This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Missouri’s attorney general wants to protect the public from possible human trafficking inside massage parlors across the state.

Attorney General Eric Schmitt said there are more than 70 illicit massage parlors in the state of Missouri and most of them are using legitimate storefronts to traffic Missourians.

Schmitt announced Tuesday his office is now investigating these illegal businesses to combat human trafficking through The Hope Initiative.

“We are announcing a first-of-its-kind in the nation; statewide initiative targeting illicit massage parlors,” he said. “More often than not, we discovered that these landlords were unaware of their tenant’s illegal activity.”

Schmitt said it’s time for the state to close these illegal massage parlors.

“It’s the number one reported area for sex trafficking and are havens for prostitution and human trafficking,” he said.

The Hope Initiative is a three-phase plan, Schmitt said. The first phase involved the Attorney General’s office sending letters out to 77 landlords informing them of their tenants’ illegal business.

Schmitt said on Tuesday, 23 of the landlords either responded by removing their tenant or not renewing their lease; 17 of them said they are committed to removing their tenant but haven’t started the process yet.

One landlord said he refuses to evict the tenant.

“While it’s our preference to work with these landlords to evict these illicit massage businesses, we are fully prepared to work with prosecutors and law enforcement to enforce the law moving forward,” Schmitt said.

Schmitt said the letters cite several statutes related to public nuisance.

Assistant Attorney General Sarah Jones said signs of an illegal massage business include below-market prices with masseuses living on site.

“There’s a male-only clientele, customers are entering and exiting through side doors or rear doors, windows are blocked off, they have to be buzzed in, in order to get into the business,” Jones said. “It’s a facade of a legitimate business which allows traffickers to operate in plain sight, usually in strip malls and small shops found in our major metropolitan cities as well as small towns around the state.”

In 2018, Polaris estimated there were around 9,000 illicit massage businesses operating in the U.S. Schmitt said 77 illicit massage businesses in Missouri were advertising on illegal websites like Backpage, Rubmaps, and CityXGuide.

“In Missouri, you’re not going to be able to open these places up,” Schmitt said. “You’re not going to be able to stay in business. Missouri is not going to allow you to traffic these human beings into illicit massage parlors.”

The next two phases of The Hope Initiative includes potential lawsuits and criminal cases.

Schmitt said there have been no arrests made at this point.