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Features

The ‘Massage’ Epidemic

Many of these businesses are not what they seem

A concerned mother walked up to the entrance of a massage parlor. She had a suspicion that illegal activity was being conducted inside – a suspicion that was reinforced by having to ring a doorbell just to gain entrance. When the door opened, a woman rushed toward her, acting nervously.

“There’s nobody here for services,” the woman gasped to the mom.

The mom really had no interest in any of the services offered, as she was just trying to get an idea of what was going on. Peering over the woman’s shoulder, the mom saw a secluded back area. “Come back in a week,” the woman said quickly, directing the mom toward the door.

This mom, who asked for anonymity, is concerned about the slew of prostitution busts in Nassau County; specifically in the neighborhood where she’s raising her children.

So, she and other mothers are taking action. They do their own investigations and alert local officials to sketchy businesses.

“It’s too close to our community,” she said.

Prostitution operating under the guise of massage parlors is a growing problem throughout Nassau County.

According to Chris Munzing, spokesperson for the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office, there at least 40 active cases against defendants charged with both practicing massage therapy without a license and prostitution. Unlawful practice is the more severe charge—a class-E felony, punishable by up to four years in prison.

By contrast, prostitution is only a class-B misdemeanor, punishable by no more than 90 days in jail. And even those slapped with both charges may not spend any time behind bars. Sioim Sun was arrested at an acupuncture business in October 2009, charged with unauthorized practice of massage, possession of a forged instrument and prostitution. Her sentence: a conditional discharge and community service.

Just this week, the Nassau Narcotics/Vice Bureau reported the arrest of three Queens women who had been working at a Wantagh parlor. They were each charged with “unauthorized practice.” For one of them, Xiu Mei Ma, the arrest was her third at the same location, Meis Foot Spa.

On a typical month, police are busy throughout the county. These reports are from this past January alone:

• Westbury: Two women arrested for practicing massage without a license; one also charged with prostitution.

• West Hempstead: Six defendants charged with unlicensed practice; three of them accused of prostitution.

• Garden City: Two women charged with unlicensed practice.

• North Massapequa: Two women arrested; one charged with unlicensed practice; the other with both unauthorized practice and prostitution.

• Oceanside: Two women arrested for unlicensed practice; one also charged with prostitution.

Despite arrests, this activity goes on brazenly in communities throughout the county. And many of the “clients” promote it. On numerous websites clients openly describe—in graphic detail—everything from where to go, what is offered, which woman to ask for, and how much to tip. A quick look at one of these websites shows clients discussing establishments in Roslyn, East Meadow, Hicksville, Bethpage, Great Neck, Farmingdale, Westbury, Plainview and Levittown.

Some are in storefronts, others in basements of commercial buildings and many in office buildings where lawyers and insurance agents are tenants, too.

On a recent weekday, an Anton reporter stopped by a massage parlor in Mineola that’s advertised on Craigslist.org. It is located in a professional building in the busy business district. The reporter rang the bell and a middle-aged woman in a bright red dress answered the door and invited him inside. The room was small and dimly lit. Soothing strains of music came from a CD.

There was a large fish tank against one wall. The woman declined to give her name, but said she did perform massages. When asked her reaction to the police crackdown on illegal massage parlors in Nassau County, the woman said she spoke only “a little English,” apologized, and opened the door for the reporter to leave.

Clearly, arrests are not solving the problem. There appear to be many participants who do not fear the legal consequences and see a brush with the law as a cost of doing business. With that in mind, municipalities are turning to other means. Collin Nash, spokesperson for the Town of North Hempstead, confirmed that the town has taken action against massage parlors, with the town’s code enforcement officials working in tandem with the Nassau County Vice Squad. According to Nash, following police action, the town has gone into establishments and searched for code violations. Typically, he said, issues such as an extra wall or an illegal shower are found.

“We will slam them for that,” said Nash.

So far, said Nash, this tactic has been used in five locations in Great Neck, Albertson and New Hyde Park. Other municipalities take a similar approach.

The Town of Oyster Bay has shut down beauty and nail salons for code violations in response to complaints from residents. The Town of Hempstead also has a policy for dealing with such issues. Town of Hempstead Press Secretary Susan Trenkle-Pokalsky said that the town has been forceful and successful in shutting down businesses where prostitution and other criminal offenses have taken place. She points to a section of law that deals specifically with closing down businesses where these types of activities have occurred, known as predicate offenses.

She added that the town encourages legitimate businesses (such as real nail salons and massage parlors), but officials will respond to any complaints about building code violations at any location within the town.

The issue of discriminating against all massage operations is a concern for those who practice the profession of massage therapy. Eugene Wood, first vice-president of the American Massage Therapy Association, works as a massage therapist at the Center for the Alignment of Body Mind and Spirit in Wantagh. He is appalled at the illegal activity of unlicensed individuals, and believes the public should know that licensed massage therapists are well-trained professionals who provide a health-care benefit to patients.

“Massage therapy is one of the 48 licensed professions in New York State,” he said. “Massage therapists receive over 1,000 hours of education and then have to be licensed.”

Wood stressed that he does not use the terms “massage parlor,” “masseuse,” or “masseur,” as they conjure up images of places of ill repute. Instead, he solely uses the term “massage therapist,” and applies it only to licensed professionals who have the proper training and certification.

Wood added that the AMTA is working with Nassau County law enforcement and welcomes the work of Nassau County detectives and the district attorney’s office in shuttering illegal operations.

Another option is to keep shady operators out in the first place. In Massapequa Park, five individuals were arrested at a foot salon close to the railroad station. All were charged with unauthorized practice of massage, with one defendant also charged with prostitution. The business was eventually closed.

According to Massapequa Park Mayor James Altadonna, those who want to open a business such as a foot spa or massage parlor in the village are now thoroughly vetted before approval is given.

“We ask that all employees of the business appear before the board, and we want to see the licenses of all the employees,” he said.

Recently, an individual came to the village board for permission to open such a business, Altadonna said. When told that the board would need to see all employees and their licenses, the would-be owner never returned.

As officials struggle to keep such behavior away from their residents while protecting the rights of legitimate practitioners, parents hope to shield their children from illegal, salacious activities.

As the concerned mom put it: “We want to go back to a place where kids could be out in the community and not have these places right in our kids faces.”