This story was updated on July 15, at 4:30. See details in the story.
Tucked between a busy cafe and a salon full of friendly chatter and the smell of hairspray, the strip-mall storefront sits empty now.
Last month, it housed Neon Moon Spa, a massage parlor where patrons in the know could find a massage and sometimes more.
Men slipped into the cash-only business off South Miami Boulevard with $70 for an hour-long massage and a $40 tip for a “happy ending.”
The three women giving the massages rarely left the building. They worked nearly 12-hour days and slept on the same beds their customers used during the day. They stored their food and few belongings on plastic shelves in the back of the business. The office suite didn’t have a kitchen, so the women propped open the rear door each morning to cook breakfast.
The women kept only the tips their customers gave them, hoping to have something at the end of the month to send home to their parents or children, after they had paid off part of their enormous debts.
After a yearlong investigation the Durham County Sheriff’s Office charged the manager, Lian Jin Xu, in April with promoting prostitution. According to the Durham District Attorney’s office, Xu is in custody on a $750,000 bond.
The sheriff’s department is still looking for Quan Chun Li, 56, and Kwang Koo, 65, who also have been charged in the case. According to the warrants, Li was listed the owner of Neon Moon and is a known Chinese mafia associate who brings women to North Carolina from New York. Li was arrested and indicted for promoting prostitution in another massage parlor in Apex in 2016. That case is still pending.
Nancy Hagan of Project No Rest, a grant funded effort based at the School of Social Work at UNC-CH, accompanied law-enforcement officers when they went in to Neon Moon. She tried to help the women inside, whose first languages were Korean and Mandarin, with a video in Mandarin, but they turned down most of the aid she offered them.
“They were terrified,” Hagan said, but she understood that.
“I try to imagine what it would be like to be in another country where I wasn’t fluent in the language, wasn’t up to date on the laws and what my protections were.”
Illicit massage businesses
Neon Moon was so inconspicuous that it shared a parking lot with a preschool, a church and a police substation. Another illicit massage business shut down on South Miami Boulevard last year, Numi Day Spa, sat between a church and an accounting office.
“They’re operating in plain sight,” Henderson said. “They’re in strip malls all over the place.”
Illicit massage businesses are one of 25 types of human trafficking found in the United States, according to the Polaris Project, one of the country’s leading researchers on the subject.
Polaris created the term “illicit massage business,” to differentiate them from legal establishments that employ licensed massage therapists. Polaris estimates there are over 9,000 illicit massage businesses across the country, making up a $2.5 billion industry. It says the women trafficked into these businesses are typically 35 to 55 years old and mostly from China and South Korea.
While estimates on illicit massage businesses in North Carolina are elusive, there are websites where people post reviews of their variety and quality of sexual services. Henderson said over 200 illicit massage businesses have been reviewed across the state.
Neon Moon, sometimes called Nean Moon online, had over a dozen reviews on one of these sites.
“Nice building, comes across like a legit massage parlor, but you can definitely get some good extras there,” read one review from March 2019.
Rick Hoffman, a retired Raleigh detective who now travels the country giving trainings on anti-trafficking work, said the “hobbyists” or “mongers” who post reviews often emphasize the ethnicity and age of the women giving massages, and the businesses advertise on escort sites as Asian, Latin or Caucasian establishments.
Carl Wall, special agent with the State Bureau of Investigation, said estimating the number of establishments based on review sites is tricky. Some of the businesses listed might offer illegal services without being involved in human trafficking, and the establishments themselves are fluid. Traffickers routinely change a business’s name or location so often it can be hard to know how many are operating in the state.
Most people assume human-trafficking victims are kidnapped, but traffickers are often subtle. By definition, trafficking requires the use of force, fraud or coercion, and traffickers routinely use all three methods of control. Henderson calls them “elegant predators” because they are experts at finding and exploiting a person’s needs and vulnerabilities.
Traffickers typically offer to help their victims secure temporary visas and arrange travel for good jobs in America.
“They are often tricked and told that massage is a legitimate business in the states, which it is,” Hagan said. “But then they’re hired by traffickers. It’s almost like a bait and switch.”
A trafficking victim in this case type begins incurring debt immediately, for her visa and plane ticket, as well as the work it took to get them.
“So by the time they get over here, they’ve got a stunning amount of debt, almost the equivalent of a college education, and they have to work to pay it off,” Henderson said.
Finally at her new job, a woman learns she earns nothing from the massage except the tip. And a standard massage isn’t likely to earn much of a tip.
Traffickers keep their victims compliant once they’re here. The women, already saddled with debt from travel, must pay for room and board, even though they are required to live at the business.
“At Neon Moon, the doors weren’t locked, so one might say, why didn’t they walk out?” Hagan said. “They’ve been subjected to force, fraud, or coercion, probably a combination of all three. They may have seen the repercussions for people who did leave.”
Traffickers may threaten to tell the women’s families back home what they’re really doing, or even hurt their family members.
“They did make a choice, but they made that choice voluntarily because of an act of fraud that put them in a coercive environment where they felt like they had no other choice,” Hoffman said. “That’s the part that people don’t see.”
Traffickers also let their victims’ visas expire and then tell the women that American law enforcement will punish them. And until recently, the traffickers might have been right.
Hoffman said officers would routinely charge women with a misdemeanor when they were caught providing sex acts or unlicensed massages, not understanding they were victims of trafficking.
The cost of this ticket would be added to the woman’s debt to her trafficker, and she would be moved on to a different location.
“So you may see someone working at one [massage parlor] in Cary,” Wall said, “but the next time you go you don’t see them because they’re working at the one in Fayetteville.”
The warrants for the Neon Moon case say Xu is suspected of transporting women between different businesses owned by the same people in Jacksonville and Durham.
Awareness of the complex nature of human trafficking is growing, however, and law enforcement and legislators are adapting.
The Safe Harbor Act in 2013 was one of the first pieces of legislation protecting victims of trafficking in North Carolina, said Libby Coles, chair of the state’s Human Trafficking Commission. Other legislation has followed since.
Data from the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission shows 39 convictions for human trafficking and promoting prostitution between 2013 and 2017.
The nonprofit Human Trafficking Institute recently released a report comparing human-trafficking convictions across the country. In 2018, 10 defendants were convicted of trafficking in North Carolina, ranking the state 10th in the nation for number of convictions.
Shutting down illicit massage businesses takes time and money. Arresting just one of the three people in charge of Neon Moon required nearly a year of work for the Durham County Sheriff’s Office. Detectives spent hours staking out the spa, talking to customers and tracking down business records.
They coordinated with other agencies, bringing in agents from the State Bureau of Investigation, which has original jurisdiction over trafficking cases, and investigators from the North Carolina Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy, which licenses legitimate massage therapists. Detectives even pulled in inspectors from the Fire Marshal’s Office, when they suspected the women were living in the business.
Hoffman said Durham handled the Neon Moon case well. But across the country, he still meets officers who don’t believe human trafficking is happening in their jurisdictions.
“They don’t see the victimization,” he said. “That’s the biggest impediment to human-trafficking investigations anywhere. If you don’t see the victim, the crime doesn’t have the same priority and is not as resourced.”
Like the majority of women taken out of illicit massage businesses, the three women from Neon Moon didn’t accept help from social services.
Eilzabeth Hunter runs the Salvation Army’s Project Fight, a local project of the national nonprofit which offers survivors everything from immediate relief to long-term assistance. The longest a survivor of an illicit massage business has accepted aid from Project Fight is one week, she said.
“With our legislation we’ve done a great job, but when it comes to coordinating housing or other resources, that is lacking,” she said.
Coles, whose nonprofit JusticeMatters helps survivors apply for a T Visa, said women found in illicit massage businesses usually turn down legal services. The T Visa enables survivors of human trafficking to gain legal status in the United States for four years, but Coles said they have become harder to obtain. Trafficking survivors are facing increased scrutiny from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service and possible deportation.
Justice Matters helps dozens of human-trafficking survivors a year but is only working with one survivor of massage parlor trafficking.
Hagan tries to explain it: “If I’d come from a history of perhaps corruption or abuse, and saw law enforcement as people who were not there to help me and maybe there to work against me in some way, I would be terrified,” she said.
See something, say something
In 2017, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received 854 calls reporting suspected human trafficking in North Carolina, often from concerned community members.
Hoffman said there are several signs an establishment might be an illicit massage business, including:
No posted licenses
Unusually tight security
Unusually long hours
People living in the building
Consistent, quick employee turnover
Lack of English fluency
Employees who don’t seem comfortable or meet patrons’ eyes
Advertising on escort sites
Individual massage therapists are licensed by the state, and their licenses can be checked online.
None of these indicators alone means a massage parlor is involved in human trafficking, Henderson said, but if they add up “the red flags start flying.”
“I’m not suggesting that people investigate these cases on their own,” she said. “It’s just that you see something that doesn’t feel right, you see an indicator or two, you should report it.”
To report suspected human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
A spokesperson for the Durham Sheriff’s Office said to contact 919-560-0880 with any information about the suspects still at large.