MINOT — A prostitution arrest at a Minot spa July 2 is a sign the region isn't immune from national concerns over illicit business being conducted under the banner of legitimate massage therapy.
Minot Police arrested Ling Zhang, 57, an employee at Minot Bodyworks Spa in Town & Country Center on the Class B misdemeanor charge of prostitution.
Police spokesman Capt. Justin Sundheim said an investigation is continuing into whether the business has a license to operate in North Dakota. Operating a massage therapy business without a license is also a Class B misdemeanor.
Heidi Strain, of Richardton, a member of the North Dakota Board of Massage Therapy, said unlicensed establishments that engage in illegal activities are a concern in the state.
"There are unlicensed places out there. This is what's happening nationwide. It's not just our state," she said.
The state licensing board only has authority to regulate licensed therapists.
"The places that are not licensed, sadly, there's not much that the North Dakota Board of Massage can do about them," she said. "We have no jurisdiction over them so it falls on the local police to deal with them and close them down."
Sundheim said when police receive a report of suspected illegal activity at a massage business, they first take the broad view to determine whether human trafficking is occurring. A human trafficking investigation can be complex and it can be necessary to call in federal law enforcement partners on investigations that can take a year, he said. In 2013, Minot Police were involved in arrests at a massage business for which human trafficking was charged.
Because businesses often have multiple operations in different states and rotate workers, investigations are difficult, but arrests can be made, as happened this week, Sundheim said.
He advises people to do their homework before seeing any licensed professional who doesn't have an established reputation, a connection to a well established business or is referred. It also is important to know that professional is licensed.
"The reason for that is the safety of the public and to provide accountability for the profession," Sundheim said.
If a consumer has a concern with a massage business with a state license, a complaint can be filed with the North Dakota licensing board. A complaint form is available online at ndbmt.org under the "discipline" tab.
However, businesses that operate illegally typically are not licensed or hold a single license in one state that all its therapists operate under, Strain said. In those instances, people can contact their local police and may also want to file a complaint with the consumer protection division of the Attorney General's Office.
Massage customers can ask to see a therapist's license. If a therapist doesn't have an individual license, a customer should walk out and inform local law enforcement, Strain said. If the therapist speaks little or no English, that can be a warning sign too, she said.
"Some of these people might not have proper training. Some of them have gone through basically a paper mill school, which is basically no schooling. They are just printing off diplomas," she said. "There's prostitution rings going on. There's human trafficking going on. It's not something people should be supporting. Anyone who is going to an unlicensed place of massage needs to really think about what they are doing."
Massage boards and law enforcement report it can be difficult to crack down on a bad operator. Shutting a business down in one place leads them to pack up and relocate to another place. But Sundheim said bringing public awareness and police attention to a situation can help.
"Between the community and us, we can definitely make it harder for people," he said.
The Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards and its Human Trafficking Task Force released a report indicating that as many as 6,500 illicit massage businesses are active in the United States, although estimates are numbers could be as high as 9,000.
Task force recommendations for states include:
• Designate aiding and abetting of unlicensed practice as a crime.
• Revoke licenses for unlicensed practices.
• Bring criminal actions against businesses, landlords and fraudulent massage schools or diploma mills.
• Create protections for trafficking victims.
• Expand nuisance abatement ordinances to hold property owners accountable for illegal activity on their premises.
• Widen law enforcement discretion for entering and inspecting massage establishments.
• Ban sleeping quarters in massage establishments.
• Increase coordination between law enforcement, licensing boards and human trafficking support services.
People can find more information on the issue on the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards' website at fsmtb.org.
Sundheim said people who encounter human trafficking can contact law enforcement and also can get assistance by calling the national human trafficking hotline at 888-373-7888 or texting Help or Info to 233733.