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
In December 1997, PRN was also involved in a suit/countersuit with another of its subcontractors, Great Referrals Network. That case was also settled confidentially in September 1998.
And perhaps Miss Cleo should watch her pennies closely: Her predecessor as TV barker for Feder, Philip Michael Thomas, sued his ex-employers in 1998, alleging that they were cheating him out of his cut. During the year he made commercials for PRN, Thomas was promised 3.5 percent of the take instead of a flat fee. But he got no accounting to prove that he was receiving the full amount. He got suspicious when his income went down while PRN's profits continued to rise, and he sued in Broward Circuit Court for $400 million. A 2000 attempt at arbitration failed; the suit is back in court. Thomas's attorney, Willie E. Gary, could not be reached for this story.
A different kind of scandal erupted in April 2000, when former PRN employee William Tide, who had started a competing psychic hot line in West Palm Beach, was charged in Broward Circuit Court with threatening Feder's life and stealing his customers. Tide responded that Feder was harassing him with phone calls and faxes and threatening his girlfriend. In January 2001, Tide was convicted of violating a restraining order to stay away from Feder and sentenced to 151 days of house arrest plus 13 weeks of anger-management counseling.
Mystik Magik, a PRN subcontractor in Anaheim, California, sued in July 2000 in Broward Circuit Court, claiming that PRN went behind owner Faith Groves's back to recruit her stable of psychics directly, then dropped its contract with Mystik Magik. That suit has also been settled. The phone numbers given in court documents for Groves, Mystik Magik, and her attorney have all been disconnected, and no new numbers are listed for them.
Dwarfing the lawsuits in which Feder and Stolz have been entangled are the hundreds of customer complaints of chicanery and false billing. Most state attorneys general do not release their complaint files or do so only with names removed. But the records of Florida's attorney general, available under the state's government-in-the-sunshine laws, contain enough complaints from across the country to fill several file boxes.
Linda Harris of Carson City, Nevada, says she really expected to talk to Miss Cleo. She also expected to hear a beep on the line when her free minutes were up, as promised in a recording before her reading began, and then have three seconds to hang up without charge. Neither she nor her tarot reader heard a warning tone, she writes in her July 22 complaint. Then she got a bill for $143.25 for a 23-minute call, a rate of $6.23 per minute -- far above even the $4.99 Miss Cleo quotes in her ads.
After Susan Davis's 14-year-old daughter called ARS's psychic line, which is limited to those over 18 years old, Davis called to dispute the $39.92 bill. (Davis's daughter claims she was transferred automatically from an 800 number to a 900 number, an illegal act that ARS emphatically denies.) The woman Susan Davis reached certainly wasn't the jolly Miss Cleo. "She began cursing at me and told me "they would get me' and then slammed the phone down!"
That threat sounds familiar to ARS customer Phil Leeds. "I received an unsolicited e-mail from Miss Cleo regarding a free 7-minute psychic reading," writes Leeds, of Fort Lauderdale, on November 13. He called and after several minutes on the phone got worried that he would be charged. So he asked his "psychic operator" for a number to call in case that happened. "She told me to hold on while she retrieved the number. Several more minutes passed before I realized that I was being kept on the line purposely and hung up," he writes. Sure enough, Leeds soon got a bill for $49.90. "I tried numerous times to contact the Miss Cleo offices but was given an 800 number which told me to dial another 800 number and so on and so on. Finally, I got a local number, which I called and got an answering machine. I left several messages. Needless to say, I never received a response.
"I started receiving automated collection calls at all hours of the night and day. I tried calling the number back but either got a busy signal or fax line. I then received a collection notice in the mail with a phone number! I called the number and finally spoke to someone. The moment the man answered the phone, his only response to anything that I said was "are you paying by credit card or check.' He became very belligerent and irrational and ended the conversation by saying "If I don't get a call back by 2:00 with payment we are going to fuck up your credit' and then hung up!"
Such unpleasant tactics seem especially ironic when compared with the dunning letters ARS sends out. Jose Rodriguez of Boynton Beach complained September 21 that he'd gotten a $479.04 bill for a call from a number he hadn't had in a year. In large, bold type at the bottom of his collection letter is what could be an ironic motto for ARS's marketing and collection techniques: "Taking responsibility for your actions is an important step in your spiritual journey."