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How do you spot a shady massage?

Massage therapy can provide immense health benefits when performed by a licensed, reputable practitioner. However, there are unfortunately some massage parlors that engage in illegal activities behind closed doors. It’s important to know how to recognize warning signs of an illicit massage business so you can avoid accidentally supporting human trafficking and other crimes. This article will provide tips on how to spot signs of a shady massage parlor and find a legitimate massage therapist instead.

What is a Shady Massage Parlor?

A shady or illicit massage parlor is one that participates in illegal activities beyond just providing massages. Some common red flags include:

  • Offering sexual services or “happy endings” for an additional fee
  • Employing massage therapists who are not licensed
  • Trafficking workers or forcing them to perform services against their will
  • Operating without proper business licenses and permits
  • Money laundering or involvement with organized crime

These businesses may advertise seemingly normal massages, but engage in criminal activities behind the scenes. Patronizing these parlors supports and enables illegal operations that harm vulnerable people. It’s crucial to learn how to recognize shady operators.

Warning Signs of an Illicit Massage Parlor

Here are some common red flags that may indicate a massage parlor is shady:

ThePrices Are Suspiciously Low

Legitimate licensed massage therapists invest a lot in their education, professional equipment, and operating costs. They charge fair rates to support their business. Places with very low prices like $40 per hour may cut corners by using untrained staff or trafficked workers.

There Are No Licensed Massage Therapists On Staff

Responsible parlors hire licensed massage therapists who have completed training programs and passed exams. Illicit parlors may have no licensed staff, or may list fake massage credentials. Be wary of places that can’t provide proof of proper licensing.

“Extras” Like Table Showers are Advertised

Table showers and offerings like “body shampoos” are not part of standard professional massages. Advertising services like this is often code for erotic or sexual massages. The presence of table showers is a big red flag.

It’s Cash Only and/or There are No Price Lists

Legal massage studios accept standard payment methods and clearly list their prices. Shady ones may only take cash, or have no set prices and make up charges on the spot. This allows them to discreetly collect unreported income.

There Are No Reviews Online

Most legitimate massage businesses have at least some online customer reviews. Shady operators often have no internet presence or reviews since they don’t want to draw attention. Be very cautious of places with absolutely no reviews.

Privacy Is Extremely Limited

Professional therapists take steps to protect client privacy like covering you with sheets. Illicit parlors may have little or no privacy with open curtains and intrusive staff that hang around. Limited privacy settings can facilitate illegal activities.

They Offer to Transport You Somewhere

Bona fide massage studios are permanent locations you travel to on your own. Some illicit businesses may offer or request to have someone pick you up in a vehicle and drive you somewhere. This bypasses transportation records and makes law enforcement monitoring difficult.

How to Verify a Massage Therapist is Properly Licensed

Don’t take a massage parlor’s word that their staff is properly licensed. Always verify credentials through your state or province’s massage regulatory body. Licensing boards provide license verification services online or by phone. Check that:

  • The therapist’s name appears in the verification system
  • Their license is current and active (not expired or revoked)
  • The license is valid for the geographic area they are working in

Taking a minute to verify licensure is a quick way to gain confidence in a massage provider. Illicit businesses won’t be able to produce documentation for review.

Safe Massage Practices to Follow

When visiting a new massage therapist, follow these practices to maximize safety:

  • Ask if they are licensed and request to view their credentials
  • Verify licenses through official channels – don’t just take their word
  • Visit massage studios during daytime hours for the first appointment
  • Notice if there are security cameras and people around, or if it seems hidden and discreet
  • Don’t agree to any offers for illegal services – make it clear you are only interested in a professional therapeutic massage
  • Insist staff remain in modest dress and use proper draping techniques
  • Trust your instincts – if something feels wrong, end the session immediately

Taking these precautions helps deter unscrupulous businesses from targeting you.

How to Report a Suspicious Massage Parlor

If you suspect a massage parlor may be engaged in illegal activities, promptly report them to the appropriate authorities:

  • Call your local police department’s non-emergency line
  • File a complaint with your state or provincial massage therapy regulatory board
  • Submit a tip to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888
  • Contact your local health department for health code violations

Your report will be confidential. Share as many details as possible like the business name, location, concerning behaviors, and any proof you may have. Law enforcement relies on public reporting to build cases against shady massage parlors.

Find a Reputable Massage Therapist

Rather than taking a chance on potentially illicit massage parlors, spend your time and money at legitimate businesses. Here’s how to find a massage therapist you can trust:

Check Massage Reviews Sites Like Yelp

Reviews by other customers can provide transparency into a massage business’s reputation and practices. Search for studios with consistently good reviews.

Ask Friends and Family for Referrals

People you know can recommend massage therapists they’ve personally had positive experiences with. This gives you an instant connection to a reputable provider.

Verify Licenses and Credentials

Even when referred, double check the massage therapist has active licensure in good standing before booking.

Look for Membership in Professional Associations

Many quality massage therapists belong to professional organizations like the American Massage Therapy Association. Association membership signifies commitment to the field.

Ask About Education and Specialized Training

The best massage therapists have undergone significant training with dedicated schools and programs. Those with additional specialized training can provide greater therapeutic benefits.

Choose Spas Connected to Reputable Companies Like Hotels or Health Centers

Large stable companies are unlikely to risk their brand reputation with shady practices. Their massage services provide a safer option.

Check They Have a Permanent Physical Location

Illicit businesses may disguise their locations or operate out of trucks. Choose a professional therapist working out of a licensed commercial space.


While massage therapy can improve health, unfortunately some disreputable businesses operate illegal massage parlors. Protect yourself by learning to recognize warning signs like low prices or “extras” offered. Always verify massage therapist licenses through official channels. If you suspect a parlor is shady, promptly report them to the authorities. Spend your time and money with legitimate massage professionals to safely enjoy the benefits of massage. With vigilance, you can help root out shady operators while supporting ethical massage therapy businesses.