By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Still, they spawned legions of imitators with various claims and gimmicks. Many toured vaudeville theaters for years and grew rich. Many more, perhaps less skilled, drew the attention of debunkers like famed stage magician Harry Houdini, who made a second career out of unmasking mystical frauds.
The occult world of supposed psychics meshed with high-tech phone banks and targeted advertising in the early 1990s with the debut of TV infomercials for outfits like the Psychic Friends Network, hawked by singer Dionne Warwick, and the Kenny Kingston Psychic Hotline. As South Florida is a hotbed for telemarketing companies and various boiler-room schemes -- thanks to our transient, diverse population -- it only makes sense that some of the biggest psychic hot lines are based here.
The people at ARS insist that their psychics are genuine and eager to help, but their blizzard of advertising gives the impression of a classic bait and switch. Many of Miss Cleo's ads promise three-minute or five-minute tarot-card readings for free; many customers have complained that Miss Cleo and her bosses don't fulfill their promises, so New Times put them to the test. We dialed two different 800 numbers that Miss Cleo said offered three free minutes of tarot reading. We didn't get them. Instead, on both lines, a perky recorded voice ("Thank you for calling!") immediately announced, "We have decided to upgrade your status to preferred customer! This means you'll never have to dial another 900 number again for psychic time!" What this meant, it turned out, was that no free reading was forthcoming. We could, however, dial an international number and get charged as much as $7.53 per minute. "Don't hesitate another minute!" the voice told us.
We hesitated (to the delight of our editors). Thus, we didn't get our call routed through the Republic of Niue. The international phone number we were given included the AT&T access code for that nation, a tiny coral island in the South Pacific that has become a nexus for high-priced phone schemes.
Thousands of others do not hesitate to call the other side of the world for psychic advice; after the fact, some complain that, for such a high price, they expected to talk to Miss Cleo herself. In reality, the people who call her 800 numbers get shuffled out by a central phone bank run by West TeleServices in Omaha, Nebraska, to hundreds of independent subcontractors around the country, who make a few cents per minute on each call. (A memo filed in one lawsuit against Feder and company alleges that some of the psychic readers were homeless people hired through unemployment offices.)
An on-line ad for Oshun 5 Communications (another company owned by Feder and Stolz, run from the same address), which announces itself as "the nation's largest virtual call center," includes a script for prospective employees: "Work from home! Full time pays $15 per talk-hour!" It promises that "customers will never know who you are or where you are at any time. You will be answering the telephone and reading a short script that will appear on your computer. This is a great job for stay at home mom's & dad's [sic]."
The ad goes on to recite what the phone answerer must do to squeeze money from people looking for a free reading: "Upselling the club or international number if the caller hesitates on calling the 900 number. You must give great reasons why the caller should call NOW. Talk about how great the psychics are and how wonderful the reading will be. You must... sound as if you are saying the script rather than reading it."
The attached practice script offers $4.99-per-minute tarot readings, begs for credit card numbers, and pushes monthly half-hour sessions for $29.95. Apparently, marvelous powers like Miss Cleo's are available, if you've got the cash, by shelling out for her "authentic Tarot Cards inspired by Miss Cleo. Now, you too can become a Tarot master like Miss Cleo. All for just $24.95, plus $9.95 shipping and handling." If the mark's interest in psychic phenomena has faded, Miss Cleo's minions also sell magazine subscriptions.
Hinting at how much money is involved, the script also instructs operators on what to do if the caller has already spent more than $500 that month on Miss Cleo's wares. Once callers have been persuaded to dial a 900 line or turn over a credit card number, they are routed to "various independent psychics," as ARS co-owner Stolz wrote in a 1999 affidavit. He was engaged in suit-and-countersuit with one contractor who previously provided a stable of telephone psychics for ARS's parent company, Psychic Readers Network. "PRN and its subsidiaries have, for the most part, developed their network of psychics by entering into contracts with entities which PRN refers to as "bookstores' which, in turn, locate, hire and train psychics to answer the phone calls which come into PRN's 900 telephone lines," Stolz continued. So don't count on getting Miss Cleo herself, even though ARS insists that she actually takes some calls.
What expertise her personal callers may be getting, however, is another story. While individual beliefs in the efficacy of tarot cards and the existence of psychic powers may vary, many such telephone "psychics" -- working for Miss Cleo's networks and otherwise -- have freely admitted to making it all up. They use what are known in the business as classic "cold reading" techniques, practiced for generations by would-be seers, that involve making vague assertions, then zeroing in on what the listener wants to hear.