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Thursday, Sep. 02, 2010
In the Crystal Ball: More Regulation for Psychics
By Elizabeth Dias / Washington
Starting this week, fortune tellers in Warren, Mich., must be fingerprinted
and pay an annual fee of $150 - plus $10 for a police background check
- to practice their craft. The new rules are among America's strictest
on palmists, fortune readers, and other psychics - and part of a growing
push to regulate a business that has never been taken, or overseen,
very seriously. But officials in Warren, a town of 138,000 near Detroit,
say it's time to weed out tricksters. "We had no mechanism of enforcement
to protect people against unsavory characters," Warren City Council
member Keith Sadowski says. "We want to be sure there is some recourse
in case we do get somebody who is not legitimate."
Regulating an industry that deems itself clairvoyant, has no standard
education requirements and yet rakes in cash for revealing spiritual
truths may itself be an act of faith. It also might make good economic
sense: just over one in seven Americans consulted a psychic or fortune-teller
in 2009, according to the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life. That
could be 30 million or more of us. (See people finding God on YouTube.)
Municipalities are now struggling to manage such activities. Annapolis,
Md., only issues what it calls "fortune-telling licenses"
if its police force concludes the applicant is "of good moral character."
Last year Will County, Ill., decided to count fortune tellers as official
businesses, along with tattoo parlors and dog watchers. Three years
back, Salem, Mass., famous for its 17th Century witch trials - and something
of a magnet for spiritual artisans - tightened its rules on background
checks for psychics, while easing its cap on the number of local fortune
tellers allowed in town.
Warren's beefed-up regs came about this spring when Matt Nichols, a
Warren police officer, told the city council that the town appeared
vulnerable to fortune-telling crime. Once a year since at least 2005,
Nichols says he has had to try to convince a psychic to return jewelry
or cash taken from a client in exchange for performing spells or to
free them from curses. But since no regulations barred such acts, criminal
charges weren't an option. "We are not looking to do anything to
oppress people's beliefs," argues Nichols, also a member of the
National Association of Bunco Investigators, a non-profit group dedicated
to combating scams and cons. "We are looking to specifically identify
crime and people who prey on the vulnerable."
That makes sense, given the harm unscrupulous fortune tellers can inflict.
Psychic Gina Marie Marks pleaded guilty Wednesday in Florida to grand
theft and organized fraud. One of her victims testified that Marks swindled
her of $312,926.29 - and convinced her to get a tattoo, to boot. It's
now "a constant reminder of the psychological abuse I endured at
the hands of this false prophet," she told a Broward County judge.
(See pictures of spiritual healing around the world.)
But other observers, peering into their own crystal balls, see new
worries. Michael Steinburg, of the Michigan branch of the American Civil
Liberties Union, suggests Warren's policy may jeopardize those practicing
yoga or predicting the weather. "It makes it illegal to say incantations
to give good luck without having a license," he told TIME. The
ACLU has also defended the free-speech rights of Maryland fortune-teller
Nick Nefedro, who won his case in June to operate a shop in the Washington,
D.C., suburbs. (In that case, the judge even challenged a common stereotype:
"We are not, however, persuaded that all fortune telling is fraudulent,"
Clayton Greene, Jr., wrote.)
But the transparency that regulation requires seems to be in short
supply. Several psychics contacted by TIME refused to discuss their
practices. Others, like members of the Astrology Association of St.
Petersburg, Fl., fear discrimination may result. Some psychics, sensing
which way the wind is blowing, are developing codes of ethics to ensure
honest clairvoyance. Southern California medium
Linda Mackenzie, for example, promises to not use her powers for personal
gain or revenge. Allie Theiss, a psychic in Wooster, Ohio, posts
a confidentiality agreement on her website and assures potential customers
that readings are done without regard for a client's race, gender, creed,
color or sexual orientation.
Not all psychics fear tougher government oversight. "I think it's
wonderful," Julia Mary Cox, a Michigan psychic plying her craft
near Warren, says of the town's new rules. "There are so many people
practicing out there, doing it under false pretenses, giving honest
people a bad name." But she concedes she wishes Warren's new rules
could more clearly separate true fortune tellers from false seers. "They
are not looking at any training," she notes. "I have a college
degree, I have a background in religion and philosophy and English,
and I have experience doing this." While all that may be true,
it's also irrelevant. Cox concedes there's nothing like a driver's test
for oracles. "There aren't any classes you can take where you say,
'Here are three boxes. Which box holds the apple?'" But given Americans'
hunger to know the unknowable - and their willingness to pay for it
- it's a safe bet that psychics are going to keep on peddling predictions,
regulated or not
Find original article at: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2015676,00.html