The first part of this article explored several types of scams used by con artists passing themselves off as psychics. These included store or home-front psychic parlors, café table sidewalk readings and the newest craze, spam emails and internet sites pushing weekly horoscopes and spiritual paraphernalia.
The psychic telephone industry was also exposed as often being nothing more than a simple scheme to keep callers on the line while charging them large amounts of money. In this concluding installment, the experiences of a former telephone psychic are shared as he describes first-hand what life is like on the other side of the scam.
Brian was an unemployed actor who needed new digs. Brian is also not his real name.
“Don’t use my name,” he requested. “The woman I worked for was very scary. Not in a psychic powers kind of way, never bought it. She was just very intimidating, a real bully.”
When he first encountered the woman he now fears, Brian considered her a blessing. Being crammed into a tiny two-bedroom apartment with his significant other and a third trouble-making roommate made for a terrible living situation. He was barely making enough money as an office temp to survive, let alone afford the initial investment necessary to move into a new apartment in the New York City area. He was, in his own words, “utterly desperate for money to move out.”
While reading through the Village Voice classified ads, it caught his eye. TELEPHONE PSYCHICS NEEDED - Now Hiring Actors for Telephone Psychic Line. Realizing he had no psychic abilities, Brian figured his chance of getting hired was slim. Still, his situation was approaching critical, so he picked up the phone and scheduled an interview.
Arriving at the given address for the interview, Brian was surprised to find a double wide trailer parked in a desolate lot on the outskirts of Coney Island. If the location seemed odd, the interview itself was even more unexpected. He found himself sitting at the kitchen table with the schizoid mother of a hyper-active child.
“She was pretty frightening right off the bat. Her kid was watching cartoons in the other room, minding his business. After a polite introduction, she switched on a dime. Her eyes got wild and she started screaming at him to turn the TV down. It continued all through the interview. She’d be calmly talking to me one second, then immediately change into a banshee screaming at her kid. It was unsettling.”
Brian inquired about her credentials. She worked for a national Telephone Psychic operation, and was called a general manager. In truth, the business model was set up similarly to a pyramid scheme. She had started out as an operator, but no longer took customer’s calls. She was now responsible for recruiting and maintaining as many operators as she could manage. Her reward was a significant cut of the $3.99-per-minute charges.
Brian mentioned that he wasn’t actually a psychic. She said she advertised for actors not psychics.
“She told me, ‘There are two things you need to know to be a telephone psychic. Tarot is pronounced tear-OH, not tear-OT. And people will want to know what their horoscope says; I’ve got two words for you – Daily News. Read it to them right out of the paper.’ I couldn’t believe what she was saying. My jaw just about hit the floor.”
Brian then made the mistake of asking if she employed any real psychics. “Her eyes got wild again, only she wasn’t screaming at her son. She was screaming at me. ‘Yes, we have real psychics! Just not enough to cover the phone lines. I’m psychic, too.’ It was total BS, and the angry screaming wasn’t helping convince me. But I really needed the money.”
Brian took the job. He would call into a service number from home, enter his assigned pin to log his line into a computerized system, and then his phone would ring with incoming customer calls until he signed out. Brian would be paid $12 an hour and could work whenever he wanted for however long he wished.
The only training he ever got was that night in the trailer. He was told the ideal amount of time for a call was 50 minutes, and he should work to keep each caller on the phone for that amount of time. She recommended he buy a book of star signs and astrology charting. After getting the caller’s birthday, read their horoscope from the Daily News then read them all the information from the book. The astrology book was supposed to act as a sort of script to eat up the minutes.
She told Brian that callers would often call and ask if they were going to find true love. In these situations he was instructed to say yes.
“She said to tell them that they would meet the person in October and November, because people like to hear they won’t be alone on the holidays.”
His new boss re-iterated the correct pronunciation of tarot. Brian told her he had never read tarot cards, she suggested another book that would make it easy to fake. Also, at the end of every call he was ordered to push the caller to purchase a deck of tarot cards. With those cards, the customer would be able to call back and have a reading performed over the phone.
She said it was very important that they call back. They wanted to build long-term relationships. He would give the callers his pin number, and once they entered it on their next call, the customer would be directly linked back to Brian.
“I left in a daze,” Brian says, “But I was determined to make enough money to move out. I stopped by the bookstore on my way home and picked up what she’d suggested. The next night I was officially a telephone psychic.”
Before the very first call, Brian was already feeling uncomfortable with his new job.
“I decided to use the name Ian. I couldn’t pick up the phone and lie to people as myself, I already felt so guilty. I spoke in a British accent. She hired an actor, so I approached it like an acting gig. When working, I tried to keep the real me as separated from Ian the telephone psychic as humanly possible.”
Ian the telephone psychic’s very first call was a memorable one. A woman wanted to know if her fiancé, who had recently refused to marry her, was actually her Mr. Right. Should she fight for him? Her ex- fiancé was still in prison. She had met him while visiting her ex-boyfriend at the same location.
“I went out on a limb and guessed that she liked bad boys. She was shocked. She said, ‘Oh, my God! How did you know that?’ She believed every word out of my mouth from that point on. I tried to give her good advice. I told her she should probably stop worrying about her fiancé leaving her and spend some time figuring out why she had such low self-esteem and dated guys like that.”
Brian’s first caller was the blueprint of almost all the calls which came after her. They were desperate people, most often women. They wanted to believe. Lonely people without a sounding board who were looking for some advice. Brian would give them the best advice he could, wrapped in horoscopes and card readings, then push them to buy their own tarot deck. Elderly women called longing for a friendly voice to stay on the line with them. He felt awful every time he hung up the phone, but the dream of moving spurred him on.
Then Brian got his first paycheck which was considerably less than anticipated. He had been led to believe once he logged into the system his hourly pay began. The calls would come when they came, and he would get paid for his time waiting near the phone.
The truth was his hours were accrued from the actual amount of time he spent on the phone with customers. When he called his boss, Brian learned another hard truth.
“I was upset about the low pay. I had wasted so many hours sitting by the phone. I would talk to customers when they called, but I had no control over how many times the phone would ring. She started screaming at me, ‘You’re not keeping them on the phone long enough. You’ve got to keep them on for 50 minutes.’ Turns out, the system is set up so that the longer you keep a customer on the phone the quicker the next call would be routed to you. I was keeping them on for 10 minutes, maybe 15, and sometimes it would be a full hour before my phone rang again. I found out if I kept them on for 50 minutes the next call would be ringing through immediately after I hung up. The system was set up to reward the operators who kept customers on line the longest.”
Brian tried, but he could never master the con well enough to keep a caller engaged for anywhere close to 50 minutes. His boss started harassing him daily with her own phone calls, complaining about the short minutes his calls were logging and his lack of tarot card sales.
“She got real ugly and I had just about had enough,” Brian says.
His breaking point came with the last call he ever took. An elderly woman called in a panic. She claimed her neighbors were breaking into her house and doing evil things to her. She needed his help.
“She was in tears. It broke my heart. I didn’t know how to help her. I suggested she call the police. She said, ‘I already tried that. Thanks for nothing.” And she hung up. It would have been so easy to string that poor woman along and keep her on the phone for 50 minutes, but I just couldn’t do it. She needed help. She didn’t need to waste her time talking to me. An hour later the phone started ringing with my next customer and I couldn’t pick it up. I was officially retired as a telephone psychic.”
Things eventually worked out for Brian. He got a good job, and settled down in a great apartment with his partner. They are planning on starting a family. When he remembers his time as a phone psychic, Brian tries to put a positive spin on the experience, but always come back to the same basic truth.
“I really did try to help people. Give them solid advice. I mean, it was the least I could do, since they were paying $4 a minute. I could have made good money, but I just wasn’t cut out for how sleazy it felt. Keeping people on the phone like that, reading a book to them they could check out of the library on their own. Encouraging them to believe I was something I wasn’t, which is a psychic. It was wrong. I felt like I didn’t have a choice though. I took the job for pretty much the same reasons they were calling. It’s sad when you think about it. The entire enterprise is made up of desperate people, from the callers to the operators. The only ones who seem okay with it are those at the very top, raking in all the money.”