GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — We have all seen them: the sketchy massage parlors with the blacked-out windows and the parking in back. There have long been suspicions about how many of them are actually fronts for human trafficking, and we now have a better idea of just how prevalent such illegal operations are.

Solutions to End Exploitation, a Grand Rapids-based group dedicated to combating human trafficking, recently decided to try to quantify the size of the illicit massage parlor industry in the area. Illicit massage parlors are part of a larger framework of trafficking and exploitation that also includes street and online prostitution.

“How do we bring to light a problem that’s very hidden, yet known?” said group co-founder Rachel VerWys, who is also a Calvin University instructor and the co-chair of Kent County Human Trafficking Task Force.

A group of researchers and Calvin students used methods developed in other states to answer that question, visiting websites that cater to illicit massage parlor customers to determine which are legitimate and which aren’t. They identified 16 illicit parlors in the Grand Rapids area and staked them out around the clock for two months to gather data.

The researchers observed the businesses, the people who work there, customers and when they visited. They found that most customers were middle-aged white men and that there were 128 daily visits to the illicit businesses.

“There are no neighborhood demographics that say this is the neighborhood a message parlor will be in,” VerVys said.

As a result of the research, the group concluded that the illicit massage parlor industry in Grand Rapids generates at least $6 million annually.

“I was very surprised,” said Kim Richardson, a senior attorney with the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office. “I did not realize it was so high in the Grand Rapids Area in the amount of money going into it. It was quite an eye-opener.”

“That number is daunting and I think it calls all of us to collectively respond,” VerWys said.

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Part of the goal of her coalition is to talk to the parlor workers, understanding their trauma and that they are victims rather than criminals.

“In this industry, most women are foreign-born, often from Asia,” VerWys said.

The women are recruited overseas and their entry to the United States is paid for. They then enter a kind of indentured servitude during which time they live where they work under the control of the employer until they “pay off” their “debt.”

“That is trafficking,” VerWys said. “Because we have not had accountability measures in place, the businesses have been able to exist and grow.”

Law enforcement at the state, federal and local level has been able to shut some illicit parlors down, like Mystic Massage Parlor near Eastern Avenue and 28th Street in 2009 and the Rainbow Massage Spa just down the street in 2013.

Solutions to End Exploitation is housed on S. Division Avenue near Burton Street, where the Esquire Massage Spa operated for decades in plain sight before it was bought out.

Often after a business is shut down, it simply moves elsewhere or another similar business moves into the same location.

The women who work at these business are controlled, isolated and may not understand that they are victims.

“To prosecute a human trafficking case is so very difficult because we don’t have the cooperation that we need,” Richardson said, explaining that the workers sometimes believe because they made choices that they could be prosecuted. “They’re not from this country, they don’t know what to do and they’re terrified of that, so if we can just try to work on a victim-centered approach to this, I think that’s where we can start going towards.”

“Unfortunately, the way we’ve addressed the problem in the past is to do prostitution stings,” VerWys said. “We would say there needs to be a paradigm shift and we need to recognize the vulnerabilities of the victim/workers first and foremost.”

In an effort to combat illicit parlors, the city of Grand Rapids is considering a change to its city codes. The ordinance would mandate a front entrance and windows that show what’s going on inside the business, limit 24-hour businesses and require shops to have a massage license.

“We feel like that will be a way to hold the illicit businesses accountable,” VerWys said. “We have seen in other cities around the country, victim/workers be able to get out of those exploitative environments and the businesses held accountable.”

The proposed ordinance is based on others enacted in other communities across the country. Officials will take public comment on it at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the city commission chambers at Grand Rapids City Hall.

“I believe there’s more people who can create change than who will exploit people in our community but we need to bring them together,” VerWys said.