With names like "A Fantasy for You" and "Venus and Mars," Baltimore County's illegal massage parlors are easy for police to spot -- especially when they publish their locations in local newspaper ads.
But shutting them down is another matter.
Frustrated police and prosecutors have launched an aggressive campaign against the operations, which close and reopen so quickly that police can't tell how many there are.
Since June, police have made 28 arrests and obtained four search warrants involving illegal parlors, which they say are the sites of prostitution, robberies and other criminal activity.
In the same period last year, they charged 14 people and obtained no search warrants, said Sgt. J. R. Goodman, who supervises the massage parlor raids and arrests.
Last month, Deputy State's Attorney Howard Merker -- a veteran prosecutor who usually supervises assistant state's attorneys in District Court -- personally began taking the cases to court in hopes that judges would take the charges more seriously.
Without such attention, he said, "Judges may look at it as a victimless crime and therefore not give it the same attention."
More help is on the way under a new state law that goes into effect in January.
That law gives the state authority to certify massage therapists. Anyone who gives a massage without certification could be fined up to $5,000 and receive a year in prison.
The new law was enacted at the urging of legitimate massage therapists who are frustrated with the bad name they get from illegal operations, said Jeffery L. Young, president of the Maryland Chapter of the Massage Therapy Association.
"It's the yoke we've had to bear," he said, noting that when legitimate massage therapists advertise for customers, they inevitably get calls from men looking for prostitutes.
Baltimore County licenses massage establishments and technicians, although experienced therapeutic massage practitioners with more than 500 hours of training are exempt.
Illegal operators are subject to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail under the county law.
But while only four licensed massage establishments operate in the county, police and prosecutors say they receive numerous complaints about illegal operations, which have been a problem in Howard County as well.
Baltimore County police have long used undercover police as their main weapon against such establishments. A criminal summons can take weeks to serve and give those charged time to flee the state.
In an effort to move more quickly, police have begun obtaining search warrants, which let them raid illegal establishments and seize business records. Police also have begun to pursue illegal "escort services," in which "massage therapists" visit customers.
Unregulated operations may seem benign, said Merker, but they can be dangerous for customers -- some of whom have been robbed by employees.
"There are also a significant number of massage parlors that are fronts for prostitution, so we're talking about a health problem," he added.
Three of the parlors recently charged are on the county's west side, where County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville Democrat, said he has yet to hear complaints from his constituents.
But he noted that the county's older neighborhoods "seem to be facing an onslaught of undesirable uses -- pawnshops, fortune-telling, methadone clinics and now massage parlors."
The operators can be tenacious.
Police recently arrested two women who advertised in a local paper "We'll be doing it" at a house on the 9100 block of Belair Road.
In Merker's first case in District Court last month, one of the women was given probation before judgment for giving a massage without a license and the other was convicted of operating an illegal massage parlor. Her sentencing was scheduled for a later date.
Two days later, police discovered they were back in business and arrested them again.
Last week, police raided another massage parlor that was all too familiar to them.
Known by the name "Akasaka Spa" or "Akasaka Accupressure," the parlor is in a modest office building behind a Dunkin' Donuts on the 6600 block of Security Blvd. in a busy commercial district.
In June, police arrested an employee, charging her with administering a massage without a county license. The case is scheduled in District Court in December.
Back in business
A reporter visited Akasaka last month and found the door locked and an eviction notice at the entrance. But last week, according to Lt. Walter E. Doyle III, police learned that Akasaka was back in business -- and so brazen about promoting itself that it took out an ad in The Sun.
"They had a grand reopening," he said.
When an undercover police officer went inside, he was solicited for prostitution by an employee who was "undressed down to a thong" bikini, said Goodman. Police charged her with soliciting.