In recent years, law enforcement officials in Rhode Island and Massachusetts have reported increases in human trafficking. This is part one in the five-part 2010 series that won reporter Phillip Martin a Murrow Award. Read parts two, three, four and five.

The Obama Justice Department has elevated human trafficking as a major civil rights issue. The administration has encouraged the creation of local and federal task forces around the country to deal with this growing concern, which, by one estimate, involves the smuggling of nearly 20,000 victims per year into the US. And the numbers trafficked within the US for the purposes of sex and labor are considerably higher, by most estimates. New England is not immune to this crisis.

If you’ve never cut hair, inspected a home, or massaged a sore back for a living, there’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of the Massachusetts Division of Professional Licensure. But it is inarguably one of the most powerful agencies in state government and is led by an MIT-trained official named George Weber.

"We are the institution that knows who’s supposed to be licensed, who holds the license, who owns the shop in question," says Weber. "It sends up a red flag immediately if the operation is not licensed. If the individuals present are not licensed, you begin to wonder what's going on. Do we have just an unlicensed practice or do we have something more serious?"

Considerably more serious is the conclusion reached by the agency in regard to a Dorchester businessman, whose license to operate nail salons and nail related businesses were often in violation, and often cited. Based in part on information obtained during various license inspections, the agency began to suspect that this unnamed businessman might be involved in human trafficking.

But that alarm was first sounded six years ago by a chain-smoking ex-cop who grew up in South Boston. Paul Taylor was also a former investigator with the Division of Licensure. He was charged with monitoring compliance and violations by physical therapy, chiropractic and related businesses. It was during a routine investigation in 2004 that he came across information that would lead him on a one-person crusade against traffickers in this region.

"I was watching a physical therapy location we had complaints against, and next door was a nail salon," says Taylor. "A white van pulled up. The women who were working in a nail salon were all escorted out into the van by an older woman who was working in the nail salon and two men who were already in the van. They were loaded into the van, doors were closed. I was curious about that. I dunno, my gut, I guess."

Taylor followed the vehicle, the windows of which were tinted.

"The van drove to Quincy, the Poinsett area in Quincy. The two men get out, open the side doors, the women step out, all had changed their clothes into either very short skirts and tight shirts, or very short shorts and tight shirts. They went into a place in Quincy, and it turned out to be a massage parlor. But other women did get in the van from the massage parlor … different women, and leave."

Still concerned about what was going on, he followed.

"The van then went to a house in Dorchester, and the women were escorted out of the van into the house. Had a fence around it, beware of dog. Windows are all closed up, security fence and all that."

Paul Taylor reported the incident to local police and, later, to federal authorities. Its not clear if there is a tie-in but for several years now, various federal agencies have been closely monitoring wellness centers, massage parlors, and other venues in Quincy and elsewhere for signs of human trafficking.

"Generally what they’ll do is they’ll set up apartments for them."

Bruce Folkart is special agent-in-charge for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) for the region.

"Often times, if it's a restaurant, it may be in a loft or apartment above the restaurant," says Folkart. "Often we find that these people are living in squalor and are not well fed and are often not even paid. Generally they’re working off a debt."

Last spring, a 6-year anti-trafficking investigation led to the indictment of five people charged with conspiracy to smuggle Asian women into Massachusetts for the purpose of prostitution. The victims would be picked up at regularly at the South Station Bus Terminal and then farmed out to apartments and other venues in Quincy, Boston, Stoneham, Wellesley, Newton, Woburn, Malden, Peabody, Somerville, Burlington, Watertown, and Medford.

So how do men find out about where to go to pay for sex in places that range from suburban homes and apartments to massage parlors and nail salons? These days, many go online to Craig's List.

I'm looking at an ad on Craigslist for massages. This ad takes us on a ride with a cop in downtown Providence.

"We raided this one on Monday," says Lt. Michael Correia. "We’re right down in the downtown area. In fact, the parking straight across is where the police station used to be."

Correia is an athletically built man who’s been on the Providence, RI police force for 20 of his 40 years. Correia heads up the narcotics and organized crime unit. He steers his vehicle past a spa with bars on the window, where the fire escape has been ripped from the moldings.

"These girls in here weren’t Asian. Caucasian girls. It’s an ongoing investigation."

Lt. Correia says he’s keenly aware of the link between classified ads and prostitution in this city.

"They skirt the need for actual licenses to give massages. They skirt it by careful advertising. They don’t say that they’re giving licensed massages. It’s more 'body works' or 'back rubs.' It’s a careful use of advertising words, I suppose."

For nearly a decade, prostitution behind closed doors was essentially legal in Rhode Island. Not during the 1920s, the '30s or the '40s. Prostitution, on the face of it, was legal in Rhode Island up until last November, if it took place indoors.

Legislation passed last year closed that loophole, and Lt. Correia believes it has made life that much more difficult for those who traffic human beings.

Correia continues, "So we’ve had three or four 'spas' pop up on Broadway and we’ve been able to knock them back and out of business, so that’s a good thing. The reality of the loophole is that the 'spas' tripled. And if the spas tripled, I think it’s safe to say that the number of victims tripled. So luckily, we’ve come through that process, and indoor prostitution is obviously now illegal in Rhode Island."

But women are still arriving, primarily Asian women, controlled by Chinese and Korean cartels that originate primarily, police believe, out of Queens, NY. And some victims do not arrive in ways most people might assume, says the lieutenant.

And here’s one way that law enforcement officials say these women meet their "johns": Leafing through the back pages of The Boston Phoenix, I find multiple ads for massages and back rubs filled with salacious images almost entirely of young, Asian women. When asked about this, Boston Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich issued a disclaimer stating, “We take no actions to encourage, solicit, or knowingly run any advertising for any activity we know in advance is illegal.”

Immigration attorney Julie Dahlstram, a member of the Massachusetts Task Force on Human Trafficking, says that in surveying personal ads in the Pheonix and on Craig’s List, people should keep in mind that many of the women featured in them could be held in debt bondage or under the threat of violence or deportation.

"Or more culturally specific threats. I remember somebody telling me about a case where in their culture, there was this custom where they would have this ceremony and the traffickers would say, 'We’re going to take your soul and keep it in this place until you do what you say you’re going to do. Until you do that, we’re not going to give it back.' So it’s hard for people here to understand that because that custom resonated so strongly with that community, it was enough for someone to stay in a situation of trafficking."

But not all women trafficked into Massachusetts and Rhode island are Asian or foreign born. ...and many are not yet women. They are often 13-, 14-, and 15-year-old girls who have been forced into what is euphemistically described as the "oldest profession," but what anti-trafficking experts consider a form of modern-day slavery. More in our next report.