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Jewish World Review April 19, 2002 /9 Iyar, 5762

Patricia Pearson

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Consumer Reports

Should we allow psychics to be sued for fraud? | Shocking news alert! A psychic is being sued for fraud! How is this possible? What is the world coming to when you can't trust some loon with a pack of Tarot cards and the ability to take cash, or VISA?

I just don't get it. All these years of laying out hundreds of bucks on people who told me I could communicate with aliens and was allergic to cheese, and suddenly, my faith is being tested.

The sued psychic in question is Miss Cleo, a.k.a. Youree Dell Harris of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who slinks around on late-night television crooning at insomniacs to call her national psychic hotline, to learn important stuff from gifted seers, like whether their girlfriend's baby is really theirs. Miss Cleo has successfully ensnared six million Americans on a toll-free line that turns out not to be toll-free, but in fact bilks them for US$4.97 a minute, according to consumer complaints. She has reaped her reward by building a whopping mansion on a Florida beach.

Enter the Federal Trade Commission, along with nine states, slapping Miss Cleo with lawsuits alleging false promises of free psychic readings, tricky billing tactics and aggressive telemarketing. That last charge relates to her tendency to e-mail and phone people, telling them that she had "an exciting dream about" them "last night," and that they really must call and find out her vision.

Liar, liar, pants on fire! So charges the state of Florida in a separate lawsuit, compelling Miss Cleo to prove that she really is a "renowned shaman from Jamaica" and not just some huckster in a turban.

This is the lawsuit that interests me, because all kinds of companies get accused of shady business practices, and in this case a Florida court has appointed an auditor to monitor her enterprises as part of a settlement with the FTC. But how many companies get sued for selling nothing but stupid gibberish?

I once went to hear the most famous psychic of all, Sylvia Browne, a huge, best-selling whirlwind of a psychic who charges US$750 per reading. She was lecturing in a packed auditorium, and she told us that according to her spirit guide, Heaven was a place where people did hobbies. Like, some of them "engaged in animal husbandry" and others played tennis.

Every time I see Browne or one of her superstar psychic cohorts, like John Edward -- who has his own, highly rated TV show called Crossing Over, and James Van Praagh who shows up a lot on Larry King Live, I think: How is it possible that these guys can make so much money by blurting out whatever nonsense pops into their head?

Don't get me wrong. I am attracted to the possibilities of the paranormal. I like the idea that mysteries remain in this universe. But there doesn't seem to be any ... how to put it ... quality control in this game.

Allow me to give you a concrete example, pertaining to Miss Cleo. In a recent published account of working for Miss Cleo's hotline as a psychic, a fellow named Richard Daverman explained how he got the job: "How did I become a teenage mutant ninja psychic? Simple. I answered an ad in the employment section of The [Nashville] Tennessean. It wasn't an ad for a psychic, because I wouldn't have answered it. Instead, it was a call for counsellors on the telephone, no experience needed." Having procured his employment, Daverman went about the business of being a phone psychic.

Of his clients, he wrote "the grammar, questions and concerns -- in short, the overall mien -- of the callers didn't create the picture of mental giants figuring out their future fortunes. By and large, they seemed to be mostly working-class people, the usual victims of highly promoted scams. This didn't help my growing sense of guilt over providing nothing for a very large sum of money."

We are talking, let us not forget, of millions of North Americans who are shelling out significant dollar amounts to guys like Daverman. For the same amount, they could pay for a psychologist, or buy several tasty cocktails at a bar. As far as I know, the state of Florida's lawsuit is the first legal effort to curb the unbounded shenanigans of charlatans with crystal balls.

Up until now, advocacy has remained the purview of obsessed skeptics like James Randi, who runs the James Randi Educational Foundation to disabuse people of their paranormal fantasies. On Larry King Live, Randi wrested an agreement from Sylvia Browne that she would submit her psychic powers to a scientific test. He now runs a Sylvia Browne Clock on his Web site. As of yesterday, it has been 227 days since she promised to call.

JWR contributor Patricia Pearson is the author of "When She Was Bad: How and Why Women Get Away with Murder." Comment by clicking here.


© 2002, Patricia Pearson