In the Crystal Ball: More Regulation for Psychics

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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, 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: about 1 in 7 Americans consulted a psychic or fortune teller in 2009, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. That could be 30 million or more people.

Municipalities are struggling to manage their activities. Annapolis, Md., issues what it calls a "fortune-telling license" only if its police force concludes the applicant is "of good moral character." Last year, Will County, Illinois, decided to count fortune telling as an official business (along with tattooing and dog watching). Three years ago, 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 persuade a psychic to return jewelry or cash taken from a client in exchange for performing spells or freeing the client from a curse. 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, who is also a member of the National Association of Bunco Investigators, a nonprofit 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, Sept. 1, in Florida to grand theft and organized fraud. One of her victims testified that Marks swindled her out of $312,926.29 — and persuaded 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.

But other observers, peering into their own crystal balls, see new worries. Michael Steinburg, of the Michigan branch of the ACLU, 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 tells TIME. The ACLU has 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 the 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 peddling predictions, regulated or not.