Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced today an update to his office’s efforts to evict illicit massage businesses through the Hope Initiative.
Since launching the initiative, 9 additional illicit massage businesses have either been evicted, are in the process of being evicted, or their eviction is likely.
“Human trafficking is a global scourge that affects millions every year, including right here in Missouri. Earlier this year, I launched the Hope Initiative to crack down on illicit massage businesses in Missouri. Since then, my office has been working diligently to continue their outreach to landlords to evict illicit massage businesses and identify additional illicit massage businesses,” said Attorney General Schmitt. “With this initiative we want to make Missouri the most inhospitable state in the country to those who seek to operate illicit massage businesses or engage in human trafficking.”
In total, since the launch of the Hope Initiative, 16 illicit massage businesses have been officially closed down. Additionally, the evictions of 16 more illicit massage businesses are currently pending or are likely.
Of the 16 that have been officially closed and evicted:
- 6 were located in the Kansas City area;
- 3 were located in the Lee’s Summit/Blue Springs area;
- 4 were located in the St. Louis area
- 2 were located in the Columbia area
- 1 was located in the Branson area
The Hope Initiative, which was announced in October, 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 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.
After the initial round of letters, 23 illicit massage businesses had either been removed via eviction, were no longer a tenant, or the landlord committed to not renewing their lease. Immediately following the announcement of the Hope Initiative, a second round of letters were sent to landlords who had not responded to the first letter from the Attorney General’s Office, increasing that number to 32 illicit massage businesses who have either already been evicted, are likely to be evicted, or their eviction is pending.
To date, of the landlords contacted, the Attorney General’s Office has heard back from 71% of them, an increase from 53% in October.
The Office is also working to identify more illicit massage businesses across the state as part of the continuing effort through the Hope Initiative. Once those additional illicit massage businesses are identified, more letters will be sent out.
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.