Joyce Senfe was distraught when her husband walked out after 56 years of marriage. She was desperate to know if he'd return.
So she went online and did a search for "Christian psychic." That's how Senfe, who lives in Brooksville, Fla., ended up on the phone recently with Los Angeles-based Psychic Readings by Lauren.
"Lauren was very sympathetic," Senfe, 81, told me. "We talked for quite a bit. She said I shouldn't worry, that he'll come back. But she said he was surrounded by evil spirits and that first he needed to get rid of them."
As luck would have it, that was a service Lauren could provide — for $900. And if things didn't work out, Senfe said she was informed, her money would be returned.
You know where this is going. Senfe wired the money to a Wells Fargo bank account here in the Southland. Her husband hasn't come back. And now Senfe is hitting a brick wall in being reimbursed.
I don't mind saying upfront that I generally regard professional psychics with a heavy dollop of caveat emptor.
If ever there was a gig rife with potential deception, it's charging people money for purported glimpses into the future or afterlife, or offering advice based on the insights of dead loved ones.
The U.S. market for "psychic services" is worth about $2 billion annually, according to market researcher IBISWorld.
I acknowledge that many people take this stuff seriously. So instead of reaching out to a like-minded skeptic, I decided to see what true believers had to say.
I wanted the psychic industry's thoughts on how consumers can protect themselves from being duped.
"Unfortunately, there are a lot of con artists out there," said Shay Parker, founder of Best American Psychics, an online directory of seers who reportedly undergo testing and criminal background checks. "It's actually quite disturbing."
She said bogus psychics specialize in teasing information out of clients and then telling them what they want to hear, typically in the realms of love or money.
"A good psychic will tell you to shut up," Parker said. "If they start asking you a ton of questions, run."
She said a true psychic also will offer highly specific information without any prompting — the name of a deceased family member, say, or a detailed physical description.
"You might be asked if the name Phillip means anything to you," Parker said. "But you shouldn't provide a lot of information. It's their job to know what Phillip died of or what he looked like."
I related Senfe's experience. Parker said she's heard similar stories all too often.
"If a psychic ever says you're cursed or have a negative entity attached to you, it's a con," she said. "If anyone offers to cast a spell, it's a con. No psychic can make someone do something."
There also seems to be a you-get-what-you-pay-for aspect to this business. A storefront psychic might charge as little as $25 for a reading. A higher-profile practitioner's time can run in the hundreds of dollars — if you can book an appointment.
I called the cellphone of Michelle Beltran, who was named 2017 Psychic of the Year by Best American Psychics.
"How did you get this number?" she asked suspiciously.
"Would you believe me if I said I'm psychic?"
"How did you get it?" she repeated.
I admitted I had a researcher at the newspaper scour some of our databases. Beltran, who charges up to $405 for a 45-minute session, said she was too busy to chat.
I had more luck with Jusstine Kenzer, who held the top ranking in a Yelp search of best psychics in Los Angeles. She charges $375 a session.
"Be cautious about walking into any storefront with a neon sign," Kenzer advised. "If anyone asks you for money to remove hexes or spells or negative energy, forget it. No true psychic is going to do anything like that."
Also, don't just settle for a peek into the spirit world. A good psychic will serve as your guide to the supernatural.
"Anyone can give you information." Kenzer said. "What you're looking for is whether that information can help you grow in life. It's about inspiring and healing and comforting you."
Psychics aren't licensed or overseen by any government agency. But they can run afoul of the law when their business practices lean more toward greed than growth.
In 2002, the Miss Cleo psychic hotline paid $5 million to settle charges that it misled customers with promises of free psychic readings. According to the Federal Trade Commission, only the first few minutes were free.
After that, it would cost $4.99 a minute, and company employees were instructed to keep people on the line for as long as possible, often up to an hour.
"You don't need a crystal ball to know that the FTC will continue to stop unfair and deceptive trade practices," an agency official said at the time. "We want consumers to know that when companies make a promise in an ad, they need to deliver."
I found a handful of online reviews for Psychic Readings by Lauren (a.k.a. True Love Psychic Reader), with some clients saying they too felt taken advantage of.
A woman named Cassie complained last year that she was instructed to pay $1,000 to remove a "spiritual block" that was hampering her love life. Cassie said she paid $100, which she was told would be refunded if things didn't improve. Apparently she never saw that money again.
Another client said she was instructed last year to pay $125 to remove "a negative curse" preventing her from meeting Mr. Right. When that didn't work, she was told to withdraw $7,000 from the bank and sleep with it in her bed along with a dozen red roses and a picture of herself.
The client demurred, fearing that her spiritual advisor would "send some guys to rob me."
While I was interviewing Kenzer, I asked her to use her psychic powers to determine what was up with Psychic Readings by Lauren.
After a moment's consideration, she said it "seems to me that it's going to be hard for you to connect with them."
No one at Psychic Readings by Lauren returned my calls or email.
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