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THE NATION

Psychic Industry Didn't See Crackdown Coming

Law: Widespread reports of abuses costing callers hundreds of dollars lead to investigations.

April 14, 2002|JERRY SCHWARTZ | ASSOCIATED PRESS

To Shlomit Galperin, the future looked bleak. And she wasn't even a psychic--yet.

She was cleaning houses around St. Petersburg, Fla., to support her two kids, and there wasn't a lot of money in it. So when she saw the ad in the Thrifty Nickel--work at home, earn good money, flexible hours--she made the call.

"You will be a psychic," she recalls the woman telling her.

"What?" she replied.

Clearly, Galperin is no clairvoyant. If she was, she would have already known that for the next four years, she was fated to be one of hundreds of stay-at-home psychics who answered calls on behalf of Miss Cleo, the exuberant soothsayer with the Jamaican accent whose television appearances, mostly in late-night commercials, have made her an extrasensory sensation.

She quit last May, before lawsuits--filed by at least nine states and the Federal Trade Commission--took a heavy toll on the company's reputation and profits. They charged the company Miss Cleo represents, Access Resource Services of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with all sorts of sins, including lying about Miss Cleo's qualifications as a seer.

But it would be a mistake to focus too much on Miss Cleo. The story here is a business in which just about everybody has been accused of sleazy behavior--Access, its contractors, even the people who call for readings.

And don't forget the psychics.

"I'm not too proud of what I did," says Shlomit Galperin.

She recalls how the recruiter sat down with her and two others and simulated calls. But I don't know how to read Tarot cards, Galperin said. No problem, she was told: You can read from these scripts. But I'm not a college graduate, and I can barely speak English, said Israeli-born Galperin. No problem, she was told: Callers find foreign accents exotic.

So about a week later, Shlomit Galperin, cleaning woman, became Shlomit Galperin, oracle--for $4.99 a minute. The first three minutes of soothsaying were on the house.

Her most important job, she says, was not to divine the future--it was to keep callers on the line. She was required to maintain a 15-minute average per call (later increased to 20 minutes); when her average declined, so did the number of calls that were sent her way. She was paid according to how long she was on the line--at the most, $12 an hour.

There was the caller from Mississippi who was looking for her retarded, epileptic brother. Galperin knew of only one place in Mississippi: Jackson. So she said the man was there.

"She thanked me so much. 'Now, I can at least narrow it down,' she said. So I told her that I saw a two-story brick building," Galperin says.

Maybe it's a clinic, the caller suggested. Could be, Galperin agreed.

Then there was the caller whose boyfriend told her that her cat had been run over by a truck. She suspected that the boyfriend had killed the cat.

Galperin closed her eyes. "Yes!" she said.

"I knew it!" said the caller.

She would use the phone in her son's room during the day, when he was at school, or even at night, while he did his homework beside her.

"We have no choice. We have to keep people on the line," says Andre Marmen, a 60-year-old resident of Lake Placid, Fla., who used to work on a sex line and segued into psychic work. He doesn't do Tarot cards. Instead, "I'm a clairvoyant, and I'm easy with that."

Does he really have psychic powers? "People want to hear from a psychic, then I'm a psychic," says Marmen, who is originally from Quebec. Yes, he has an accent.

Access now insists that all new hires swear ["under penalty of perjury," says company lawyer Sean Moynihan] that they are genuine psychics.

"We know that you're honest, legitimate readers. We know that your gifts are far beyond what the government or the states can even begin to comprehend," reclusive Access owner Steven Feder says in a taped message to his psychics.

Still, there is always a moment in the company's ads and its phone messages when we are assured that this is an entertainment product.

"It's supposed to be fun," Moynihan says. "It's supposed to be enjoyment."

He likens it to the World Wrestling Federation, another form of entertainment that is not embraced by all. Customers "budget it into their entertainment dollar; they'll call two or three times a month for a reading or chat," he says.

Kathy Fisher isn't buying it.

"Believe me, these folks weren't calling to be entertained," says the Washington state woman who worked as a phone psychic for two days in 1996. She quit after taking two calls--one from a woman who was being abused by her husband, the other from a crying man who was on the verge of homelessness and was spending his last dollars to seek career guidance from a psychic.

Outrageous, says May Chao, head of the New York State Consumer Protection Board: "Consumers with very real problems reach out to these so-called psychics, looking for help with money, children, their love lives and careers."

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