For weeks the newspaper ads had been catching my eye: "Psychic Readers Network -- Work at Home -- No experience necessary." If no experience was necessary, then anyone could be a telephone psychic, I figured -- even me. I had seen the late-night television commercials that portrayed psychics gleaning the innermost secrets of amazed callers, and was determined to try myself. But before I took the plunge, I decided to do a little homework.
The "Psychic consulting and healing services" section in my phone book boasts about 40 psychic hotline numbers. Skimming over the selection, I was tempted by Brigitte Nielsen's Witches of Salem but finally settled on LaToya Jackson's hotline, since it was one of the more affordable, at only $3.99 a minute.
LaToya herself answered. "Find out what world leaders and celebrities have known for years!" her recorded voice said. "Now with just a phone call, you can have your own personal psychic, like I do." After wading through two minutes of menus, my own personal psychic came on the line. She said her name was Patrish. I thought Patrish was a good name for a psychic.
"What's your birthday?" Patrish asked gruffly.
Though I had decided to reveal nothing about myself in order to test her abilities, I answered Patrish's question.
"Oh! A fiery little Aries," she cackled. This cackle of hers was the only thing that seemed somewhat mystical about Patrish. Ten minutes and $40 later, Patrish had told me that she saw only wonderful things in my future, like money and love.
The job seemed like a snap. "I can do this," I thought.
I dialed the number in the Psychic Readers Network ad, deciding I wouldn't even pretend to be psychic. A woman (whom we will call Muriel) answered. After confirming that I could read and speak English fluently, she hired me.
"The goal is to reach an average of 20 minutes per call," she explained. "I have a 23-minute average. You really have to get that 20-minute average by your second night, because they don't keep readers who can't make the average."
It was easy to see how she got her 23-minute average. Muriel made an art out of slowly repeating things in slightly slurred variations.
"You have to be good enough to keep them on the line for a long time," said Muriel over the escalating TV noise in the background. "You're half psychic, half salesperson, selling minutes, selling yourself."
I asked her what exactly she meant by "psychic."
"You don't have to be clairvoyant or anything," she answered. All I needed to do was get a deck of Tarot cards, label them and follow the script she'd be faxing to me. "And ask them questions. You're like a counselor."
Counselor, salesperson, psychic? I was confused.
"Listen," she said, impatient with my questions. "There isn't really any training. Be aggressive. As long as they hear confidence in your voice, you're OK. Mostly they're calling because they're depressed and need a friend."
Gallup polls indicate that during the last decade, the percentage of Americans who believe in the power of the mind to predict the future has hovered around 26 percent. Factor in an average four hours of television a day and credit cards, and that's a lucrative captive consumer base. Picture tens of thousands of so-called psychics in bathrobes, giving advice to desperate individuals all over the United States, Canada and Mexico at $4.99 a minute.
One way hotlines have traditionally lured customers is to have a well-known celebrity push their product. Billy Dee Williams, Phillip Michael Thomas, Dionne Warwick, LaToya Jackson, Nell Carter, Laura Brian Burn (of The Young and the Restless fame) and Sylvester Stallone's mom, Jacqueline, have all given televised testimonies to the benefits of psychic telecounseling.
But not everyone who calls a psychic hangs up happy. Roughly 40 percent of all complaints made to the Federal Communications Commission which oversees use of the nation's communications industry come from customers who have reported less than fulfilling experiences with psychic hotlines. However, there is very little local, state or federal agencies can do to regulate them. Some operate from places outside of the U.S., and tracking a pay-per-call can be difficult since there are so many parties buffering the source. Besides, this is a free country. As long as the hotlines post the required caveat "For Entertainment Only" on their ads, they are within their rights.
What does seem clear is that the explosive growth of the psychic hotline industry has required some companies to relax the qualifications of their psychic employees. Muriel indicated that the volume of calls received by Psychic Readers Network alone exceeds the number of psychics available to answer them. This has resulted in a massive recruiting effort involving national newspaper ads and sizable bonuses for employees who sign up their friends.
Earlier this year, in another attempt to secure workers, Psychic Readers Network resorted to a kind of partnership with New York City. The New York Times broke the story about how the city, as part of Mayor Rudy Giuliani's welfare-to-work effort, was coaching welfare recipients for jobs as psychics for Psychic Readers Network. Applicants were required to be on public assistance, have a high school equivalency degree, possess "a caring and compassionate personality" and speak English.
They were not required, apparently, to actually be psychic.
Dialing for dollars
The seed for the psychic hotline industry was planted in 1984, when the FCC deregulated the amount of broadcast time stations could give to advertisements. Some enterprising minds decided to put psychics, telephones and celebrity-studded commercials together. The Dionne Warwick-endorsed Psychic Friends Network was the flagship. By 1990, the Baltimore-based hotline had perfected the art of the infomercial and pioneered the 900 number.
Renowned San Francisco psychic Lance Thurston worked for Warwick's line before becoming disillusioned.
"It started out wonderful and became mercenary," Thurston says. "It became purely about money, and the psychic component was lost."
Since the Psychic Friends Network's bankruptcy in 1998, Psychic Readers Network (or PRN as it is referred to by those in the business) has dominated the telepsychic market. Other big players include the Psychic Believers Network and Psychic Encounters. Analysts for the Skeptical Inquirer, the publication of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation for Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), expect the industry's annual revenue to grow from $620 million in 1994 to $2 billion in 2000.
But it isn't the psychics manning the phones who are reaping the benefits. A 1997 Miami Herald investigative report revealed that psychics' wages at the Psychic Readers Network fell from $19.20 per hour in 1996 to $15 per hour in 1997. When Muriel hired me, the pay was $10 an hour. Meanwhile, the cost per minute has risen from 99 to the all-time high of $4.99.
Psychic Harris Cutting says that was just one reason why she quit Psychic Readers Network three years ago. A veteran of several hotlines, Cutting used to offer crash courses in "working the lines" for young psychics who wanted to get their feet wet. But that was back in the good old days when the hotlines treated their psychics more like professionals.
"Today's hotlines are rip-offs, both for the callers and the psychics," Cutting believes. "Unfortunately, psychics aren't very good business people, and they don't form unions. The people who run the hotlines slash the pay because they can, and because they're only in it for the money."
According to Cutting, giants like PRN have corporatized the psychic's ancient art and pushed smaller businesses with more integrity out of the market. At other hotlines where Cutting worked, psychics were screened as part of the hiring process, and their calls were occasionally monitored in order to maintain a certain standard.
"PRN doesn't want to waste money screening and monitoring," says Cutting. "When I worked there, there were some good psychics and others who were total shams. Sometimes, I'd get calls from people who had had terrible experiences with psychics who had told them to hold on while they went to meditate and that they better not hang up because they'd get charged anyway, then they'd come back 20 or 30 minutes later. That kind of behavior gives psychics a bad name."
Love Potion #1-900
As the hour for my first shift as a telephone psychic drew nigh, I was beginning to wonder why I had volunteered for such a nerve-wracking assignment. Even though I had everything I needed -- labeled tarot cards, a book of horoscopes, a list of birthstones and my script from Muriel -- I was sweating like a finalist in a spelling bee. I picked up the booklet Muriel had faxed me. It contained important tips like "Call your client by name" and "Never give medical or legal advice."
"Whenever the caller poses a question," instructed the PRN booklet, "inquire as to why they're asking. This will immediately give you much more to work with, and invites your client to open up and explain the situation."
I highlighted the following part: "If a caller questions your credibility as a psychic because you're asking questions, tell them that since they aren't in the same room the only way you can get their 'vibrations' is through conversation. Your questions will help you know where they've been and where they're going."
I was still reeling from the battle stories of David Horerra, a telepsychic veteran from Dionne Warwick's line. His method was to gather different daily horoscopes and books about lucky numbers, turn on the TV, mute it and wait for the phone to ring.
"It was really more of a listening game," he had told me. Horerra would pay close attention to background noises: kids, pets, traffic, hardwood floors, etc.
"I didn't use Tarot cards," he said. "I would interpret dreams and stuff like that. I was always positive. I wanted to help them, even if I wasn't psychic. They hear what they want to hear, and they read a lot into whatever you say, anyway. They make it fit into their lives because they want to believe it. I said whatever came into my head. If nothing came into my head, then I'd just think about the stuff they said in the infomercial."
Most of his calls were from older people who seemed lonely. His longest call lasted two hours and involved a mother and her daughter. They had been accidentally cut off from another psychic who had been guiding them through a love potion for the last hour. Horerra had no idea what they were talking about but said he would try to help.
They told him they were right in the middle of boiling the boxer shorts of the man the daughter hoped to marry when they were disconnected. They asked Horerra for the next step. Thinking fast, Horerra told them to add some strawberries and peaches and then let the underwear sit for 20 minutes while he stayed on the phone with them. He told them, "If the crust breaks, then the relationship won't work out."
I called the network to log on so that I could start receiving my calls and was greeted by the voice of "Steve," who Harris Cutting had told me owned the network plus several mansions.
"We need you all logged on tonight," Steve's recorded message urged. "From 9 all the way until dawn! We've been showing a lot of commercials and our lines have been full! We need to keep at least 7,000 of you on simultaneously during peak hours. We're getting more calls then ever!"
Seven thousand? How many of us were there? I punched in my personal identification number and my password, and I was in. Nervously, I shuffled the cards and practiced laying them out in a pattern. It wasn't long before the phone rang. I stared at it. In the middle of the fourth ring I picked it up and read from my script.
"Hello! And thank you for calling the Psychic Readers Network. This is ... Rhoda." I couldn't bring myself to use my real name. "What is your first name, please?"
Still reading in a saccharine voice, I asked Barbara if she had anything in particular on her mind. Boy, did she. Barbara was from Detroit, in her late 40s and divorced. She had recently telephoned her first boyfriend, "the love of her life," with whom she hadn't spoken in 25 years.
"We're just like star-crossed lovers," she kept saying.
I had learned a very important thing from talking to LaToya's $3.99-a-minute soothsayer, Patrish -- namely, what a treat it is to talk about yourself. Unlike a real friend who expects you to reciprocate, a psychic friend focuses on the one and only subject that really matters: you. I quickly realized that all Barbara really wanted was someone to tell her the things that she wanted to hear about herself.
After she spilled her guts, I looked at the cards before me. One of them said "stubborn."
"You are very stubborn," I told her. She giggled with delight, pleased that I had been able to peer so deeply into the hidden recesses of her soul. "You're a very energetic person and very generous," I continued.
I turned the cards over slowly, one by one, making little exclamations like "ohh ... " and "mmm." I told her I sensed that there was a very important man whose life had recently been disrupted by something from his past.
"Ah! He is very handsome!" I said, trying to make my voice reverberate deeply. I thought I detected a note of quiet desperation in her voice as she agreed. Shyly, she asked me how the man from her past felt about her now, and I told her that the cards said that his love for her had never died. This, of course, was exactly what she wanted to hear. Barbara wanted permission to follow a path of action that her better judgment warned her was pure folly.
This was the first time Barbara had ever called a psychic hotline, and she said she did it only because she was "so worked up and didn't know what else to do." In her vulnerable state, she had seen the ad on TV and decided to "just give it a try." After all, the first three minutes were free. If she wasn't satisfied by then she could just hang up. Of course, a large portion of the first free three minutes of a pay-per-call are used up in phone menus and routing.
"I have a question," she said. Clearly, Barbara was awed by what for her was quickly becoming a very paranormal experience.
PRN's booklet had said, "As long as they are talking, resist the urge to open your mouth. This reading is on your client's nickel, and if they want the floor it should be theirs! ... Always encourage your clients to talk."
"This might sound funny to you," Barbara continued, "but I guess it probably won't since you're a psychic and all, but do you think his dead mother is watching over this? I was very close to his mother. I think she wanted him to marry me."
"Oh, definitely! I'm definitely sensing an otherworldly presence hovering over this situation," I said, grasping for the appropriate jargon. I stumbled on in this vein for quite a while.
"How do you ... do it?" she eventually asked.
"Barbara, I have a gift," I said, and in that moment I almost believed that I did. Barbara's call lasted an hour an a half. Do the math: $450 dollars to talk to me. Never before had my advice garnered such a price tag.
No sooner had I concluded the call with Barbara then my phone rang again. This time an 18-year-old girl from Kansas City, concerned about her newborn baby's heart murmur, wanted to know about the child's father, who was in prison, and about the father of her other child, who was also in prison. Twenty minutes and $100 later, I gently concluded the call without even offering her the free tarot deck (a sneaky way to get mailing addresses).
The only male caller I talked to during my day as Rhoda the telephone psychic was a very drunk Floridian who hung up after one minute. Other calls included a girl in Texas who wanted to know if her boyfriend was cheating on her; an older woman in Reno who wanted lucky lottery numbers; and another older lady in New Jersey who wanted to know if her son, who never called her, was still alive. A girl from South Carolina, on a speaker phone wanted to know if her boyfriend would propose. Every time I said something I heard a group of girls giggling on the other end. After a while this enraged me. What did they think this was, some kind of joke?
"I see a fight with your boyfriend in your future," I said.
There was sudden silence on the other end.
"Hello?" I said. They weren't laughing now.
What was happening to me? Was the power of being able to channel mystical forces going to my head? I ended the call. Feelings of guilt and remorse were suffocating me. How could a half-baked seer like myself sleep at night? I was beginning to see why Muriel had faxed me a list of help lines, organizations like the Headache Foundation, the Lyme Disease hotline, an organ procurement hotline and a "Locate anyone for $39.95" hotline. Were they meant for the callers or for me?
The people who shared their most intimate problems with me that night seemed to have a few things in common. The vast majority were women. While some called for the novelty of it, hanging up after a few minutes, others called because they really wanted some kind of guidance, hope or, at the very least, empathy. Lost and rudderless, like motherless children, they automatically assigned me the role of an authority figure without asking questions, gladly doling out $5 a minute in an attempt to get a grasp on their lives.
Supernatural phone bills
Perhaps perceiving the true needs of their customers early on, PRN briefly established a Professional Advisors Network in 1993, replacing psychics with psychiatrists and psychotherapists. But after no one called, the service shut down.
Similar attempts have been made to steer people away from psychics into supposedly more constructive self-help venues. The official mission of the National Prayer Hotline, based in Mechanicsburg, Penn., is to intercept viewers who might otherwise take their troubles to the psychics. Ninety volunteers from 35 churches keep the prayer hotline running around the clock. But so far, information about salvation and Jesus Christ has only attracted about 300 calls per month, a fraction of what one psychic hotline receives in an hour.
Perhaps what attracts so many to the psychic lines is their convenience; hotlines are the therapeutic equivalent of a drive-thru car wash. Unlike a therapist or a priest, a psychic doesn't ask you to take responsibility, examine your bad habits or confess and repent your sins. A psychic tells you what's in store, then leaves you with the information to do with it what you will.
Of course, there is nothing convenient about running up a $70,000 phone bill, like Jeffrey Ochs of Hackensack, N.J., did in March. Police arrested Ochs, 49, after Bell Atlantic filed a complaint stating that he had opened up accounts in five different names in order to make thousands of calls to a psychic hotline based in the South Pacific. Even after his arrest, Ochs, who worked for a job-placement agency, refused to pay the bill. Instead, he sued the phone company, claiming that he had been duped and that the hotline wasn't entitled to its fee because it hadn't fulfilled its advertised promise of "fixing his life."
But Ochs isn't the worst offender. Last year, Cheryl Burnham, a 39-year-old clerk in a Los Angeles juvenile facility, got 30 days in jail for ringing up $120,000 on her employer's bill. In court, her attorney said she was "in the throes of addiction."
"Some people do it for entertainment," says Anthony Pratkanis, professor of social psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "But for the person who gets hooked, psychics start to play a very important role. Life is full of uncertainty, and that gets to be very painful for people. It's frightening to make a big decision about marrying someone or buying a car. A psychic relieves that pressure. Plus, in our world, the mass media supports the psychic phenomenon, with such shows as Unsolved Mysteries. There is a general belief in the population that psychics work."
Indeed, human beings have been employing the services of psychics for thousands of years. Every culture has its version of the fortune teller. For some people, a professional, intuitive and caring psychic may prove as or more effective than a therapist. But instead of picking up the phone, such folks might want to consider relocating to a place, like California, where experienced psychics (with fees that are a bargain compared to hotline rates) are a dime a dozen.
Andrea Perkins writes for Metro Santa Cruz.