In the Shadows: Human Trafficking, Fraud and the Cost to the Massage Profession

By Kathryn Feather
May 20, 2011

In the Shadows: Human Trafficking, Fraud and the Cost to the Massage Profession

By Kathryn Feather
May 20, 2011

For decades, the massage profession has battled the stereotype that it is a front for prostitution. While the occasional bad apple can still be found in the bunch, the profession has made significant strides in recent years to combat this false belief. Hospitals and health care centers nationwide have begun to embrace massage as a compliment to their traditional medical practices and most states have established licensing criteria for professionals who have the proper education and skills to become legitimate practitioners.

Nevertheless, criminals have continued to sully the profession's good name and in California an investigation by the state's certification board has unconvered their latest tactic: phony massage school transcripts.

Amazingly, prior to the investigation by California Massage Therapy Council (CAMTC), it was legal to sell a fake transcript in the state. Transcripts - along with criminal history records - are key credentials in the state's massage therapist certification system that allows therapists to practice legally.

The investigation began when the CAMTC discovered patterns in which certain "schools" seemed to have large numbers of graduating student with prostitution arrest records. Armed this and information from other sources, the CAMTC brought in an undercover investigator who would discover that these "graduates," mostly women of South Asian and South American descent, were part of a vast network of human traffickers profiting from prostitution.

The undercover investigator found that human traffickers were selling phony massage school transcripts so prostitutes could pose as legitimate therapists and work or operate massage parlors that are nothing more than fronts. The investigator told Massage Today that these suspected bogus "schools" were targeted based on tips, police information and an analysis of data collected by the CAMTC.

"Police departments who work with us, gave us every prostitution arrest along with the name of the schools they claimed they had gone to," said the investigator. Information was also obtained from the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, as well as states like Texas that maintain close records of prostitution arrests.

Visit To a "School"

At a visit to one of these "schools," the investigator was taken to the back to meet with the Assistant School Director. "This one in particular looked nothing like a school. It was an ordinary house. Not to be stereotyping, but she looked like a madam with very provocative clothing and makeup. I told her I was interested in (buying a transcript) and she said 'yes, no problem' and asked me to come back in a few days with a check," said the investigator. "Some operated that way, at others, I was in and out with a transcript in two hours."

On another occasion, the investigator met with the director of a school whose ramshackle "office" was cluttered with what were clearly transcript templates and "stacks and stacks of photos of girls."

The investigator told Massage Today that in one waiting room, there were "many young women of Asian descent dressed provocatively." The investigator also said several of the bogus schools that came under scrutiny were also clearly houses of prostitution. "At this one place, it was pretty obvious they were conducting prostitution on the premises. The men who ran the place were lecherous and disgusting and had no qualms about commenting on my appearance," the investigator said.

"In one of the schools, I was in an office with a sliding door to the exterior. Men kept coming in that way saying they were there for massage appointments, but they looked and acted like johns," the investigator said.

Many of these "schools" not only created fake paperwork, but took fingerprints and included a photo of the "student" which the school then sent directly to the CAMTC for certification. Transcripts cost anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500 depending on the "school."

The CAMTC was established by the legislature in 2008 to provide a voluntary certification process for therapists. To obtain legal certification from the CAMTC as a Certified Massage Therapist in California, a person must prove they have 500 hours in classroom training from an accredited school and have a clean criminal record. They must also provide fingerprints and a photo as part of the application process. There are additional means of obtaining CAMTC certification. For a full explanation go to the to CAMTC website.

The Profession Acts

Urged on by the CAMTC and with major support from the Orange County (CA) District Attorney's Office, California State Senator Lou Correa has introduced legislation that would make providing fraudulent transcripts a misdemeanor subject to specific penalties. Meanwhile, the CAMTC is now refusing to accept transcripts from schools identified in the investigation as nothing more than diploma mills.

As introduced, Correa's Senate Bill 285 states: "This bill would provide that a person who provides a certificate, transcript, diploma or other document, or otherwise affirms that a person has received instruction in massage therapy knowing that the person has not received massage therapy instruction consistent with that documentation or affirmation is guilty of a misdemeanor and is subject to specified penalties. By creating a new crime, the bill would impose a state-mandated local program."

"The bill would require a law enforcement agency, for any person that is criminally prosecuted for a violation of law in connection with massage therapy, to provide to the Massage Therapy Organization information concerning the massage therapy instruction received by the person prosecuted."

SB 285 was referred to the Senate Committee on Public Safety and was scheduled for a hearing just as this issue went to press. Massage Today will continue to follow SB 285 as it makes its way through the legislative process.