FRANKFORT, Ky. (LEX 18) — Attorney General Daniel Cameron emphasized the work Kentucky is doing to get rid of "illicit massage businesses that may be enabling human trafficking."
On Wednesday, he announced that the Office of Trafficking and Abuse Prevention and Prosecution (TAPP) has launched the H.O.P.E. Initiative. The initiative's goal is to push back against human trafficking by "mobilizing communities and landlords to identify and shutter" the illicit massage businesses.
“The H.O.P.E. Initiative is an effective strategy to help communities and landlords recognize, report, or evict illicit businesses engaging in human trafficking,” said Cameron.
"We know that human trafficking is happening in our communities, and the H.O.P.E. Initiative has the potential to be a real game changer in our fight against it," he added.
Cameron pointed to data from The Network, an intelligence-driven counter-human trafficking organization, showing a significant increase in illicit massage businesses.
"Over the last four years, there's been a 38% growth rate in illicit massage businesses nationwide. In Kentucky, this agency estimates a 71% increase during the same time frame, which is nearly double the national rate," said Cameron. "This is a startling statistic."
Since Kentucky launched the H.O.P.E. Initiative, TAPP has contacted landlords in Bullitt, Fayette, Hardin, and Laurel Counties to notify them of suspected human trafficking happening on their property. According to the group, since October, more than half of the landlords who were contacted have "terminated or declined to renew leases with these alleged illicit businesses."
According to Lexington Police Chief Lawrence Weathers, three illicit massage businesses were found in Lexington and the third is in the process of being closed. KY OAG says all three have since been shut down.
But Weathers warns that these businesses tend to resurface.
"I remember back in the 90s when I was a young officer investigating those kind of things - we had a few then," said Weathers. "Usually, they'll shut down and disappear and come back. And my understanding is, that all across the country, a lot of these things have started resurfacing again."
In addition to the landlord component of the H.O.P.E. Initiative, the goal is to also help community members in recognizing and reporting businesses that may be engaging in human trafficking.
“Creating an inhospitable environment for businesses that engage in human trafficking is an important part of our work to end human trafficking in the Commonwealth,” said TAPP Executive Director Heather Wagers. “Sadly, the illicit massage industry is one of the fastest growing human trafficking industries in the country, and we hope this initiative will help change that.”
Cameron also emphasized that there are many legitimate massage businesses in Kentucky, and the public should feel safe using those wellness services.
But if people suspect human trafficking is occurring, Cameron urges people to report it to local law enforcement.
According to the Office of Trafficking and Abuse Prevention and Prosecution, red flags for illicit massage businesses include:
- The permit or license held by the business is for an activity different from the actual business.
- They have a mostly male clientele.
- Business prices are below-market to incentivize larger tips to employees.
- The location may have a guarded entrance.
- Businesses may have cameras inside and outside and positioned to see entrants rather than for security purposes.
- The business operates at unusual hours (late at night) compared to nearby businesses.
- The business storefront is curtained or blocked by dark-tinted windows to obstruct the view inside.
- The location is kept locked and is opened only when customers are at the door.
- Employees may be transported to work as a group or may live at the location.