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Fortuneteller License Law Called Biased

S.F. defends its bid to regulate the businesses. Some see an attack on religion of the Romany.

July 21, 2003|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Fortuneteller Sabrina Mitchell looks into her crystal ball and sees trouble ahead.

Supervisors here passed a controversial new law last week to license a much-maligned industry that offers psychic solutions and cosmic guidance to customers, from lonely hearts to those obsessed with their futures.

The ordinance applies to a broad range of practitioners, such as tarot card and palm readers and those who practice Chinese I-Ching and those who decipher Turkish coffee grounds. The rules require them to register with the city, submit to fingerprinting, offer receipts and post rate sheets.

Authorities say the new law is among the nation's most aggressive for large cities and is modeled on ordinances governing other cash-based service providers such as masseuses, taxi drivers and pawnshop dealers. The idea is to keep tabs on an often hard-to-track business population. Legitimate practitioners, they say, have nothing to fear.

Yet many in the Romany community -- also known as Gypsies -- have cried foul, calling the new law unconstitutional. They say it discriminates against religious practices that include fortunetelling and tarot card reading.

The state Supreme Court in 1985 struck down laws in many California cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, that banned fortunetelling outright. But laws regulating the practice in some cities remain in force.

Mitchell said publicity from the new law has unleashed a barrage of ugly threats and prank telephone calls from people who call the soothsayers cheats and criminals.

"We're being harassed," said the 30-year-old fortuneteller, who said she is of Romany descent. "We're being accused of doing fraud and evil, and I don't think it's right."

Police said the law shines a light on a business in which con artists -- who until now have operated without licenses -- have extorted hundreds of thousands of dollars from vulnerable victims and then vanished to set up shop elsewhere.

Although many victims are embarrassed to come forward, San Francisco authorities said they had received 60 complaints in the last two years. Police said there are only 15 Romany psychics out of 70 people in the business in the city. But Chris Mitchell, Sabrina's brother-in-law, said local Romany fortunetellers would soon meet to plan a response to the law.

"I've been a good businesswoman for many years," she said. "I don't need this."

San Francisco Police Det. Greg Ovanessian, a fraud investigator, said many victims are college-educated women who visit fortunetellers on a lark or after suffering some emotional trauma and then become entrapped. One woman reported losing more than $200,000 to a fortuneteller who called her at home and at work as many as 60 times a day, saying her daughter would die unless she paid up.

"I don't agree with the notion that this is an attack on religious beliefs or any particular culture," he said. "We are not treating these people any differently than we do other businesspeople."

Laurel Pallock, a consumer fraud investigator for the San Francisco district attorney's office, has fought more than a decade for the new law.

"A lot of victims are at a vulnerable time in their lives -- they've lost a job or a spouse," she said. "And then they get into a situation where a fortuneteller is telling them that there is darkness and more work to be done. Suddenly, to lift some perceived curse on themselves or their family, they're going on a psychic-driven shopping spree with their credit card at Macy's."

But Supervisor Tony Hall said the law singles out the Romany culture.

"It's racial profiling," he said. "For these people, fortunetelling is part of their religion and culture. To make them register like they're running massage parlors or gambling dens is a presumption of guilt, in my opinion." Many among the Romany are nomadic, he said, "but just because they're hard to track doesn't mean they're guilty of fraud."

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who sponsored the measure, said officials have smoothed over sensitive areas, backing off from searches of home records and from requiring psychic's Social Security numbers after the Romany community complained. "We're trying to get a better handle on any number of all-cash businesses with a history of fraud and exploitation," he said. "By and large, the majority of practitioners are law-abiding, but a handful of folks can ruin people's lives."

Robert Leysen, who owns a dozen Psychic Eye Bookstores, including one in San Francisco, said the new law would help to weed out scam artists who give the entire industry a bad name.

"I think it's good for the industry," he said. "As long as you can enforce it."

But Chris Mitchell called the law an affront to his ethnic group. "You read the papers and they're always talking about bad Gypsies. They never say bad psychic," he fumed. "I'm so sick and tired of hearing about Gypsies, Gypsies, Gypsies; it's like we're bad people. We're American citizens."

Supervisor Hall sees the law as artificial coddling for people who seem to be looking for ways to throw away their money. "How far do you have to go to legislate human stupidity?" he asked. "Who's visiting these places anyway?"

Ovanessian said the criticism is misplaced. "If you criticize victims who have lost their life savings to trickery and deception," he said, "then we should criticize people who get mugged after walking down a dark street at night. They're both people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time."

They are people like the 37-year-old San Francisco woman who said she lost $15,000 to an unscrupulous fortuneteller. "What started as a fun psychic love life reading became something entirely different," she said. In the end, the woman said she was afraid the fortuneteller or her family would harm her if she stopped paying. "What some of these people do is extortion," she said. "There's no other way to describe it."

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