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"Psychic" Advice by Mail or Telephone

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

"Psychic Astrology"

Would you like to "hit it big" and accrue "up to millions"? Cope better with important personal relationships? Have everything mapped out so you can "fulfill your dream of living the good life"? Just complete the enclosed "psychic interview form" and send it with $19.95 for your "Personal Forecast and Life Development Chart"—guaranteed to provide "full Good Luck/Money instructions" for the next year or your money will be returned.

This sales pitch-in an envelope marked "absolutely confidential"-was mailed by "psychic astrologer" Irene Hughes. The letter said:

Dear Tom.

Your name got on my special list. The moment I saw it there I had a hunch: a psychic "gut feeling." I knew I should contact you. I said to myself "things are not right with this friend. I must help my new friend.

Now I happen to be famous for spotting people in trouble, and helping them. . . . Even officials of the Church and Government call on my services. Being able to 'receive' psychic impressions from anywhere in the world . . . I've been nearly 100% successful assisting important world figures in ways that amaze authorities.

"Right this minute I'm concentrating on you. On how Irene Hughes should and must help you. What my gut feeling tells me is this. You have a serious personal problem. It is eating away at you. . . .

There is no shortage of so-called psychics or astrologers out there willing to help you . . . . They will take your money and not actually do anything for you or tell you anything you didn't already know . . . .

You don't know how lucky you are that a truly qualified psychic counseling expert—someone known to be 'right' as a psychic 74 out of 75 times—is now on to your problem. . . . Normally my consultation services cost a client $500.00 or more, plus expenses.

I have no way to determine whether Ms. Hughes helps people. But I do know that her selection of "Tom" was not psychic. "Tom" does not exist. He's just one of many names someone I know uses to subscribe to offbeat publications and inquire about get-rich-quick schemes. "Tom" receives a steady stream of mail from entrepreneurs who have acquired his name for their "sucker lists."

Psychic Hotlines

Many entrepreneurs offer "psychic" advice by telephone. In the typical operation, callers dial a "900" number and are charged $2 to $4 per minute for the advice. In 1993 ABC-TV's "Prime Time Live" aired the results of a three-month investigation of a lucrative "psychic hotline." One undercover investigator had no prior knowledge of occult matters. After being hired, she underwent a few days of training in tarot cards, astrology, and numerology. She then used her intuition (plus code words written on tarot cards) to formulate her responses to callers. She reported being instructed to permit suicidal callers to run up their bill before referring them to a legitimate suicide hotline. Another undercover investigator, posing as a prospective investor, interviewed a company director who said, "Most of the people's personal lives—who work for us—are just total shambles. How they could even give the stuff out is incredible."

Psychology Today magazine carries many ads for "psychic" services. One in the June 1998 issue, for example, states:

Kenny Kingston is the most sought after psychic in modern times. World famous celebrities and stars seek his guidance. Now you too can know what lies ahead. Take control of your own destiny. Talk to your won personal and confidential psychic today.

Others in the same issue offer:

Not Always Harmless

No systematic study of the impact of "psychic" or astrologic advice has been published in the scientific literature. But the Associated Press has reported an example of a disastrous outcome allegedly tied to such advice. In 1994, Orange County, California, filed for bankruptcy after its treasurer had lost $1.7 billion in highly speculative bond investments. The treasurer's top aide testified to a grand jury investigating the matter that the treasurer had consulted a psychic and relied on interest-rate forecasts from a mail-order astrologer while making the ill-fated investments.

A recent "Dear Abby" column noted another possible problem. One of Abby's readers described how, since revealing her address during a call for a "free psychic consultation," she "began to receive pounds of junk mail each week and telephone calls from every kind of weird and goofy outfit you can possibly imagine."

Regulatory Action

In November 2000, the Pennsylvania Attorney General filed suit against Florida-based Access Resource Services (ARS), which operates a "psychic hotline" best known for promoting "Miss Cleo's" psychic readings [1]. According to investigators, ARS advertised their psychic entertainment services on television and through direct mail. The Psychic Reader's Network was responsible for hiring and supervising the telephone psychics while ARS handled the billing and collections.

According to 125 complaints filed by Pennsylvania consumers, ARS sent direct mail solicitations under several names offering consumers 3 to 30 free minutes of psychic talk time. The ads included an 800 number to call to obtain a psychic reading. Other ads claimed: "This call won't cost you a penny. You have nothing to lose." The lawsuit accuses ARS of:

One former Pittsburgh resident told Fisher's Office that she was charged for more than $700 worth of Psychic Network calls she never made. The charges were allegedly billed to her old telephone number which was disconnected prior to the date the calls were made.

The Buffalo Better Business Bureau has received more than 1200 complaints about Miss Cleo's hotline.[2].

In July 2001, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon charged ARS with 94 violations of Missouri's new No Call law and other consumer fraud violations [3,4]. A Missouri judge then issued a temporary restraining order barring the company from billing customers for advertised free services such as tarot and psychic readings and misrepresenting reduced rates and fee waivers for the first three minutes of each phone call. (Customers spent the three minutes providing information such as name, address and phone number and then were charged for time spent on hold waiting to speak with its psychic.) Nixon also said that Missouri residents who had never requested services from the psychic hotline have received bills, including dead persons. The Florida business also charged consumers for calls made by minors without first obtaining parental consent even though the hotline advertises that its services are for persons older than 18. The lawsuit seek civil penalties of up to $5,000 per violation plus a permanent injunction.

The No Call lawsuit was the second Nixon has filed since the law went into effect July 1. Four other telemarketers have paid a total of $20,000 in civil penalties and have agreed to refrain from calling consumers on the list [5].

Missouri's No Call Law, enacted in 2000, states that, "No person or entity shall make or cause to be made any telephone solicitation to the telephone line of any residential subscriber in this state who has given notice to the attorney general . . . of such subscriber's objection to receiving telephone solicitations." Since December 11, 2000, more than 614,000 Missouri homes (representing about 20% of the state's population) have signed up for the "no call" list [5].

New York State, which also enacted a no-call law during 2000, has over 2 million residents who have registered. In October 2001, the state's Consumer Protection Board announced that it had cited ARS for making 112 violative calles, which could lead to a penalty of $224.000. The announcement also noted that the company had engaged in deceptive sales practices; sold its services to minors; and "contacted hundreds of New Yorkers with a deluge of telemarketing calls, e-mails and literature that is misleading, unsolicited and unwanted." [6] The agency has also released a detailed report revealing the identity of "Miss Cleo" and the deception involved in marketing her services [7]. Although "Miss Cleo" claims to be a Jamaican shaman, investigators for the Florida Attorney General have obtained a copy of her birth certificate, which indicates that she was born Youree Dell Harris on Aug. 13, 1962, in Los Angeles County Hospital, to parents who were from California and Texas.

Related Subjects

References

  1. AG Fisher sues psychic entertainment businesses over alleged free reading scam Pa. Attorney General news release, Nov 11, 2000.
  2. Better Business Bureau reports on Florida psychic hotline, Feb 22, 2001.
  3. Jeremiah W. ("Jay") Nixon vs Action Resources Services, also known as "Miss Cleo. Petition for temporary restraining order, preliminary and permanent injunctions, civil penalties and other relief.
  4. Jeremiah W. ("Jay") Nixon vs Action Resources Services. Petition for injunctive relief, application for temporary restraining order, civil penalties and other relief.
  5. Nixon sues TV ad psychic Miss Cleo for fraud and No Call law violations; says "she should have seen this coming." Missouri Attorney General news release, July 24, 2001.
  6. 'Miss Cleo' cited for barrage of telemarketing calls. Consumer Protection Board releases report, "Dialing for Dollars," detailing misleading sales practices by Florida psychic service. New York State Consumer Protection Board news release, Oct 31, 2001.
  7. Rhodes CA. Dialing for Dollars. New York State Consumer Protection Board, Oct 2001.

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This article was revised on March 19, 2002.