Two dozen massage schools related to prostitution or fraud, or sometimes both. And regulators who know the problem, but don’t have the power to act.
These were the conclusions of a USA TODAY survey last week focused on the role massage schools play in getting licensed workers to illicit sex spas.
These institutions often operate in plain sight, in office parks or commercial tracks, but regulators say they are difficult to identify. And continuing sex trafficking is a challenge because it can build on the willingness of immigrant women to admit that they have been forced into sexual acts.
So it’s often a seemingly insignificant detail, like exam answers hidden in a boot or a forged signature on official school documents, that calls for action. Local massage boards that monitor their licensure data are often the ones that uncover suspicious schools, USA TODAY found.
“We have seen substantial evidence that indicates that human traffickers are attempting to use fraudulent schools to support their operations,” said Ahmos Netanel, CEO of the California Massage Therapy Council, “specifically in the form of either buying diplomas, or registration of their victims in schools. that do not provide the education they claim to actually provide.
Here is an overview of the main findings of the investigation.
Why it’s so hard: Even after the crackdown, massage schools can live on
State officials have limited power to act when they discover schools they suspect of promoting the illicit massage industry.
This was the case at the American Academy of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine in Roseville, Minnesota. After receiving a tip from a local city in 2019, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education investigated the school and found “a subject of prostitution and / or human trafficking. ”
The agency did not have the power to investigate these allegations. Instead, the state said the school had failed, among other things, to keep its student records, and ordered it to close or find a new owner. The school chose the latter option, although the person who owned the school at the time denies the state’s claims.
The school was renamed the American Academy of Health and Wellness, but it bears similarities to its past iteration. For example, the former president and owner is still on the payroll to help with the transition.
The Seldin / Haring-Smith Foundation, a family foundation focused on college accountability, included the college in a report documenting the links between sex trafficking and state accredited colleges.
How it works: “diploma factories” suspected of supplying illicit spas
USA TODAY has also documented how far operators at some massage schools will go to play with the system.
In November 2015, a woman was caught hiding the answers to a massage exam in her boot. Members of the Federation of State Massage Commissions, the administrators of the licensure test, tracked down the training program she listed. The federation discovered that the owner of this program had passed the test a few months before, but there was something strange about the third button on his shirt. It was bigger than the other buttons, and they believed it contained a camera to record the test, according to a lawsuit filed by the federation against the school’s operators.
Further research revealed that the school had worked with hundreds of clients and offered a series of fake credentials to obtain a massage license, including certification for training hours that cost between 2,800 and 3 hours. 800 dollars. A fake high school diploma cost only $ 80. The federation has secured a settlement of $ 450,000 in the case, although details are sealed.
Next step: the education department has two weeks
Careful industry watchers say they fear online massage schools could be a new frontier for unscrupulous operators. The owners of these schools say they are meeting the demand.
“We don’t allow it in Nevada,” said Sandra Anderson, executive director of the Nevada State Board of Massage Therapy. “This is a trafficker’s dream, online education. Absolutely. It’s something they want.
Meanwhile, a subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee has asked the Department of Education to share its procedures to “identify and stop human or sex trafficking related to post-secondary education.” The subcommittee cited the Seldin / Haring-Smith Foundation report in its letter, and its chairman, Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., Said it was concerned that some schools may have covered up illegal acts for receive federal money.
“The subcommittee would like to work together to determine if other federal funds are unknowingly being provided to bad actors,” Krishnamoorthi wrote to the department.
Support this work with a subscription:False diplomas. Arrests for prostitution. Forged documents. Massage schools accused of fueling illegal businesses in the United States