Miss Cleo and the Psychic Scam of the late 90s
You may remember the infamous psychic reading adverts that filled our TV screens when there was apparently nothing better to air. The one that sticks out the most is probably Miss Cleo. There was a confidence about her readings and it’s not difficult to see why people chose to call the hotline. Miss Cleo was bold and direct; even the popup text said “Cleo keeps it real.
It’s brilliantly terrible! If you haven’t seen any of the Miss Cleo ads, here is one example. First of all, Miss Cleo claims to be from Jamaica yet aside from a rather obvious fake accent and the add “man” slipped in, she seems to frequently slip back into an American accent. This isn’t surprising, considering she was born and raised in Los Angeles. We hear the words “Free Psychic reading” but when you look carefully, you only get 3 minutes free.
The whole concept was a scam. But how did the owner of a theatrical company manage to become a household name that bilked people out of an estimated $1 billion?
Who Was Miss Cleo?
Youree Dell Harris, also known as Cleomili Harris and Youree Perris. In 1996, she co-opened a theatrical production company and wrote several plays. Just a year later, things turned south, and she left owing a lot of actors’ money, claiming she couldn’t pay them because she had bone cancer. In 1997, she started to work for the Psychic Readers Network and so Miss Cloe, born in Jamaica, was born.
What Was the Scam?
Miss Cleo adverts showed a “caller” phoning and receiving a Tarot Card reading which revealed something amazing that only a psychic could tell you. The “Free” number appeared on the screen with some small print regarding the first free minutes, callers must be over 18, and that is was only for entertainment.
Once callers dialed the number, the free minutes were used, more often than not being put on hold, and the charges began. The average cost of a call was $60 with some of the calls running up as high as $300, which is not surprising when callers were charged $4.99 per minute.
Who Answered the Miss Cleo Calls?
Needless to say, Miss Cleo wasn’t able to answer all of the calls. The Psychic Review Network placed an ad for phone actors. It was a great chance for students to earn extra cash from home in the evenings. There was no interview, you only had to call, and you were hired in the spot. Psychic Readers Network sent a basic script to follow as well as a computer program that simulated a Tarot Card reading. To begin work, they would dial into the network and calls would be patched to their home phone. Some made an effort to learn about the different Tarot Card meanings, others just made things up as they went along.
It is generally upsetting that it’s those most determined who are scammed the most, and this is what made Psychic Readers Network so wealthy. Even those who posed as Miss Cleo said that callers were ready to believe anything. Not only that, but this belief made it easier for the workers to keep them on the line for longer. These people had real problems and thought that they were going to get real, free advice. Many of the callers had financial issues. Little did they know that their fake advice was only going to make that situation worse.
Many people were lonely and wanted someone to talk too. This was lucky for the person giving the “reading” because they were expected to keep the call going for at least 24 minutes.
The Miss Cleo Psychic Scam went on for 5 years!
How Was the Miss Cleo Psychic Scam Discovered?
It was a keen young journalist, Matt Bean, who managed to get hold of a copy of one of the manuscripts being used. He called the hotline and recorded the call which was exactly how the script was laid out. The case was turned over to the FBI and the Federal Trading Commission.
What Happened to Psychic Readers Network?
Psychic Readers Network was run by two cousins, Steven Feder and Peter Stolz. The Federal Trading Commission (FTC) brought charges against both men for deceptive advertising, billing and collection practices. The complaint also stated that the response to consumers often contained abusive, threatening, and vulgar language. Allegations included:
These charges were also applied to the second business owned by Feder and Stolz, Access Resource Services. It was estimated that $400 million a year was made from the psychic hotline, with a total of approximately $1 billion. Feder and Stolz agreed to pay $500 million of the victims’ debts and paying $5 million to the FTC. Access Resource Services and Psychic
Readers Network had lawsuits brought by numerous states including New York, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Indiana.
There is very little about the lives of these two men today.
What Happened to Miss Cleo?
When Physic Readers Network was closed down, Youree Harris went on to do some small acting jobs. She appeared on an ad for a used car dealership provided one of the voices in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. She also published a book, Keepin’ It Real: A Practical Guide for Spiritual Living. She was never charged for her role in the Miss Cleo scam.
Harris genuinely thought she had psychic abilities, even though Miss Cleo seems to be her first experience with the spiritual world. She continued to give private phone readings and in-person readings for up to $100 a time.
Youree Harris Dies in July 2016. Ironically, it was cancer that killed her.