It’s close to the perfect crime.
The profits are easy. The victims are vulnerable. The illicit activity can be conducted almost anywhere — in vehicles, private residences, or storefronts — with little risk of being exposed.
Commercial sex trafficking operations such as the one New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is accused of patronizing at a strip mall in Jupiter, Fla., have taken hold in plain sight across the country, including in Massachusetts, where a state law that created a separate crime for sex trafficking took effect only seven years ago.
“It’s a problem everywhere,” former Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley said Saturday. Coakley was the state’s top prosecutor in 2012 when the anti-sex-trafficking law went into effect, carrying prison terms of five to 20 years for trafficking adults for commercial sex and possible life sentences for forcing minors into the illicit trade.
The extent of the problem is difficult to track, experts said, as many victims are reluctant to come forward or may not know where to turn because they are so reliant on their perpetrators for shelter, food, clothing, and other basic needs.
Some survivors of sex trafficking are immigrants who fear deportation, said Julie A. Dahlstrom, director of the Immigrants’ Rights & Human Trafficking Program at Boston University School of Law.
“What we have seen is just increasing fear among survivors who may want to move forward and report to law enforcement, but who are fearful that they may face immigration enforcement action,” she said.
Between December 2007 and June 2018, the National Human Trafficking Hotline fielded 2,133 calls from Massachusetts about more than 500 human trafficking cases, according to the organization’s website. The statistics include sex and labor trafficking.
Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office has a human trafficking division, has filed charges against more than 40 people since the illicit sex and labor trade laws went into effect in 2012, according to her website.
Some sex trafficking operations in Massachusetts try to evade detection by presenting themselves as massage parlors, similar to what police say was the case with the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Florida, where Kraft was allegedly recorded on hidden surveillance cameras engaging in a sex act with a prostitute.
About 230 illicit massage businesses have opened here, said Bob Houston, a former FBI agent who leads Praesidium Partners LLC, an anti-trafficking advocacy organization. Only nine other states, including California, Texas, and New York, have more illicit massage parlors than Massachusetts, he said.
The establishments are usually grim spots where women from predominantly Asian countries work for little or no money, Houston said.
“It looks like not a very welcoming place,” Houston said. “If you’re inside, you might see evidence of people living on site. . . . Most discerning potential customers for a legitimate massage are going to be able to tell fairly quickly.”
In one local case, Lori Barron of Salem, N.H., was sentenced to seven to nine years in prison after being convicted in 2017 of running a sex trafficking operation out of the Day Spa for Gentlemen in Lawrence.
Barron hired women to work as receptionists at the massage parlor and then used blackmail to force them into sex work, prosecutors said at her trial. She pressed the women to perform massages and sex acts on clients during videotaped encounters, the Essex district attorney’s office said.
If the women rejected Barron’s demands, she threatened to show videotapes of the sexual encounters to relatives or the Department of Children and Families, prosecutors said.
But sex traffickers don’t need a storefront business like a massage parlor or spa, experts said.
Any hotel room, apartment, or home will do, and some operations rely heavily on immigrant women who speak little or no English and are under pressure to pay off massive debts they incurred to enter the United States, said Timothy Moran, a prosecutor who leads the civil rights enforcement team for the US attorney’s office in Massachusetts.
“It’s almost no cost to renting a hotel room and you can easily make thousands of dollars a night,” he said.
The women are also forced to perform the sex acts repeatedly over long hours.
“You keep reselling people,” said Coakley, now a partner at Foley Hoag LLP. “As awful as that sounds, that’s what human trafficking is.”
Places to buy sex are easily found on the Internet. In 2016, Demand Abolition, a group that seeks to eradicate the commercial sex industry, found more than 9,000 online searches for sex-buying opportunities were logged daily in Boston, according to Healey’s office.
The peak time in Boston for scouring the Internet for commercial sex? 2 p.m. — in the middle of the work day.
Healey and Mayor Martin J. Walsh highlighted that statistic last year when they announced some two dozen local businesses and institutions had joined their offices in adopting “zero-tolerance policies” on sex buying.
Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan said she’s seen many sex trafficking operations set up near highways, where people can be moved in and out quickly. Some Asian brothels rotate women every week or two and boast in advertisements about having new women, Moran said.
Last year, the Suffolk district attorney’s office said its program to help young people lured into prostitution received more than 200 referrals.
The first cases prosecuted under the state’s commercial sex trafficking law provided a window into the desperate lives of three victims.
One woman, then 24, said she was recruited after meeting Tyshaun McGhee and Sidney McGee in September 2012 outside Boston Medical Center, where she was being treated for drug overdoses. Another victim was a homeless woman with a long history of drug abuse who said she met McGee outside a shelter near BMC, court records show.
All three victims were photographed for online advertisements to lure clients, prosecutors said. The men were convicted in 2014. McGhee was sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison; McGee got 10 to 12 years.