Federal Trade Commission: Fake Jamaican accent helped ‘psychic’ woo millions of customers
National Post (Canada), Nov. 16, 2002
National Post, with files from news services
Miss Cleo may not have been a real Jamaican shaman, as she claimed on her Web site, but she did prove to be near-mystical at making gullible customers’ money disappear.
Despite an accent mocked as more Irish than Jamaican, her infomercials for the Psychic Readers Network proved alluring enough to attract millions of callers, who were carefully separated from millions of dollars.
Under pressure from the Federal Trade Commission, which fielded more than 2,000 complaints, two companies linked to Miss Cleo, Access Resource Services Inc. and Psychic Readers Network Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., agreed this week to pay a US$5-million fine and cancel $500 million in billings.
According to Florida authorities, Miss Cleo’s real name is Youree Dell Harris. Her infomercials for the Psychic Readers Network offering supernatural insights into love and money have been a feature of late-night television since 1999.
The turbanned seer hectored viewers from a set replete with incense, candle-lit backdrops and runic graphics.
The PRN Web site claimed “she became a household name simply by the force of her psychic gifts, which she’s honed since she was a little girl in the Caribbean. Born in the Trelawny section of Jamaica, Miss Cleo says she noticed at a very young age that she had unique talents.”
The woman also helped hawk a line of at-home tarot products distributed by the Walgreens drugstore chain, clothing, and even an online dating service.
Her honeyed words persuaded millions to pick up the phone and call, bringing in millions of dollars to the two Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based companies owned by Steven Feder and Peter Stol.
But the calls also generated 2,000 complaints across the United States from people who said they had been the victims of duplicitous marketing and outright fraud.
Miss Cleo herself has not been charged, as it turns out she rarely answered the phone.
Instead, callers were farmed out to contract workers, who were instructed to keep them on the line long after their “free” three minutes had elapsed and who often gabbled their “readings” from a script.
At US$4.99 a minute, the numbers quickly added up. Call takers were told US$80 a person was their minimum goal. Some people found they had paid as much as US$300.
Customers also complained they were billed for calls that they never made. People who had asked to be placed on a “do not call” list were contacted, while others received up to 10 calls a day, usually automated messages telling them, “Miss Cleo had a dream about them and they should call back.”
People who failed to pay were sent threatening collection letters.
Now it appears Miss Cleo, too, is not as she claims. She is not Jamaican, but a Valley Girl from California, a fact she has tried hard to keep under wraps. There are also reports she left a trail of bills and disillusioned friends from an acting stint in Seattle and was on the cast of the 1980s crime series Miami Vice.
During a deposition in June in Fort Lauderdale, the Broward County resident repeatedly invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, refusing to discuss her birth certificate, which had been obtained from the Los Angeles clerk’s office.
This document showed she was born Youree Dell Harris in Los Angeles on Aug. 12, 1962. Her parents were African-Americans — David Harris, her father, came from Texas; her mother, Alisa Hopis, was Californian.
Dave Aronberg, the assistant attorney general, said he went through the Harris birth certificate line by line asking her whether each piece was accurate. Each time she took the Fifth Amendment.
“Any time I asked her where she was born or where she was from, that’s what happened,” Mr. Aronberg told the Sun-Sentinel. “We maintain the birth certificate speaks for itself, that she’s from Los Angeles.”
Under questioning, Ms. Harris agreed the Jamaican accent she used on the commercials — which has been mocked by a Jamaican government spokesman and described by some as owing more to Ireland than the islands — was not always her style of speaking.
“[But] she said she had been speaking that way for some time now,” Mr. Aronberg said.
In March, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter reported Miss Cleo, then going by the name of Ree Perris, wrote, produced and performed two plays at a local arts centre in 1997.
A castmate said she told people she was born and raised in Los Angeles and majored in theatre arts at the University of Southern California. (The university has no record of this.)
She also used the names of Youree Cleomili, Youree Dell Harris, Youree Perris, Rae Dell Harris, Cleomili Perris Youree, and Cleomili Harris, the paper said.
But she left town in a hurry after failing to pay the cast and crew, and after telling friends she had sickle cell anemia and was “living in constant pain.”
Among those taken in by Miss Cleo was Thomas Scott, 37, of Tallahassee, Fla., who said he and his wife were verbally abused by operators when they called to dispute an US$80 phone charge.
“It was one of the most unbelievable experiences of my life,” Mr. Scott said this week after the court decision.
“I am elated that the FTC has shut them down. Next they’ll be hearing from my attorney.”