Illegal brothels offering unsafe sex practices are operating rampantly in Melbourne’s west, according to legal brothels and escort agencies.

Australian Adult Entertainment Industry’s William Albon said he had been told by a legal brothel owner that 30 to 40 illegal brothels were running in locations across Williamstown, Footscray, Altona, Sunshine, Point Cook and Werribee.

The owner of another legal brothel located in the west said there were websites on which illegal brothels advertised their services, often with photos.

He said many of the advertisements asked for “cash only” from clients and included unlicensed sex workers operating in Caroline Springs, Hoppers Crossing, Werribee, Tarneit, Williams Landing, Ardeer and St Albans.

“Some of the photos they are using are quite gross and some of the services the girls offer are quite unsafe and illegal, such as sex without a condom,” he said.

 “When you think about it, these girls are very young, lots are students, a lot have poor English and don’t understand what they can and can’t do.”

He said the market for illegal brothels was now “at saturation point” with many operators reducing their prices to attract clients.

The owner of a different legal brothel said there were at least four illegal brothels “operating quite openly” in Newport.

“The bigger problem is trafficking girls – we have been asked on two occasions if we wanted girls (European girls) supplied to us by men visiting the shop,” he said. “There are also many visa-less girls in the industry who are moved around massage shops.”

“Many Asian girls pay large sums for visas, for example, to brokers and are then ‘indentured’ to a particular brothel/massage shop until the debt is repaid. In many cases, these girls do not have work rights so are afraid to complain and/or leave.”

The owners of Bodyline in Yarraville said there were “stacks” of illegal brothels located in the Maribyrnong municipality.

“Those illegal places often have no shower and are very unsafe,” one of the owners said.

They said, under law, sex workers at legal brothels are required to undergo a health check every three months, but  illegal places which offered unsafe sex could contribute to the spread of sexual disease.

All of the legal brothel owners contacted by Star Weekly said Melbourne’s unlicensed sex industry was barely monitored.

They said the Victoria Police Sex Industry Coordination Unit (SICU) was understaffed and had only made “a handful of arrests” related to illegal sex work.

“Illegal operators know there is almost zero chance of being raided,” the owner of a licensed venue said.

“Dealing outside the legal industry is very lucrative with little chance of being caught – hopefully this will change, protecting the welfare of trafficked girls.”

A Victoria Police spokeswoman said the SICU and local police were running Operation Foxtails, targeting a number of illegal brothels in the west.

She said it was difficult to track the number of illegal brothels in the state, because premises could be opened and closed with relative ease.

“There is nothing to indicate that Melbourne’s western suburbs have any more illegal brothels than any other region,” she said.

Figures from the Victorian Crime Statistics Agency show that within the past two financial years, police recorded eight unlicensed sex work offences in the west – three in Wyndham and five in Maribyrnong.

A spokesman for Wyndham council said the council did not investigate brothels because the matter came under the authority of Victoria Police. Hobsons Bay council said much the same thing.

Maribyrnong council’s director of planning services, Nigel Higgins, said the council had inspected “a number of premises across Maribyrnong since 2012” which were suspected of being illegal brothels.

“Most of the inspections have occurred in the Tottenham area,” Mr Higgins said.

“Council has limited power as we only have authority to investigate alleged breaches of planning permit or the planning scheme.”

In February, an illegal brothel in Geelong Road, Footscray was shut down, after Sunshine Magistrates Court declared the premises was a proscribed brothel under the Sex Work Act 1994.

Brimbank council’s director of city development, Stuart Menzies, said the council received complaints “from time to time” about the operation of suspected illegal brothels, particularly in semi-commercial and industrial areas.

“If Victoria Police provides evidence to council, or requests council’s assistance, that it suspects a premise is operating as an illegal brothel, council’s Planning Compliance Unit investigates the matter,” Mr Menzies said.

Rachel Reilly, the executive director of Project Respect, a support and referral service for women trafficked for sexual exploitation and women in the sex industry, said her organisation was attempting to map illegal brothels in four Melbourne municipalities.

It would focus on the Maribyrnong area next year.

“Maribyrnong and Footscray, we know they are they are definitely hotspots,” Ms Reilly said.

She said there was an estimated 500 illegal brothels in Melbourne.

The Victoria Police spokeswoman said: “We  take all allegations of illegal sex work seriously and encourage any person with information on illegal brothels to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or www.crimestoppersvic.com.au.”