Executive Departments and Administration Committee in January. “They look through their camera, they see who we are, and they refuse to open the door.”

In one case, Porter was let in but given four different names when he asked to see a person’s massage license. “I couldn’t identify that person,” Porter said. “When we left, we had no avenue by which to even attempt to close this business down.”

Beverly Donovan, economic development director for Derry, said the city’s fire department issued a citation to one illicit massage business because workers were living in the business. Neighbors saw them doing laundry in the back. Food was being delivered, she said. 

The business closed. It reopened with a new manager the next week, Donovan told lawmakers. “This happens over and over again,” she said. “In most cases, it’s at least once a year. In a recent case, it was three times in one year.”

In 2019, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced it had reached a plea deal with Ken Ma, 60, on charges he’d been offering prostitution services at massage and bodywork businesses in Exeter, Salem, and Plaistow. The evidence included testimony from male customers who said they had paid money to receive sexual favors from massage workers over a 2½-year period. The plea deal included four months in prison.
Most cases never get that far, said Mike Posanka, of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations in Manchester. Victims often speak limited English, have no money or place to go, and may be foreign nationals or newly naturalized citizens with no connections beyond their employers.

“In every case, the victim is reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement as a result of those relationships,” he told lawmakers. 

‘We are really looking at making the victim safe’

The two pieces of legislation that have failed this year, House Bill 341 and Senate Bill 212, would not have applied to solo practitioners.  The bill’s supporters have lobbied for it with different arguments.

Courtney and Porter say an establishment license is the tool they need to protect the public from illicit massage parlors. A license would allow them to respond quickly to a violation that poses an imminent threat to the public. Massage therapists are divided, Courtney said, though the Advisory Board of Massage Therapists supports one.

Licensing inspectors do not partner with law enforcement or other agencies when they do a site visit. But they do make referrals when necessary. If inspectors discovered human trafficking at an illicit massage parlor, those referrals would likely go to law enforcement and sexual abuse victim advocates.

That’s critical, said Posanka, from Homeland Security Investigations, and Chant, from the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. Both are part of the New Hampshire Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force. Among their priorities is assuring trafficking victims they won’t face criminal charges for being coerced to provide sex.

“We’re not looking at this as just a law enforcement situation,” Chant said. “Generally, law enforcement can’t do it on their own. Victim services can’t do it on their own. And it really is just about trying to reach those victims. Yes, if we can prosecute the people who are doing it, the traffickers, that’s great. But we’re really looking at making the victim safe.”

State and National Help for Victims of Human Trafficking

  • The National Human Trafficking Hotline takes tips and provides services, including safety guidelines. Call 1-888-373-7888 or 711 for TYY assistance; text 233733; or chat via the organization’s website, humantraffickinghotline.org.
  • The New Hampshire Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force identifies signs of potential human trafficking and a list of places to contact for help at its website, nhhumantraffickingtaskforce.com.
  • Help is also available 24 hours a day at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, which can be reached at nhcadsv.org or by calling 866-644-3574.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.