I'm looking at a "collection letter" addressed to my husband for $119.76 in unpaid "psychic services." The bill is for a 24-minute phone call that we allegedly made to the "Jamaican" "master shaman" "Miss Cleo." This Miss Cleo may be a heck of a fortuneteller, but she's not much of a record-keeper. We disconnected this phone number six months prior to the time of the alleged phone call, and our phone company has rightly refused to pay her. So, she's sent a "personal" letter, urging us to "take responsibility" for our "spiritual journey."
Miss Cleo loves to take responsibility for contacting you personally, on her late-night infomercials, with prerecorded calls to your home and with direct e-mail solicitations spreading the joyful news that Miss Cleo has: "been authorized to issue you a Special Tarot Reading! ... it is vital that you call immediately! ... we know more about you then [sic] you may think. ... our elite team of psychic predictors and Tarot readers can be extremely accurate and should not be underestimated." Amid thousands of such e-mails, and "collection letters," and after callers racked up hundreds of dollars in purportedly free psychic calls, I am one of the many who have been hounded, stalked, and hectored by Miss Cleo and the nutty flying monkeys who work for her. Actually they work for Access Resources Services Inc. and Psychic Readers Network—the companies that pay Miss Cleo—and as a result, these companies are defending at least 11 lawsuits alleging all sorts of fraud and harassment. Since Miss Cleo is hectoring and hounding me, I thought I'd try to get in on the action. I'm mad about these psychic calls I didn't make. But while the claims against these companies range from false advertising to customer harassment, no lawsuit is charging her with the real scam: She's not a psychic.
Miss Cleo's meteoric rise, from alleged Seattle theater-scene deadbeat to television's most recognized telephone psychic, is one of those uniquely depressing American rags-to-riches stories. After the fashion of Jay Gatsby, Miss Cleo—whose real name is Youree Dell Harris but whose aliases allegedly include such creative variants as Youree Cleomili, Youree Perris, Rae Dell Harris, Cleomili Perris Youree, Cleomili Harris, and Ree Perris—transformed herself from an L.A.-born actress/playwright into a Jamaican-born shaman with unrivaled psychic abilities. Plastering herself across late-night TV screens and slithering down your phone lines, Miss Cleo is the turbaned face of an empire that allegedly nets $400 million a year.
The lawsuits started in 1999 in North Carolina, and subsequent suits have been filed in Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Indiana joined in two weeks ago. Most accuse Access Resources of fraud and false advertising, saying they misrepresent their services with promises of a "free" three-minute reading in which most of those free minutes are spent on hold, spelling and repeating unnecessary information, scurrying for pens, and engaging in other non-psychic busywork. As the three minutes end, the meter starts running at $4.99/minute, and callers are often deceived as to when those minutes begin. Then there are the bills, like mine, for calls never placed. And then there is the harassment. Miss Cleo likes to call back and tell you she's had an important dream about you; that you must call her back—or at least call back some paid telemarketer at $4.99 a minute. Some lapsed Cleo-ites report up to 10 calls a day. (A report from the New York Consumer Protection Board last October called "Dialing for Dollars" lays out these practices in gruesome detail.) And Miss Cleo's Access Resources has also evidently set up a rather elaborate game in which phone psychics are hired as subcontractors, with their alleged misdeeds often disavowed by the company itself.
In February, the Federal Trade Commission got into the act as well, and the presiding federal court judge authorized an interim settlement agreement allowing the company to stay in business, at least temporarily, so long as they stop advertising "free readings" and stop claiming that the access numbers are "toll free" when callers are in fact being rerouted to 900 numbers. The agreement also provides that a court-appointed auditor will monitor all present, past, and future activities of the companies. Of course, Miss Cleo could probably monitor the future activities of the companies in the present, but then, she's a named defendant in at least one of the lawsuits.
These suits are all great fun, if only in that they allow the various states' attorneys general to be uncharacteristically hilarious: "I predict Miss Cleo's spiritual journey will lead her to the courthouse" (Florida); "I predict the courts will see that Miss Cleo pays for a serious lack of foresight" (Missouri); or, "[I]t's a mystery to us why Miss Cleo and her employers haven't seen this coming" (FTC). Heh heh. But the real mystery is why the state and FTC complaints miss the point. Sure, they allege that the ads are deceptive and the billing practices are outrageous. Yes, they detail how Miss Cleo's psychics are actually just telemarketers, compensated only in proportion to how long they can keep individual callers on the phone and that they often use scripts instead of tarot cards. But isn't the central issue in this case that Miss Cleo isn't psychic? She's not a master shaman, she's not from Jamaica, and she, um, has no magical powers? And isn't the other main issue, that her winged monkeys have no powers either? Some of us might actually pay $5 to talk to someone with real magic powers. So, isn't the central lie, the Big Fraud, about the service being offered?
Not according to Brenda Mack, at the FTC's office of public affairs. She says that whether Miss Cleo and her phalanx of psychics are clairvoyant is not a legal issue at all. Mack says the complaints from consumers never alleged Cleo wasn't psychic. They simply objected to the false claims of free calls and to the amounts on their phone bills.
"So no one complains that the person at the other end of the phone isn't truly psychic?" I ask, astonished. "No," says Mack. And "no," confirms David Aronberg, the assistant attorney general in Florida. Apparently people don't like to look stupid. They will tell you they were overcharged but not that they believe in phone psychics. Which means these callers either believe the soothsayers are real, or they know they are being lied to and just don't want to pay too much for that privilege.
More than a few newspaper accounts of the various legal actions against Miss Cleo's company claim that whether or not she or her minions are psychic is legally irrelevant because Access Resource Services is immunized by the microscopic disclaimer in their promotional ads claiming that all this is for "entertainment purposes." But David Aronberg correctly points out that such a disclaimer "doesn't insulate you from deception." He even suggests a more legally appropriate disclaimer: "How about, 'We Are Not Psychics'?"
Aronberg—whose telephonic exuberance represents a tragic net loss to the telemarketing industry—has been one of the principals in the Florida litigation, which has gone further than the states and FTC cases, both by naming Miss Cleo as a defendant (for her role in the alleged fraud) and by demanding that she produce evidence that she is a master shaman from Jamaica. Why is Florida going after her, personally? "Because she crossed the line from being an ignorant spokesperson," says Aronberg. She signs their correspondence, her name is on every document, and her voice is on all the phone solicitations. "She embodies the company," he says.
By going after Miss Cleo personally, Florida has danced right up to the issue of whether she truly has any psychic powers. Then danced away. It was the Florida AG's office, for instance, who subpoenaed Miss Cleo's birth certificate, proving to the world that she is not Jamaican, as claimed on her Web site, but the American-born child of American-born parents. Nevertheless, Aronberg says the psychic claims are not themselves an issue at trial because there is no way to test whether someone is truly psychic, and therefore proving someone isn't a psychic is, he says, "almost a legal impossibility."
"Can't you just stand up at counsel table with a queen of hearts against your forehead and ask her to guess which card you're holding?" I ask. Collect a wrong answer from Miss Cleo 10 times in front of a jury, and there's your proof. No, says Aronberg. That only proves she's not a mind-reader. She could still be psychic.
Hmmmm. How about getting her to predict whether or not she's going to prison?
The bizarre lesson in all this: The more preposterous and unprovable one's claims, the less subject they will be to legal tests and legal scrutiny. If I run an ad that says I'm a dentist, I may be off to prison. If I say my cat is the messiah, I'm in the clear. So long as that's the case, the Miss Cleos of the world are free to launch their preposterous claims at the public, just wearing different hats and faking different accents. Sigh. I see Miss Cleo in our future for a long, long time.