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November 20, 2017 10:14 PM

Part 1: More Than A Massage

Sioux Falls, SD

It's a trend all over the country and can be found right here in South Dakota's larger cities: the growth of massage parlors with late-night hours that advertise Asian masseuses.

A new report on human trafficking and massage from the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards calls for more regulation of the industry. 

KELOLAND News Investigates talks with local massage therapists who are concerned about the lack of response from state regulators and law enforcement over what may be "More than a Massage." 

An estimated 9,000 illegal massage businesses are operating all across the country and according to new research, storefronts are one of the top venues for sex trafficking.  

"We're very concerned about human trafficking in South Dakota and we are very, very concerned about the amount," Licensed Massage Therapist Heather Payden said. 

These licensed massage therapists say it's not about competition, but rather giving massage therapy a bad name. 

"I personally have had experience with at least clients coming in and expecting certain things," Natasha Estes said.  

According to the Human Trafficking Task Force report, fake massage businesses frequently set up shop in strip malls, office buildings and sometimes in homes. 

"I think it's an easy cover for them," Rebecca Herman said.  

"Making sure that we're holding those that are massage businesses accountable. Do we have the correct licensing? Are we double checking what they are doing? What kind of hours of regulations do they have? Are any of their employees living on the premises," Becky Rasmussen, Executive Director of Call to Freedom said.

South Dakota's massage therapy board's website shows it's only taken disciplinary action against three massage therapists in the last decade. 

That's because in 2013 the legislature ruled that the board needs a formal complaint to inspect a massage business.  

"The fact that since the massage board has been legislated, the human trafficking and prostitution under the guise of massage therapy has gotten significantly worse and spread to more locations in the state," Payden said. 

These therapists say they've filed complaints with police, who tell KELOLAND Investigates they've checked various businesses in recent months. Investigators say they received seven complaints in 2016 and another seven so far this year about massage businesses in Sioux Falls. 

"When you make that contact if there isn't anything occurring within that particular contact, we can't continue to go to those businesses day after day," Lt. Kyle Hoekstra said. 

The report says some of those businesses can be found on sites like these.  While not illegal, the Human Trafficking study says buyer review boards like "Rub Maps" are subscription sites that exist solely for the review of illicit massage businesses.  

Rub Maps advertises itself as "where fantasy meets reality" and "happy ending erotic massages."   

The first three on the list in Sioux Falls are Miracle Chinese Massage on Western Avenue, Asian Therapeutic Massage and Asian Moonlight Relaxing Center both on 41st St.

Our investigation also found Miracle Chinese Massage and Asian Moonlight Relaxing Center ads on the online classifieds 

Miracle Massage's Backpage ad reads "new Chinese girls with new skills, helping you out," with pictures of young women.  Miracle Massage's ad links to Asian Moonlight Relaxing Center, whose ad reads "most comprehensive treatment of essential oils and professional nursing. Hong Kong Ruby Massage in Rapid City also shows pictures of women and advertises, "Full body massage by sweet Asian girl." 

While this isn't proof of illegal activity, it does raise concerns. 

"Anytime you have a red flag like that--most of the women we work with have been sold on Backpage and that's one of the places that they will facilitate sex trafficking," Rasmussen said. 

Kennecke: Would you ever advertise on one of those places?  
Payden: Absolutely not. We would not have anybody that works here--that's not tolerable. 
Kennecke: Because? 
Payden:  Because that's not what we're in business to do.  

The human trafficking report says late hours of operation may be another indication that something else is going on. 

We checked and those businesses we found on Rub Maps and Backpage list their hours as 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day of the week, including holidays. 

"You can't get a legitimate message after about 7 o'clock at night because there are so many problems with people thinking that if you are open late-- you're open for business so to speak, but open for prostitution," Payden said. 

The South Dakota Board of Massage Therapy told KELOLAND News no one was available for an interview, but executive secretary Mitch Richter did respond to a few of our questions via email:

Kennecke: Wei Feng was denied a license by the board.  Fend owns Hong Kong Ruby Massage in Rapid City? Can you please tell me who is licensed to work at that establishment?

Richter: The board licenses the individual not the establishment. There isn’t a way to know which individuals are working at which establishment.

Kennecke: Also, Asian Moonlight Relaxation Center on W. 41st Street claims it’s not doing massage, just “oil.” Is there anything your board is able to do about that?

Richter: The Board only has jurisdiction and authority over individuals who are licensed.  To the extent an individual is engaged in the unlicensed practice of massage therapy, SDCL 36-35-10 provides that such person is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.  The Board, however, has no authority to “discipline” an unlicensed individual or impose criminal penalties; instead, situations involving suspected unlicensed practice of massage therapy are referred to the police or other criminal authorities.  Additionally, SDCL 36-35-10 (which addresses the unlicensed practice of massage therapy), provides that “the board may bring a civil action to enjoin any violation of this chapter.”  Thus, if the Board receives a complaint pertaining to suspected unlicensed practice of massage therapy, it is possible that the Board could pursue injunctive relief depending upon the circumstances 

Kennecke: Also, how does a consumer see if the massage therapist they hire is licensed, or who is licensed in a particular establishment?

Richter: The list is on the website and updated monthly. You can see the list here. It can be accessed with other information from the home page

Richter also issued this statement: It is important to note that the board licenses and regulates individual therapists and does not license establishments. Individual licensees who have had disciplinary action taken against them are listed on our website:  

The Board has statutory authority to regulate the practice of massage therapy under SDCL 36-35. The Board is authorized to investigate and take action in matters related to professional conduct. In addition, the Board does not have the authority to investigate criminal activity such as human trafficking and encourages citizens with concerns about a particular establishment to contact local law enforcement.

This isn't the end of our investigation into the problems with human trafficking and massage.

Tuesday night we pay a visit to the top three businesses listed on Rub Maps and Backpage to ask them about it and we look in why Hong Kong Ruby's owner was denied a massage license, but remains open for business.  

Here's the most recent list of licensed massage therapists in South Dakota: 

Click on the document to see a full list. 

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