Beyond Robert Kraft: Utilizing Public Records Data to Stop Sex Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses

Topics: Financial Crime, Financial Fraud & Anti-Money Laundering, Government, Human Trafficking, Leadership, Risk Management, Thomson Reuters, Thomson Reuters Special Services, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts

human trafficking

By now you’ve likely heard about Robert Kraft, the 77-year-old billionaire owner of the New England Patriots, who allegedly paid for sex in late January at a massage parlor in Jupiter, Fla. He was later charged with two counts of misdemeanor solicitation. Specifically, Kraft was caught on camera in a law enforcement sting operation that closed 10 massage parlors across central Florida.

This case goes beyond wealthy men paying for sex. This is about human sex trafficking. Although prosecutors recently conceded in court that they did not have the evidence to prove human trafficking at this specific spa by criminal case standards, law enforcement noted, “It’s manifestly obvious to us that this is human trafficking, but without the evidentiary piece of a victim’s testimony we could not prevail in court” as reported by Business Insider. 

Yet whether this specific instance involves human trafficking or voluntary prostitution, it still brings up the question, what are some of the red flags law enforcement should look for when investigating whether a massage business is suspected to be engaging in human trafficking? Authorities previously cited that the women in the Kraft case were mostly from China, had no access to transportation, and were likely living inside the business, sleeping on massage tables and cooking on the back steps.

“Most of the women who fall victim to human trafficking are natives of China,” says Jim Isajewicz, Government Analyst with Thomson Reuters Special Services, whose work focuses on, among other topics, human trafficking. Isajewicz formerly worked at the Florida Department of Health where he frequently investigated illicit massage businesses and their victims.

How Are Owners Operating?

There are around 9,000 illicit massage businesses operating from coast-to-coast in the U.S., according to law enforcement in the Kraft case, and Isajewicz describes the scale and severity of sex trafficking crimes from illicit massage businesses as “breathtaking.” The importance of stopping these businesses from operating is a top priority, he adds.

“You drive by any strip mall and if you see a sign that reads, ‘Asian Massage’ and there are pretty pictures of women outside the door, that’s a good indicator of the kind of [illicit massage businesses] we are talking about,” Isajewicz says.

So, if there are that many businesses running sex trafficking rings out of strip malls and other locations, how do they even get a license to begin with?

“In Florida, a therapist or massage establishment must submit to a background check and fingerprinting,” Isajewicz explains. “We are looking for unreported convictions or convictions of a certain type, such as human trafficking, domestic violence, or anything else which would be grounds to deny the license.” Licensing varies from state-to-state, and there are some states which do not regulate licenses very much at all, while other states do a more thorough vetting of each applicant, he says.

One tactic that criminals use to evade detection is transferring ownership of the business, at least on paper, Isajewicz notes, adding there is a well-established pattern of transferring ownership of an illicit massage business when law enforcement turns up the heat on a suspected business. “The owner will dump the business on paper and then you’ll see another corporation pop up and file for a license at the exact same location,” he says. “Often the new licensee applicant already works at the spa or is affiliated with the business that got in trouble.”

That’s an immediate red flag.

Using Public Records to Connect the Dots

There are several tools states can use to screen new applicants and connect the dots back to the true beneficial owner and possible human traffickers. In Tennessee, for example, the licensing board requires each applicant or co-applicant to complete an “Ownership or Proceeds Disclosure” declaration witnessed by a notary.

Isajewicz says this type of screening upfront is really the first line of defense. While he doesn’t necessarily advocate for federalization of state massage licensing procedures, he does recommend that various state massage boards adopt a standard policy for pre-investigation of establishment owners or even a state information exchange for public records.

“We’ve had cases where we’ve identified a possible human trafficking victim.” Isajewicz says. “We then look at their original (massage) license application and find that the school that they (supposedly) graduated from was already flagged for fraudulent activity by a different state.” If there was a national clearing house where that information was housed, it would be easier for regulators to catch the criminal activity at the front end.”

In the absence of a clearing house, Isajewicz says he urges regulators to work with third-party companies that specialize in national public records aggregation. “That is a great example of where we can find a meaningful public-private partnership in solving this problem,” he explains. “State governments can really utilize all the information that’s available in public records.”

When states create a paper trail in licensing massage businesses, third-party companies can better map out criminal networks. “There’s a huge value in that,” Isajewicz says. “I’m just grateful as an analyst to have states which voluntarily make that data available.”

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