What It Was Like Working For A Billion-Dollar Sham

Photographed by Elizabeth Weinberg.
I typed that I was quitting into the AOL chat box. It was 2001. My manager wrote back, “Why?” I wrote a screed about ethics. She closed the chat window and vanished into cyberspace.

What compels someone to become a phone psychic? In my case, it had nothing to do with vocation and everything to do with convenience. I had recently dropped out of a rigorous program at a prominent engineering school because of a stress-induced breakdown. Really, all I wanted to do was write stories and paint pictures, but these desires did not align with the internship I was offered at a Merck pharmaceutical plant. I declined the job offer and withdrew from school two years from finishing the program. It was spring term, which meant I had months until I could begin at another school in the fall.

At 20, with no degree to my name and a strong desire to not leave my apartment, working from home seemed ideal. But this was years before telecommuting was commonplace, so as I browsed the limited listings online, there was only a single option that would work — a single entry-level job that did not look like a scam. I was immediately intrigued when I came across a listing for telephone psychic.

I was articulate. I could tell stories. I had won oratory awards in high school. Friends often asked me for advice. Tarot cards seemed interesting. Sure, I could talk to some people on the phone, I thought. How hard could it be?

I was immediately intrigued when I came across a listing for telephone psychic.

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"Call me now!" Miss Cleo said in her fake Jamaican accent. The commercials for the Psychic Readers Network were ubiquitous and Miss Cleo was practically a household name. It was one of the few jobs that seemed legitimate (I use that word loosely). It didn’t require me to pay for my own training, like the “medical transcription” gigs I read about. And with Miss Cleo, I’d make my state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Considering that I did not have to get dressed or leave my apartment, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

I cannot recall exactly how I applied, but I believe it was by email. Communications with my manager took place over AOL chat. I had one phone interview prior to being hired. The manager asked me if I had psychic abilities. I said something like, “Well, as a woman, I believe I have great intuition. Men don’t really have intuition, in my experience, so I’m more gifted than half the population.” She laughed and said, “Good enough.” That was that.

Training consisted of learning about Tarot cards and how to weave the meanings of the cards into stories. I bought two Tarot decks: the classic Rider-Waite deck and another which had the meanings and interpretations printed right on the cards (which turned out to be extremely helpful while on the phone). I learned the five-card spread, the Celtic cross, and the ellipse. I found templates online for various financial and relationship spreads. I learned about the Major and Minor Arcana. I memorized things to say about the Fool, the King of Cups, the Magician, the Tower, and so on. With the cards, and a manual of Tarot spreads, I trained myself for about two weeks before I took my first call. I did not have any one-on-one training or any practice calls, but I was warned that any caller could be a quality-control test — a fake caller from within the company could evaluate my performance at any time.

Before actually becoming a phone psychic, I imagined I would need to talk a lot during these calls. However, it turned out that most people who called were lonely and wanted someone to talk to. They had the stories to tell.

My hours were up to me. I could work at any time, however, there was more traffic on the lines in the evening and late at night. Each day started the same way: I would call a number from my home phone, listen to a recording of Miss Cleo asking if I would like to send in a video tape of myself doing a reading (they were looking for new faces for the television commercials), and enter my code. Once I had joined the network, I would hang up the phone and wait for it to ring. Most nights, it was only a few minutes until I got my first call and I would be busy answering the phone for a few hours until I got tired. I tried working during the day once — and my phone simply did not ring. I stuck with working evenings.

most people who called were lonely and wanted someone to talk to.

I was expected to keep a 24-minute call-average minimum. At first, this sounded intimidating, but it was not difficult at all. I could easily keep someone on the phone for 45 minutes or an hour. I can’t remember if the callers were paying $3.95 a minute or $4.95 a minute, but even at the low end, the price adds up quickly. A 45-minute call at $3.95 a minute would cost a person $177, plus tax. Maybe it’s not surprising, but a great number of people called phone psychics to ask for financial advice.

Before I took the job, I assumed only idiots must call such a phone psychic. I will not feel guilty about their wasted money, I thought. However, once I started working, my perspective changed. Almost all of the callers were incredibly lonely and the problems they talked about were serious: dire job, family, financial, and marital problems. Some of these people clearly called once or twice a week — if not more. I couldn’t help but do the math and think about the huge amount of money they were wasting.

The last call I ever took was from an elderly woman. She was one more caller with financial problems, but this did not begin as a routine call. First, she asked to speak with Miss Cleo. I gave the standard reply: Miss Cleo was not currently working the lines, but I’d be happy to help her. She insisted she needed to speak with Miss Cleo, specifically. Apparently, she had spoken with her before. I wondered how many phone psychics donned a fake Jamaican accent.

This woman believed she’d been having genuine, personal, email correspondence with Miss Cleo. The Miss Cleo. One of the emails told the lady that she must call on this day at this time to find out something important. Very important! The woman was following the instructions to find out the very important information she would need in her life. She kept saying, “Miss Cleo told me to call. Today. Now.”

Her life was in shambles, mostly financial. I wondered at what frequency she’d been receiving emails prompting her to call, and how much money she’d spent on her friendship with Miss Cleo. I felt sick about it. Still, I let her talk about her problems for well over 24 minutes. When I hung up with this woman, I went to my computer. I opened AOL chat and looked for my manager’s handle. I was done. I lasted three weeks.

This job experience made me more cynical about the world and more skeptical of corporations. That same year, many states and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) brought lawsuits against the Psychic Readers Network. On July 26, 2016, Miss Cleo once again made headlines when she passed away after a battle with cancer at 53. Seeing the headlines made me recall how adrift I had once been to have been a part of her tribe. It turns out, I wasn’t so different from the men and women who were seeking guidance on those late-night calls.

Thankfully, I realized Miss Cleo wasn’t going to help me find my way — only I could determine my destiny.
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