Monday, March 6, 2006

Apple #152: The Psychic Friends Network

I've pretty much recovered from the flu. I still get sort of dizzy and woozy every once in a while, I'm still kind of forgetful and go into a mini-daze now and then, and my head still feels packed with some mysterious unbudgeable substance, which means that my ears also feel a bit too full and don't respond well to loud noises. The first time I got back into the car after being out of it for about a week, there was no way I could drive and listen to the radio at the same time. Too much stimulus, too much noise. Now I have progressed to being able to tolerate the radio while driving, but all I want to listen to are the soft, soothing sounds of AM oldies radio.

Today I heard a song sung by Dionne Warwick. I recognized her husky voice immediately. If I'm not mistaken, the song was called Deja Vu. This got me wondering, whatever happened to the Psychic Friends Network?

  • The Psychic Friends Network was first of all a wildly popular infomercial back in 1990. Dionne Warwick hosted a mock TV show, in which she interviewed her main Psychic Friend, Linda Georgian, and then invited various famous people and regular people to come onto the talk-show-like set and testify to how their Psychic Friend gave them the answers that led them to a happier, more fulfilled life, etc., etc.
  • It was an infomercial, but people watched it like it was a regular TV show. I know I did. I mean, I watched this thing many times. It was on TV a lot, but when I came across it, I didn't usually make the effort to change the channel. Time and again, I was seduced by Dionne's husky voice, the happy hugs among the fellow believers, the tears surprised to the surface by a psychic's uncanny ability to touch on just the right thing.

Hugs among the Psychic Friends
(Photo from a Hampshire College alum's page on PFN)

  • The goal was to get viewers to call the 900 number and spend $4.99 the first minute and $3.99 every minute after that. I never called. But a lot of people did.
  • The company rode the crest of its popularity for a long time, and then the next thing I remember was that the company was in trouble, it was being investigated for something maybe? And then it disappeared. What happened?
In researching the Psychic Friends Network and what became of it, I discovered that many of the people who touched it in some way turned out to be frauds themselves. It's all coincidental, of course, but you could say that in a manner of speaking, I found a Fraud Network. Read on.

  • In 1998, the Psychic Friends Network's parent company, Inphomation Communication Inc., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
  • In the meantime, the guy who originally came up with the Psychic Friends Network, Michael W. Lasky, was suspected of using money from Inphomation's bleeding checking account and putting it into another business venture of his, the Harbor Inn Pier in Baltimore. That's Possible Fraud Guy #1.
  • Then the Psychic Friends sort of disappeared from the map after 1998. They poked their heads up again in 2003-2004 when Inphomation filed suit against the floundering MCI when it filed for bankruptcy as part of the whole WorldCom debacle (Major Fraud Company). Inphomation Communication claimed in its suit against MCI that they switched from AT&T to MCI in 1996 and soon discovered the MCI was not capable of billing and collecting on the long distance calls as they had claimed, and as AT&T had once done. By 1997, they were losing revenue, and another year later, they were in the red.
  • After some unsuccessful legal maneuvering, MCI settled the case by paying $4.1 million to Inphomation. Inphomation then used that money to pay off as much as it could to its creditors.
Okay, so we've got small-timer guy skimming the Psychic Friends' bank account. And we've got a connection to WorldCom. But wait, there's more.

  • Quite a few of the articles I found about the Psychic Friends' demise refer to an investigative article written by a guy named Stephen Glass who posed as a Psychic Friend so he could write about it for Harper's Magazine. Glass wrote that he soon discovered most of the people calling in were poor, usually minorities, in pretty big trouble financially and in need of genuine help, not a good soaking for $80 a call on average. Glass reported that he left his undercover work with a residue of shame in his mouth.
  • Glass was exposed later that year as a stunning liar regarding the subject of a different article published in The New Republic. After he was outed as a big fat liar, other magazines went back and reviewed his work, among them, Harper's. They said his facts seemed to be generally accurate, but they could not verify his sources or find many of the psychics he claimed to have worked with.
  • This makes him Fraud Guy #2: a guy went undercover and lied about being a psychic to "expose" people who were cheating others, and then this guy was himself exposed as a fraud of his own kind.
But what about Dionne Warwick? One of the most recent items about her in the news was that in 2002, she was busted at the Miami International Airport for possessing under 5 grams of marijuana.

Poor Dionne. I think she must have been originally tapped for the role on the PFN's infomercials because she added an "e" at the end of her first name on the advice of a numerologist. In spite of this, and her association with the PFN, and her marijuana bust, and the fact that Whitney Houston is her cousin, I'm not going to put her in the list of frauds. Instead, I'm going to say this: caught up with such unsavory people, and without a hit in decades, it's understandable that she'd turn to a little extra something to get her through her Psychic Friends-No-More days.

Maybe it would be better to remember her for the single "That's What Friends Are For," a Grammy-winning song she recorded in 1985 with Gladys Knight and Elton John and Stevie Wonder, as a fundraiser for people with AIDS.

Psychic Friends Network
D. Trull, "Psychic Friends Debt-Work," ParaScope, 1998
Matt Nisbet, "Psychic Hotlines profit on gullibility," CICAP, the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims on the Paranormal
"Two Baltimore Lawyers Help Bankruptcy Trustee for Psychic Friends Network Recover $4.1M from MCI," Bank Channel Media, November 30, 2004
"Psychic Friends to be sold," Baltimore Business Journal, July 3, 1998

Stephen Glass
Adam Penenberg, "Lies, damn lies and fiction,", May 11, 1998
Aida Edemariam, "The Storyteller," The Guardian, May 10, 2004, which includes a description of the process of fact-checking Glass' article about pretending to be a psychic on the PFN.
The Cheating Culture, Stephen Glass
Shattered Glass film about Stephen Glass' deception, produced by Tom Cruise, and starring Hayden Christensen as Glass

Dionne Warwick
"Dionne Warwick arrested for pot possession," CNN, May 12, 2002, reproduced at chat room
VH1, biography of Dionne Warwick, Dionne Warwick

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