Action News Investigates: Unlicensed massage therapists

DUVAL COUNTY, Fla. — An Action News Investigation has uncovered an illegal health care practice happening in neighborhoods across Jacksonville.
Unlicensed workers are doing business right out in the open. It's not just against the law, experts say it could put your health in danger. Local doctors, dentists, opticians, busted for working without a license.

We have obtained a list of all unlicensed health care activity in our area for the last two years and topping the list is the massage industry. In fact, more than half of the violators are massage establishments and massage therapists and you can find them in every part of town.

We stopped by two Jacksonville spas on the list.

Lily Spa is located in a business park on Southpoint Parkway. It is licensed by the state, but according to Department of Health Records, on three different occasions last year, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and state investigators busted five people for giving massages at Lily Spa without a license.

We were told the owners of Lily Spa would contact us to answer questions about licensing issues and they have not.

Also on the list, a spa on the Southside. Walking up to the building the sign reads "Palm Tree Tanning Spa," but we've learned that business was shut down in 2008, busted for unlicensed massage and prostitution.

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Now, it's called "Yoshi Swedish Spa" and is under different ownership. Yoshi is licensed by the state, but not all of its workers have been.    

The state tells us two Yoshi workers were caught performing unlicensed massage last year. We also uncovered JSO went to Yoshi spa last August to investigate possible prostitution. While no one was arrested for that,  two workers were arrested for giving massages without a license. One worker even hid under the massage table when officers came in.

We went to talk to the owners and while we were waiting, two men were quickly ushered out by staff.

Action News Tenikka Hughes: "Is prostitution happening here?"

Yoshi woman worker: "I don't do English."

We found many local spas mentioned on erotic websites, with men using code words to describe the services they received.
We also found local spas advertising on backpage.com. Those sites, we're told, are red flags for state investigators.

"Generally most of the reputable therapists you won't find too much on those pages," said Leiah Carr, Florida State Massage Therapy Association president and licensed massage therapist.

Carr said the group works with lawmakers to strengthen laws governing the massage industry and with law enforcement to crack down on illegal activity.

“A lot of our own therapists spend their own time taking down that info and reporting it,” Carr said.

There are more than 30,000 licensed massage therapists in Florida.  Carr says the people committing the illegal activity represent a small group that cast a negative light on positive work of massage professionals.  Carr said, “It’s an amazing practice.  It’s an amazing art and we have therapists that make a difference in lives every day.”

Carr said the 19 state chapters of FSMTA actively works to counter those negative perceptions.  Carr said, “Because naturally it’s something we don’t want in our industry.  We work hard, hard working professionals, that help people on a daily basis.  It’s similar to anything in any industry, it can give a bad name and a bad reputation.”

The hazards of unlicensed massage extend beyond the criminal realm. Mark Whitten, Chief of Enforcement with the Florida Department of Health, said it could also put your health at risk.

“There could be a number of issues, let's say you’re on doctor orders a massage for some post-operative procedures and you go in there and manipulations are incorrect, it could result in further injury disease and ultimately death,” Whitten said.

So what else is the state doing to crackdown on this activity? Just four months ago, a new law went into effect requiring all licensed massage therapists to undergo background checks and fingerprinting. The information is kept in a national database.

“Not so easy to slip up under the radar for the massage field any longer,” Carr said.

You can check the license or see complaints for massage establishments or therapists. Their license numbers should also be posted at the establishment where they are working, if they are not, you should always ask to see it.

You can check with the Department of Health, the Florida State Massage Therapy Association, the Florida Board of Massage Therapy to locate and know what to look for in a licensed therapist.

To report suspected unlicensed health care activity or file a complaint click here or call 1-877-HALT-ULA (1-877-425-8852).