Investigators: Will new trend in spas rub you the wrong way?

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by CHRIS INGALLS / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @cjingalls

KING5.com

Posted on January 12, 2010 at 11:51 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jan 12 at 11:51 PM

Unwinding with a massage may be your favorite way to relax.

There's a new breed of massage business out there offering a cheaper service. But here's the rub: The KING 5 Investigators have found that some of them may be violating laws that keep your spa experience safe and relaxing.

You may have noticed the rise of a new type of business that promises a feet treat. They're called "foot spas."

Foot spas are different from traditional massage therapy because they generally offer a type of massage known as "reflexology."

"They’re really only allowed to work on the hands, feet and outer ears," said Lavon Watson, a licensed massage practitioner, or LMP.

An LMP is licensed to perform full body massage. The state requires a minimum 500 hours of training.

A few years ago, a new law exempted "reflexology" from massage licensing and the concept of the "foot spa" got legs.

"Those areas, the feet, the hands and outer ears, are areas that you are not generally as concerned about doing harm to somebody," said Watson, explaining why the State Legislature allowed the change.

"It wasn't the relaxing experience I was hoping for," said Connie, from Seattle, who asked that we not reveal her last name. When she visited a Seattle foot spa last year the masseuse didn’t stop at her feet and hands.

"He pretty much started digging his elbow right into my shoulders," said Connie.

She says she received an hour-long full-body massage.

We heard complaints that many foot spas are doing them without licenses, yet, when we asked, owners and managers denied it.

So we sent a KING 5 producer in for massages at several local foot spas. We visited one in Redmond, one in Kirkland at the Sunset Foot Spa, formerly Imperial Foot Massage, where Connie's masseuse rubbed her the wrong way.

"I was tense. It was not the experience I was hoping for," said Connie.

An undercover camera showed what happened at Sunset Foot Spa, including a foot rub, a high pressure back and neck massage and a vigorous pounding.

For $30 our producer got an hour-long full body massage. He received or observed similar full body massages at every foot spa he visited even though owners and managers later admitted their employees aren't licensed for this type of massage.

Watson, the LMP, says unskilled hands can cause injury during full body deep tissue massage. In addition to training, the state license guarantees one other very important thing.

"The State does a background check on you to determine if you have a criminal background," said Watson.

Connie now realizes how vital that background check is. She says her massage went from bad to worse when her male masseuse did the unexpected.

"I (could) feel his genitals touching my arm through my clothes. I didn't have to take off my clothes," she says. "I thought 'Oh my God, what’s going on?' I thought this is an accident. As it kept going, I thought, 'This is not an accident.' I called a friend immediately and said 'I think I just got molested,'" she said.

The owner of Sunset Foot Spa, Lin Ling Fan, refused our request for an on-camera interview, explaining that she wanted to consult with her lawyer. In subsequent e-mails she said she fired the employee Connie complained about. She denied her spa offers full-body massages. But our hidden camera video clearly tells a different story with its images of our producer getting neck, back and leg massages.

Foot spas offer massages at a fraction of the cost of a licensed masseuse. As the number of foot spas has grown, so has the number of complaints filed with regulators. The Washington State Department of Health is currently investigating 15 complaints at foot spas.  But will it take action?

One Redmond foot spa advertised openly that its massages include the "back, neck and shoulders." However, the state Health Department rejected a recent consumer complaint and has closed the case because investigators could "not identify any violations," according to documents reviewed by the KING 5 Investigators.

Connie got an apology from the owner of Sunset Foot Spa,  her money back, and a new understanding of one of the most intimate services your money can buy.

"Sometimes a bargain isn't a bargain, you get what you pay for," she said.

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