The Santa Monica City Council voted Tuesday, May 13th, to amend the city’s massage regulations — adopted in 1986 and last amended in 1995 — to better conform to contemporary standards and to combat an increase in criminal activity.

Recently, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of illicit massage parlors and other businesses which act as “fronts” for prostitution and other illegal activities, said city attorney Marsha Moutrie.

Law enforcement authorities attribute this increase to global crime syndicates, which are smuggling young women from Asia into California and from Latin America to Texas and Florida, Moutrie said.

Each year, about 20,000 women are trafficked into the United States, basically as “slaves,” the Department of Justice estimates.

The fee charged for smuggling a woman into the United States can be as high as $15,000 and women are required to “work off” the fees in brothels, many in California cities, Moutrie says.

“There is little doubt, with the increase in the trafficking industry in Southern California in general, that there has been an increase in illicit massage activity in Santa Monica,” Moutrie noted.

In addition to seeing an increase in illicit massage parlors, the city has also received numerous complaints from residents who live near these businesses, Moutrie said.

Currently, Santa Monica is home to about 64 massage and accessory massage businesses, which Moutrie says is an “exceptionally high concentration,” given the fact that the city covers only about eight square miles.

Moreover, the number of these businesses is growing.

Thirty-three new massage businesses opened in 2006 and 2007, compared to only six that opened in 2000 and 2001.

Moutrie pointed out that a “significant portion” of the businesses operate legally and provide services that are valued by their customers, but a “large number” do not.

Police and prosecutors estimate that over 25 percent of such businesses engage in unlawful operations, especially prostitution, Moutrie said.

It is hoped that amending current massage regulations will help combat this problem.

Indeed, Moutrie thinks it will.

“This ordinance will, I think, constitute a significant step towards addressing illicit activities,” she said.

The amended ordinance — modeled after laws adopted by some other cities, including Newport Beach and Anaheim — will clarify some existing provisions of local law and strengthen others to help the Santa Monica Police Department and the city’s Finance Department combat illegal businesses.

Most important, the ordinance will require fingerprinting of anyone seeking permits to operate a massage business.

In Santa Monica, there are approximately 600 licensed massage technicians and about 90 percent are treated as “exempt” under current law. As a result, they have not been fingerprinted. But with the amended ordinance, this will now change.

“To the best of my knowledge, we are the only city in the greater Los Angeles area and perhaps all of Southern California that doesn’t require finger printing at the moment, so I think that this would be a good step forward,” Moutrie said.

Santa Monica may, in fact, be the only city in the state that does not currently require all massage technicians to be fingerprinted, Moutrie said. Some believe this may explain the concentration of illicit massage businesses in the city.

The amended ordinance has a penalty provision making a violation of the law a misdemeanor and it will also require that all massage technicians take and pass the Los Angeles County proficiency exam to ensure that they are competent.

Additionally, massage businesses will now be required to post a list of all available services and will be prohibited from providing services that are not listed.

Physicians, surgeons, osteopaths, physical therapists, occupational therapists and registered nurses working under a a physicians’ direction are exempt from the massage ordinance.

Originally, occupational therapists were not exempt from the amended law, but Mayor Pro Tem Richard Bloom requested the change.

“Taking note that physical therapists are included in the exempted professions, I’d like to request that occupational therapists be exempted,” he said.

The City Council is expected to approve a second reading of the amended ordinance, which is standard procedure, at its next council meeting.