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Florida suspends 81 massage therapists' licenses

Published Sep. 20, 2012

TAMPA — State authorities announced Wednesday the emergency suspension of 81 massage therapists' licenses, all fraudulently obtained with the help of a Florida massage school employee.

According to Gov. Rick Scott, about 200 people who did not enroll in massage school nonetheless received transcripts showing successful completion by paying between $10,000 and $15,000 to an individual who worked at a Florida massage school.

They used those transcripts to get massage licenses from the Florida Department of Health.

Authorities are not naming the school or the person who sold transcripts. The investigation is ongoing, and more suspensions likely will be issued within the next few weeks, authorities said.

The emergency suspensions are one way to "chip away" at a larger problem of human trafficking, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at a news conference Wednesday in Tampa.

He said massage parlors, along with restaurants, nursing homes, landscaping businesses and agriculture operations, are typical places for finding victims of human trafficking — the exploitation of people forced into prostitution and pornography, servitude and debt bondage.

Though authorities say they do not know if these 81 people are victims or perpetrators of human trafficking, it is clear they are not operating legally, Gualtieri said.

In general, he said, authorities believe human traffickers at massage parlors often operate under a valid Florida massage license, making it harder for law enforcement to investigate the business and discover the victims inside.

"We will continue to investigate all of this in the Tampa Bay area," said Gualtieri, whose agency is part of the Tampa Bay/Clearwater Area Task Force on Human Trafficking. "This is part of a big problem."

According to state authorities, about 18,000 to 50,000 people are trafficked into the United States each year, and Florida is one of the top destinations.

It is a tough crime for law enforcement to crack because the victims often do not report the issue to authorities, said Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee.

The crime is more subtle than its portrayal in the movie Taken, the sheriff said.

The person inside the Florida massage school who was issuing the transcripts has been fired, said Florida Surgeon General Dr. John Armstrong. Authorities declined to say whether criminal charges could follow.

Times staff writer Laura Morel contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

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