Psychic Industry Didn’t See Crackdown Coming


To Shlomit Galperin, the future looked bleak. And she wasn’t even a psychic--yet.

She was cleaning houses around St. Petersburg, Fla., to support her two kids, and there wasn’t a lot of money in it. So when she saw the ad in the Thrifty Nickel--work at home, earn good money, flexible hours--she made the call.

“You will be a psychic,” she recalls the woman telling her.

“What?” she replied.

Clearly, Galperin is no clairvoyant. If she was, she would have already known that for the next four years, she was fated to be one of hundreds of stay-at-home psychics who answered calls on behalf of Miss Cleo, the exuberant soothsayer with the Jamaican accent whose television appearances, mostly in late-night commercials, have made her an extrasensory sensation.

She quit last May, before lawsuits--filed by at least nine states and the Federal Trade Commission--took a heavy toll on the company’s reputation and profits. They charged the company Miss Cleo represents, Access Resource Services of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with all sorts of sins, including lying about Miss Cleo’s qualifications as a seer.


But it would be a mistake to focus too much on Miss Cleo. The story here is a business in which just about everybody has been accused of sleazy behavior--Access, its contractors, even the people who call for readings.

And don’t forget the psychics.

“I’m not too proud of what I did,” says Shlomit Galperin.

She recalls how the recruiter sat down with her and two others and simulated calls. But I don’t know how to read Tarot cards, Galperin said. No problem, she was told: You can read from these scripts. But I’m not a college graduate, and I can barely speak English, said Israeli-born Galperin. No problem, she was told: Callers find foreign accents exotic.

So about a week later, Shlomit Galperin, cleaning woman, became Shlomit Galperin, oracle--for $4.99 a minute. The first three minutes of soothsaying were on the house.

Her most important job, she says, was not to divine the future--it was to keep callers on the line. She was required to maintain a 15-minute average per call (later increased to 20 minutes); when her average declined, so did the number of calls that were sent her way. She was paid according to how long she was on the line--at the most, $12 an hour.

There was the caller from Mississippi who was looking for her retarded, epileptic brother. Galperin knew of only one place in Mississippi: Jackson. So she said the man was there.

“She thanked me so much. ‘Now, I can at least narrow it down,’ she said. So I told her that I saw a two-story brick building,” Galperin says.


Maybe it’s a clinic, the caller suggested. Could be, Galperin agreed.

Then there was the caller whose boyfriend told her that her cat had been run over by a truck. She suspected that the boyfriend had killed the cat.

Galperin closed her eyes. “Yes!” she said.

“I knew it!” said the caller.

She would use the phone in her son’s room during the day, when he was at school, or even at night, while he did his homework beside her.

“We have no choice. We have to keep people on the line,” says Andre Marmen, a 60-year-old resident of Lake Placid, Fla., who used to work on a sex line and segued into psychic work. He doesn’t do Tarot cards. Instead, “I’m a clairvoyant, and I’m easy with that.”

Does he really have psychic powers? “People want to hear from a psychic, then I’m a psychic,” says Marmen, who is originally from Quebec. Yes, he has an accent.

Access now insists that all new hires swear [“under penalty of perjury,” says company lawyer Sean Moynihan] that they are genuine psychics.

“We know that you’re honest, legitimate readers. We know that your gifts are far beyond what the government or the states can even begin to comprehend,” reclusive Access owner Steven Feder says in a taped message to his psychics.


Still, there is always a moment in the company’s ads and its phone messages when we are assured that this is an entertainment product.

“It’s supposed to be fun,” Moynihan says. “It’s supposed to be enjoyment.”

He likens it to the World Wrestling Federation, another form of entertainment that is not embraced by all. Customers “budget it into their entertainment dollar; they’ll call two or three times a month for a reading or chat,” he says.

Kathy Fisher isn’t buying it.

“Believe me, these folks weren’t calling to be entertained,” says the Washington state woman who worked as a phone psychic for two days in 1996. She quit after taking two calls--one from a woman who was being abused by her husband, the other from a crying man who was on the verge of homelessness and was spending his last dollars to seek career guidance from a psychic.

Outrageous, says May Chao, head of the New York State Consumer Protection Board: “Consumers with very real problems reach out to these so-called psychics, looking for help with money, children, their love lives and careers.”

But Edward Popper, dean of Girard School of Business and International Commerce at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., says there’s the question as to how much government can or should do to protect people who think they can learn the future by calling a 900 number.

“Do you have to protect people from their own stupidity?” asks Popper, a former staffer at the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.


Prosecutors have not spent much time worrying about whether Access psychics--or any psychics--are legit. “We stay out of whether there is any such thing as a psychic. That for us is a very difficult thing from a legal standpoint,” says Bob Buchner, an assistant attorney general in Florida.

Instead, they are focusing on other issues:

* Does Access violate “do not call” laws to drum up business? No, attorney Moynihan says.

But Access does call a lot, with recorded messages that promise “amazing” free readings; it also showers customers with e-mail in which Miss Cleo says she has checked the cards and has urgent news for them--call right away!

* Is Miss Cleo a Jamaican shaman, as she claims--a student of “all different types of spirituality,” as Moynihan puts it?

“They haven’t even attempted to substantiate that,” says Buchner. His office produced a birth certificate for Youree Dell Harris, born at a Los Angeles hospital. Her parents were from Texas and California.

Miss Cleo could not be reached for comment and her lawyer, William Cone, did not return a reporter’s calls. But the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that Miss Cleo--who has also given her full name as Youree Cleomili Harris--produced three plays in Seattle in the 1990s and left without paying cast or crew. She used the name Ree Perris, and had no Jamaican accent.

Peter Stolz, Access’ president, has told the Los Angeles Times that the company is phasing out Miss Cleo as its spokeswoman and replacing her with more generic psychics.


* Do the psychics resort to chicanery to run up callers’ phone bills?

According to Buchner, Access executives will “close their eyes to what their so-called psychics have to do to keep these people on the line.”

Moynihan denies it. He has issued edicts prohibiting psychics from putting callers on hold, or from reading scripts intended to prolong the calls. The company occasionally monitors readings, and psychics who break the rules are fired.

Still, there are complaints.

Sandra Dominick, a 36-year-old art teacher in Jamestown, N.Y., goes to a psychic every couple of years. When she saw Miss Cleo’s commercials, she thought, “It’s free. What the hey,” and she gave the 800 number a call.

Normally, the operator explains what is about to happen, and gives you a 900 number. Dial that number, and a recorded preamble explains some more. And then the live psychic comes on the line; after a few minutes, there is a beep, and the meter starts running.

Neither the operator nor the psychic is employed by Access directly. The operator works for West TeleServices of Omaha, Neb. And the psychic works for an independent contractor, known as a “bookstore,” that manages a stable of seers.

The way Dominick tells it, when she called last November, she was told that it was a busy night and that if she agreed to stay on hold, she would be granted an extra 15 free minutes. Over the next hour, she was repeatedly told to wait and was assured she would not be charged.


Then a tape came on. She had been on the line for the maximum 60 minutes.


Peeved (“I had plans to go somewhere”), she called back. She reached a psychic named John who assured her that he would give her the reading she deserved. He jotted down the promise that she would receive 18 minutes free. They chatted on; at no time, she says, did she hear a tone signaling that she was about to be charged.

“Aren’t I supposed to be hearing something?” she kept asking.

In December, she got the bill: $489, for 98 minutes.

The Access lawyer, Moynihan, says Dominick apparently didn’t listen to the taped preamble that advised her to press star-911 if she was put on hold--the call would be disconnected and the psychic reported to management.

Putting callers on hold “has never been an OK method. That’s one of the things you can be fired for,” says Michael Arnone, owner of Bassador Co., a bookstore in Portland, Ore. “Unfortunately, as with anything, there are always a few bad apples.”

The use of scripts is also a fire-able offense. But Nancy Garen, author of the book “Tarot Made Easy,” has sued Access, charging that psychics were told to read from her book during their calls. “Sample readings” abound on the Internet, along with hints that would prolong calls.

“Listening and questions is the most important part of working the Psychic Line,” suggests Buckwood Communications, a bookstore. “You will find that many callers actually listen to themselves speak. Let them do the talking . . . sometimes they figure out their own problems.”

All of this is beside the point, says Moynihan.

“The ultimate arbiter here is the caller, right?” he asks.

“What happens if they’re dissatisfied with the call, if they don’t think they’re getting what they called for, what they want? . . . The answer is simple. They hang up the phone.”


The caller also has the upper hand in another way too. When Dominick got the bill for her brush with the psychic world, she complained to AT & T, which had carried the call and processed the bill. AT & T said it would remove the charge.

AT & T does this a lot, which is one of the reasons AT & T is getting out of the business of billing for 900 numbers. The telephone company--and Access--have lost millions of dollars as a result of these “charge-backs,” often prompted when callers flat-out deny they called.

“I can’t tell you how often people call up and say, ‘Nobody from my house made this call,’ ” says Moynihan. “It may be a wife. A teenage daughter. A housekeeper, a baby sitter who made the call and is afraid to fess up.”

AT & T might cancel the charges, but Access does not--until recently, the company threatened to take debtors to court, although it never did.

When Dominick failed to pay her $489 bill, she got a letter demanding the money. And when she called Access, a “very nasty” woman told her she obviously was not very intelligent.

Larry Reeves of Mallory, W.Va., said he hangs up when Access calls to demand payment of a $154.69 bill charged to his 50-year-old brother, Jack. Jack lives next door; he’s retarded and, his brother says, so religious that “he would think he was going to hell” for calling a psychic.


“If they’re psychic, they should have known we weren’t going to pay this,” Reeves says.

Access’ problem is that AT & T only gives it the telephone numbers of callers; unable to rely on its psychics to divine the identities of callers, Access must go through directories and match the numbers with names. Sometimes, there are mistakes.

“This is a multimillion-dollar business,” says Buchner. “It could be thousands [of errors]. It could be hundreds of thousands, even.”

When callers complain about a competing psychic hot line operated by Billy Tide, the 33-year-old Florida man just writes off the charges, he says.

Tide isn’t entirely on the up and up, either. His psychic star is “Miss Chloe.”

“It’s deceptively similar,” he admits.

(It should be noted that Tide was confined to his West Palm Beach home when he was interviewed; he has been imprisoned for much of the past two years after violating a restraining order keeping him away from Access’ Feder, for whom he says he worked in the early 1990s. Feder would not be interviewed for this story.)

“We basically are the same kind of scam,” says Tide, 33. “We admit the psychic thing is a scam and a rip-off.”

A rip-off? Yes, says Glenn Schwenk, a 42-year-old supervisor of a county cleaning crew in Kingston, N.Y. He says he never heard the beep signaling the end of his free minutes during his reading one night in December, and was charged $55.


“You’ll suffer the consequences,” he was told, when he refused to pay.

And yet, Schwenk liked Miss Cleo when he saw her on a pay-per-view special: “She was excellent.”

He wouldn’t say what Miss Cleo’s psychic told him, but it was good news and it had something to do with his love life and it is supposed to happen by summer.

He’ll just wait and see.


Rules for Psychics

A list of “don’ts” for telephone psychics from a firm that employs them, Buckwood Communications:

* Do not try to extort money from a caller.

* Never put callers on hold for any reason.

* We do not talk to the dead; we let them rest in peace.

* No discussion of death, doom or disaster. Never upset a caller.

* Do not pretend to know the future.

* You cannot give any counseling about abortion.

* There shall be no casting of spells on this line, or any magic potions.

* This line is not to be used for promoting evil.

Source: Buckwood Communications Web site

Associated Press