Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced earlier today a new, first of its kind initiative to combat instances of human trafficking by targeting illicit massage businesses across the state.
The Hope Initiative targets illicit massage businesses that may be engaging in human trafficking and advertising on illicit websites while posing as a legitimate business. The initiative’s first phase has already resulted in 50 percent of landlords either starting the eviction process, committing to start the eviction process, or refusing to renew leases on tenants in question.
“Human trafficking is a global scourge that affects millions, including and especially here in Missouri. Using the legitimate massage business as a front, traffickers set up shop in strip malls or other commercial businesses and operate illicit massage parlors, often unbeknownst to the landlord,” said Attorney General Schmitt. “Through the Hope Initiative, which is the first of its kind, we’re working with partners across the state to identify and evict these illicit massage businesses, and in certain cases, take additional legal action. We want to send the message to anyone who is listening that the Missouri Attorney General’s Office will take action wherever possible to keep traffickers out of Missouri.”
The Hope Initiative is a three-phase, continuing effort to evict illicit massage businesses that are advertising on websites like Backpage, CityXGuide, Rubmaps, and more.
The first phase, which has already produced results, entailed the Attorney General’s Office sending out letters to 77 landlords informing them of their tenant’s potentially illegal activity by advertising on illicit websites and urging them to evict said tenant. As the initiative progresses, more letters will be sent to additional businesses. More often than not, the landlords are largely unaware of their tenant’s illegal activity. Since sending that letter on September 4, 2020, 41 of those 77 landlords have responded:
- 23 have either been removed via eviction, are no longer a tenant, or the landlord will not renew their lease;
- 17 have indicated to the Attorney General’s Office that they are committed to removing the tenants but have not begun the eviction process yet;
- One landlord has refused to evict.
The letters cite several statutes related to public nuisance, certain lines from the St. of Missouri v. Golden Massage ruling that bolsters that illicit massage businesses are illegal, and a copy of the Rubmaps ad for that business. Additional letters will soon be sent to landlords who did not respond.
To identify the locations of the illicit massage businesses, the Attorney General’s Office partnered with non-profit Heyrick Research, who scraped known websites that advertise illicit massages and prostitution to build a list of illicit massage businesses across the state.
The next two phases entail potential lawsuits and/or criminal cases. The objective of the initiative is to continually work with landlords to evict illicit massage businesses, but the Attorney General’s Office has been in contact with prosecutors and law enforcement across the state as we move forward in the initiative.
Across the United States, traffickers use the legitimate massage therapy industry as a front for human trafficking. Polaris Project (2018) estimates there are approximately 9,000 illicit massage businesses operating in the U.S. Missourians should be aware of the following signs that may indicate an illicit massage business:
- Prices below market - this incentivizes the masseuse to earn tips
- Male-only clientele
- Customers entering and exiting through rear or side entrances
- Business is open late at night
- Windows are blocked off so that you can’t see inside
- Doors are locked requiring customers to be “buzzed in”
- Business website contains sexual innuendo or references to the appearance of the masseuse
- Online reviews describing sex acts
- The masseuse(s) appear to live on-site
A full description of illicit massage businesses can be found here: https://ago.mo.gov/docs/default-source/press-releases/2019/6-18-2020-ht-one-pager-draft.pdf?sfvrsn=5e6da430_2
Missourians are urged to report all instances of human trafficking to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
Landlords who believe that their tenant is engaging in illicit activity while maintaining the appearance of being a legitimate business are urged to report those tenants here: https://ago.mo.gov/home/human-trafficking/hopeinitiative