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KRDO uncovers license loophole, prompting state action

Cheat sheets, rigged tests, falsified credentials -- they're all becoming big problems in the massage therapy industry. Illegitimate masseuses are getting licensed by cheating the system.

We're seeing it right here in Colorado, but we have found that state has little to no oversight.

Under Colorado law, any person practicing massage therapy is required to be licensed with the state. In order to get that license, it's required the individual passes a state-administered exam. But according to our investigation, hundreds or possibly even thousands in Colorado don't take the exam, or they cheat on it.

The problem: the state agency tasked to oversee this issue doesn't have the statutory authority to fix the problem.

It was July 16, 2015, when Jing Song graduated from the International Institute of Cosmetics, a beauty school that licensed massage therapists in Colorado.

"This is my license, it says massage therapy," said Song, staring at her license certificate.

But today, that school no longer exists.

It's one of three that shut down following investigations uncovering evidence instructors were falsifying credentials. According to records from the Department of Regulatory Agencies, or DORA, Song is one of 66 people in the state that graduated from one of these reported 'fake' schools before they were terminated.

"Did you cheat on the exam?" Reporter Stephanie Sierra asked Song.

"No. No," Song said.

While Song tells us she didn't cheat, she admits many of her former classmates did.

"We can search Google, you know, the website from the government, the questions is similar there," said Song.

A similar issue of cheating was uncovered in a federal indictment by the Department of Justice back in late May and early June. According to the indictment, two instructors from Majestic Vocational School in Aurora were accused of falsifying credentials and creating cheat sheets with answers to the state license exam translated in Chinese.

"We find that they don't appear to be qualified that they don't have the background that would show they are massage therapists and would have gone through this rigorous education program," said Trevor Vaughn, who works with Aurora's Tax and Licensing Department.

Vaughn assisted with legislation that allowed the city to eliminate nearly every illicit spa in just over a year.

"This is a clear problem these instructors are licensing people with little to no experience in massage therapy," Sierra said during the interview.

"Yes, it's very frustrating and that's what we've seen almost universally with the places we suspect of doing prostitution or illicit activities," said Vaughn.

To put it in perspective, of the 19 parlors shut down in Aurora for illegal activity, Vaughn found nearly every therapist fronting the business graduated from a fake school.

"It's concerning when they're able to get licenses and they have no qualifications," Vaughn said.

And what may be even more concerning is under Colorado law, the licenses issued from these fake institutions still remain valid with the state.

So we brought this issue to DORA's Director of External Affairs, Nathan Batchelder.

"One of the ways we're committed to our mission is by making sure candidates for licensure actually meet the requirements set forth in law," said Batchelder.

Yet, the state agency doesn't have a review process in place to verify licenses issued from schools that were shut down for fraud.

"Some consider this a flaw in oversight. As the investigating agency, how do you plan to address this?" we asked.

"I think it's important to understand that," Batchelder said before pausing. "Maybe I don't understand your question ... is it a flaw in terms of?"

"As far as, they're not verifying those particular licenses, I mean no one is taking them away," Sierra said.

"Right. And I think that's why we're open to conversations and recommendations from the community on any kind of enhanced authority or regulatory purview," said Batchelder.

Reporter Stephanie Sierra (left) speaking with State Sen. Paul Lundeen (R-Monument) about possible solutions to address the licensing loophole.

The keyword is "enhanced authority" which would require legislative help. That's why we took this issue to State Sen. Paul Lundeen (R-Monument).

"We need to have some ability to claw that license out, or at least question it," Lundeen said. "This will be the next step, we need to do something about closing this loophole."

A crucial change, one we can hope to see this next legislative session.

To reiterate, DORA doesn't have the statutory authority to verify licenses issued from these fake schools. But following our interview, the agency tells our team they are open to discussion on potential legislation to address this problem.

Colorado Springs / Investigations / Local News / State & Regional News

Stephanie Sierra

Stephanie is an anchor and investigative reporter for KRDO. Learn more about Stephanie here.

Comments

9 Comments

  1. Ms. Sierra, keep at it. This is the type of investigative journalism Southern Colorado needs. Our Government is apathetic, complacent and overall lazy. You will find that not only will the cities and counties not file the actual legal CRS criminal charges they are legally obligated to do, but the State and other government regulatory agencies are understaffed. They can’t keep up with the unrelenting workload, so more often than not, they just begin showing up to work just to collect a paycheck.

    Your initial investigation is showing there is a problem with sex slave trafficking through the Southern Colorado region.
    This led you to a new larger investigation of showing everyone how poorly our government is doing at providing the populace with the services they are receiving our tax money to pay them to do.

    1. And it’s not just at the state level. The federal government has been well known as a hotbed of inefficiency for decades at least.
      Government workers are so well protected in their jobs that it’s almost impossible for them to be fired. So the “unrelenting workload” is more as a result of their inefficiency rather than being a cause of how poorly they are doing.

      1. RC, yes you are correct. Thanks for the added clarification on the section regarding the unrelenting workload. You nailed my point exactly. the low level personnel that started off wanting to make a difference are only crushed by the lack of assistance they receive from their management and the weight of being inundated with little to no assistance from supervision and no additional support to efficiently run the department the way it was intended to run.

  2. Not uncommon in a lot of industries. Home Inspectors are also not regulated in Colorado. And I’ve seen some horrible ones.

  3. KRDO is on a mission it seems to close down these parlors. They COULD focus on alot of different issues and they chose this one…..I bet one of their admin had a bad experience……or so it would seem.

  4. It wouldn’t surprise me if our governor would just legalize prostitution. For a nominal fee of course.

  5. There is NO Colorado State Massage Therapist Exam. Colorado relies on other states to licence massage therapists, then checks records of those states of former licencees. From my experience, this is how this state Registers massage therapists, not truly Licence them. It is because if there WERE a State MT Exam, then massage therapists Could get paid by Insurance companies for their services, but Can Not as the DORA procedure is a Registration. My original Licence was Washington state, where applicants had to pass a Written exam with 70% or better to be allowed to take the Practical. When I moved back to Colorado Springs, there was a City exam, Written & Practical, not as involved as WA, though still an exam. Then the CO state, came along and changed to what now exists. Renewals are online only, nothing in the mail. Such is the process.

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