October 28, 2007
I'll call her Crystal. She's 19, dark-featured and really concerned about my aura.
"I want to help you," Crystal says as she looks up from my hands. "I want you to let me help you."
From this point on, my $60 palm reading in a Westside storefront becomes a prolonged sales pitch for a $575 "psychic cleansing," which Crystal insists is needed to restore my gloomy aura to its previously golden hue.
Most people making plans to shuffle off this mortal coil consult estate lawyers or financial advisors. But many others -- from celebrities to civilians -- turn to psychics, astrologers and others who claim special insights into what the future may bring.
Since the Biz section is preoccupied today with matters of mortality, I figured I'd take a look at those who employ otherworldly means to help people prepare for the inevitable. It's an industry that, by some estimates, runs into the billions of dollars annually.
Look at the Web. It's bristling with sites that offer business- and finance-related astrological services. One site, AstroEcon, charges $500 a year for newsletters purporting to reveal how the stars influence the stock market -- and how you can time trades accordingly.
Then there are the various dial-a-psychic phone services and the storefront seers that are a fixture of the L.A. landscape.
Who regulates these people? How can consumers be assured they're getting their money's worth?
Or is this just one of those things where anyone who patronizes such folk gets what he or she deserves, so caveat emptor, amigos?
A lot of people might say that there's precious little difference between a psychic who tells you that prosperity is just around the corner and a stockbroker who says you'd be crazy not to invest in a certain stock.
Take Jim Cramer, who makes a living shouting stock picks into the camera on CNBC. In August, Barron's reported that Cramer's picks over the last two years significantly lagged behind the performance of the Dow. I wonder how many psychics could do better.
On the other hand, at least Cramer doesn't pretend to get his tips from spooks.
"Fortunetellers, astrologers, palm readers -- they're no different from the Nigerian scams we see on the Internet," said Michael Shermer, executive director of the Skeptics Society, a 50,000-strong organization dedicated to debunking the seemingly miraculous.
"As businesses, they should have to prove they can do what they say they can do, which they can't," he said.
Let me pause here to apologize to all the "legitimate" psychics out there who resent being lumped together with the scammers. I'm braced for a flood of calls and e-mails threatening all manner of hexes and curses.
But if you're that good, you should have contacted me before this column was published.
Until 1984, California attempted to regulate fortunetelling, perceiving it as a breeding ground for charlatans. However, a state appellate court ruled that such regulations violated psychics' 1st Amendment rights, so California officials were forced to accept divination as a legitimate vocation.
In L.A., use of "occult or psychic powers" is technically illegal. But because the city's fortunetelling regulations are similar to those that were shot down in the 1984 state case, officials don't bother enforcing the rule.
As a result, psychics have had free rein to do as they please.
So what, if anything, should be done about things like psychic hotlines that charge $4.99 a minute and focus their entire business model on dragging out calls as long as possible?
And what about people like Crystal, whose shtick centers on upselling clients to more expensive services, such as a good psychic cleansing?
Having been recently diagnosed with diabetes, I tried to make it easy for Crystal by repeatedly asking about health matters and whether I would die from medical complications. On my wrist was a bright silver MedicAlert bracelet.
You don't have to be the Amazing Kreskin to pick up on those tells.
Crystal assured me that, aside from my funky aura, my health was fine. She said I'd live to 80 and die of "old age."
When I balked at paying $575 for a psychic cleansing, Crystal said I could instead pay her $300 upfront and the rest after I appreciated the effects of her ministrations.
I declined. But I have no doubt there are others who would have taken up Crystal on her proposition.
"It becomes an addiction for some people," said Scott Grossberg, a Rancho Cucamonga attorney who has written on efforts to regulate the supposedly supernatural. "They need to have others decide their lives for them."
My first instinct was to think this was a business crying out for strict consumer safeguards. Why should fortunetelling be any different from other commercial services?
But the more I thought about it, the more I understood that what fortunetellers are selling isn't a tangible product. It's a sense of hope, of taking control of uncertainty. It's the same product religious types have been selling for centuries.
People like Crystal might be trying to separate me from as much money as possible, but they're offering in return the satisfaction of having peered into the future and prepared for what's to come.
"People want to believe," said Grossberg, "and you're never going to legislate belief.
"This industry has been around forever, since before there were laws. It's something we want. We're wired for this."
I hate to say it, but that's probably true.
There. My aura feels better already.
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