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Miss Cleo should have known what was coming



Published: Mon, February 25, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The Federal Trade Commission has finally caught up with latest of the psychic scams that transfers the cash of the not-so-worldly wise into the accounts of the would-be other-worldly. If only the gullible and lonely could understand that the only message these make-believe mediums transmit is that a fool and her money are soon parted.

Miss Cleo, it seems, is more sham than shaman.

She's not the first. And unless consumers ignore the persuasive infomercials, the relentless telemarketing, the e-mail barrages and the direct mail demands, she won't be the last.

At their most basic, the psychic phone lines play the bait-and-switch game to the tune of millions and millions of dollars. Bait the consumer with a "free" 1-800 call, and then switch her to a 900 line, or a monthly service fee -- or even to an international number and fight aggressively when she tries to protest the hundreds of dollars that she finds on next month's phone bill.

Gifts of gab: What's worse, the person at the end of the line is unlikely to have any special gifts other than the gift of gab. The goal of the so-called psychics is to run up the bill on each call routed to them by their company's computer system. They don't make much more than 30-40 cents a minute, and if they don't deliver -- on the calls, that is, not the readings -- they're not likely to be assigned any calls at all.

And the readings? The FTC complaint explains: "When performing 'readings,' ... 'psychic readers' ... use scripts or are provided with written guidelines, the use of which extends the amount of time that a 'reading' will last." In other words, the readings aren't even real.

It's hard to understand why anyone would believe that those with a gift of seeing the future would be spending their time on the phone running up other folks' phone bills. Wouldn't they be making a killing on the stock market, winning the lottery or finding themselves fulfilling careers and love lives?

Before the FTC complaint, the attorneys general of Pennsylvania and Missouri filed suit against Psychic Reader's Network Inc., and Access Resource Services Inc., both of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., the companies for which Miss Cleo is a front.

One former Pittsburgh resident told the office of Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher that she was charged for more than $700 worth of Psychic Network calls she never made. The charges were allegedly billed to her old telephone number which was disconnected prior to the date the calls were made. But even if PRN and ARS are closed down -- they deny all the allegations -- the infomercial and Internet make it hard to drive the charlatans out of business.

Consumers must understand that these psychic friends are not friends at all. The small print on their ads explains that their services are "for entertainment only." But for the $75 a 15-minute reading would cost, an individual could go to the movies 10 times, or to a concert or join a museum. Then, at least, that person would know that his or her future would hold some real entertainment.




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