Recruiting women into Illicit Massage Business

The vast majority of women reported to have been trafficked in IMBs are from China. The next highest group are women from South Korea.

The age of victims exploited in massage parlors is much higher than in other types of trafficking. It is common for victims to be in their 60s and 70s. For instance, in July 2020, our partners in Harris County identified a 65-year-old victim in a northwest Houston massage parlor. She couldn’t speak or understand English and has no family or friends in the United States. Investigators said she was recruited online from Los Angeles. Based on focus groups of over 1,000 IMB trafficking survivor experiences, most women recruited have no more than a high school education and know very little or no English when they arrive in the United States. The majority are also mothers, working to provide for their children and elderly family members.

Financial need, combined with cultural patterns that traffickers can easily take advantage of in an unfamiliar environment, are among the most common vulnerabilities shared by IMB trafficking victims. Many women recruited into IMBs are living in the United States when they are recruited. Those who are recruited from other countries typically begin their journeys to America with limited or no financial resources, often arriving on tourist visas. Some have work visas directly tied to their place of employment, making workplace coercion and exploitation easier for traffickers to achieve, since their income and status in the country are dependent on the trafficker. Some traffickers use an even more sophisticated approach: in northwest Indiana, a trafficker enticed a Vietnamese woman to come to the US and marry her friend. After the marriage, she was forced into prostitution with both her livelihood and immigration status legally and officially connected to her exploiters.

For traffickers, this visa process is an access point for recruitment. They may provide false supporting documents such as job offers, and offer coaching and guidance to help women make it through their visa interview and immigration process smoothly. However, these “services” help create indebtedness and may also end with victims handing over their immigration documents and passports to their traffickers, giving them additional leverage and control. Whether recruiters are directly involved in the visa and travel process or not, they are well aware of the financial burdens that potential victims carry as a result. A common experience shared with us by many victims can be illustrated by an example from Flushing New York. When one of the victims in a 2021 indictment arrived to the city, her passport was taken away and she was forced to work at different massage parlors. A couple of years later, potential traffickers told her that her debt was paid and returned her passport. Then, about three years later in 2020, they found the woman and told her she still had a bill to pay. Victims often tell us they don’t have their passports, as someone is holding onto it for them in the original US city where they were recruited into a trafficking network.

Traffickers prey on the victims’ lack of familiarity with local culture and customs, and their lack of knowledge about their rights in the United States. Because most women trafficked in this type of network are undocumented or unstably documented, they have intense fear around being deported, making immigration threats an extremely effective form of coercion. For example, in California from July 2016 to October 2018, a San Gabriel woman coerced her victims by all manner of threats, including threatening to report their prostitution to police, threatening to expose their immigration status and implicitly threatening to have them murdered, officials reported. “Xing allegedly told the victims she could make good on her threats because of her relationships with the government, the police, and the criminal underworld,” court documents show.

Massage parlor trafficking is a hybrid for of human trafficking that can include sex trafficking, labor trafficking, or most often, both sex and labor trafficking. To learn more about the different types of trafficking in the United States, visit

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