No appointment needed: Inside the billion dollar business of online psychics

The marketplace is overflowing, the websites are rubbish, but business is booming. Idealog takes a look into the big money industry of psychic readings in the digital age.

In 2015, one could be forgiven for thinking that psychics – the sideshow staple, heavy with portent and faux gold jewellery – may have gone the way of the cobbler, a quaint relic of a bygone area, an anachronism in this cynical age.

Think again. Psychic business is a booming multi-billion dollar industry boasting 2.2% growth year on year and with a customer base ready and willing to cough up real money for the supernatural goods.

For an industry that still calls to mind gypsy caravans, black cats and bored Victorian housewives, tech-savvy psychics are, in fact, alive and well in 2015 and have taken to the internet in their silk-draped droves.

So what’s the business model? Wait, don’t tell me

Getting yourself a good psychic once-over comes with a lot of options these days. There’s the up close and personal, email readings, text messaging, Skype and chat. Phone psychics have been around a long time however, and that still seems to be the preferred model for extrasensory salespeople. And that’s to be expected. It’s a lucrative proposition.

Prices vary for phone readings, but not by much, with most priced around the $3.99 per minute mark. That figure doesn’t seem too surprising, but how does it compare to that other classic phone service industry, telephone sex chat?

A quick survey of New Zealand phone sex services (no calling was required for this survey), reveals that…that’s not really a thing anymore. Google searching for ‘phone sex nz’ reveals an almost total absence of phone sex workers proffering their wares online. If there’s an industry has been thoroughly decimated by the internet, it seems that phone sex is it.

So psychics are surviving where others have perished.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s dip a toe. It’s time to get on the phone.  

Idealog gets a reading

As mentioned, most phone psychic services charge around $3.99 a minute, which doesn’t seem like much at first glance, but means a 20 minute call clocks in at an eye-watering $79.80. This was going on the company credit card, so I thought at least a little more digging was required before I made the call.

After a little Googling, I came across LifeReader, which charges a paltry 0.19/per min for the first ten minutes of your first reading. It certainly had the most attractive price-point, so I made them my first port of call.

Sign-in, however, was a drag and I certainly wasn’t going to log-in with my Facebook account (I have a reputation to uphold here) or Google+ (that reputation also includes not using Google+).

So with no luck there, the next on the list, Forecasters, at $3.99 per minute, seemed my best bet, but I’d have to keep it brief.

I called and Rayleen answered.

“What would you like to talk about, love?” she asked.

“My crippling work-related anxiety,” I answered.*

*For the sake of this investigation, I’ve selected two questions to ask our psychics, one personal and one professional.

“Oh, you should get a diary, love,” she answered, “and plan your day better. Use an online calendar if you’ve got one, and set up a messaging app if you know how to use them.”

I’ve got to hand it to you Rayleen. That seems like some pretty solid advice.

She went on to offer me roughly $3.99 worth of organisational/relaxation-oriented self-help, including getting up earlier in the day, yoga breathing techniques and meditation.  

“Imagine you’re painting the Auckland Harbour Bridge,” she said. “Realise that that job would take years. If you’re always trying to just get it done, you’ll drive yourself insane, so relax. Remember, you’ve gotta get up and do this for the next twenty or thirty years, so find a way to enjoy it.”

She could have quite merrily gone on in this fashion for as long as I let her, so I had to interrupt with my next question. But still, whether it was the nerves of my first psychic reading, the sugary lunch I’d just eaten, or some kind of gypsy curse, it seemed like pretty solid advice.

But time was very much money, so I cut straight to the money question I was really wanting to know:

“What’s the future of the digital economy, Rayleen?”

That’s where the money is,” she said, without missing a beat. “There’s money to be made there and you’re very good at it.”

Oh, Rayleen.

“So don’t panic. Things may be slow at the moment, but don’t worry about that. Things are only going to go up”.

Just the facts

There are precious few hard stats around the psychic industry but a report from IBISWorld last September says that the industry has “grown steadily over the five years to 2014” as disposable income levels have risen, spurring demand for “discretionary services” such as psychic readings. Anecdotally, an American company was at one point employing 1500 psychics to work at their psychic hotline business, generating up to $12 million in a single month.

Dr Robin-Marie Shepherd of University of Auckland says that the psychic industry in this country is big business, buoyed to some extent by “problem users spending up to $100,000 a year”.

“There are some people who will call up a psychic to lift their spirits, but for others it becomes an addiction. I know psychics who Skype, phone and do face to face [consultations], one of which charges $250 an hour.”

Research Dr. Shepard conducted in 2009 also found that psychic consultations increase during times of economic uncertainty.

She points out that there was an astrology boom during the great depression in the US, a revival of superstitious beliefs during Germany’s economic hardships throughout the 20th century and in the aftermath of the American civil war, with many people flocking to mediums "hoping to hear messages from their deceased loved ones”.

“The most recent research to date included anecdotal evidence that some mystic fayres in New Zealand were particularly busy during the time war had broke out in Iraq”.

And the average consumer spend? Estimates vary.

Sarah Lassez, actress and author of the book, Psychic Junkie: A Memoir, says that, according to her research, the average spend per year is “more than $7000”.

“For example, one person said that she had spent $10-15,000 in two years; another has spent $60,000 since 1993, with a binge cycle to her spending; a third has spent $30,000 in eight years. Others confessed to being binge callers ringing several times a day and then stopping for a few days…. a recent participant spent US$3000 in one month, with $1500 on a single session. The record so far goes to a British participant, who spent $40,000 in 10 months.”

So there’s definitely money to be made there then.

Idealog gets another reading

Of all the platforms available, the text-based approach, with a one-time payment of $3.50 (per text, that is) is one of the more cost effective, so that was our next stop.

Inspire Psychic Reading offers such a service, so I texted them twice, again using my two test questions.

The first: “What can I do about my crippling anxiety?”

Five minutes, no answer. 15 minutes, still nothing. Then, two seconds before declaring the whole thing a scam, my answer came back:

“fear of the future $ bein judged is at the base of yr anxiety. Mentaly stp yrself frm criticism of othas & start 2 focus on the ‘now’. Limit yr imagination 4 now.”

Wow. That’s a pretty good reply, I thought. Maybe not $3.50 good, but better than I was expecting.

With my mobile psychic nicely warmed up, it was time for question two: “What is the future of the digital economy?”

25 minutes later, I received a ‘response’:

“What is needed to ensure a thriving, open and secure digital economy? That we just don’t have and at the moment we are starting to see what is the cont?...”

Hmm.

The Book of the Law: Do what thou wilt

For such a buoyant industry, there’s not a lot of regulation in place, either here or overseas.

“It’s not an area that gets a lot of attention,” says Vicki Hyde of NZ Skeptics.

“There’s no main organisation or regulation in New Zealand, so it all operates a bit under the radar.”

“I guess it’s been fairly quiet here over the last couple of years. Psychics boom in bad times, in just the same way as you get increased church activity, as people go looking for hope in times of uncertainty. We saw the industry grow following the events of 2008 and 2011. They also got a lot of promotion during ‘Sensing Murder’ and ‘Dare to Believe’.”

And such publicity is great for less high-profile players says Hyde, who can charge outrageous fees with few operating expenses or legal restrictions.

Image: Vicki Hyde, NZ Skeptics

“Some of these people are charging $200 to $800 an hour,” says Hyde.

“There are no overheads and there’s very little comeback for anyone who feels they’ve been taken advantage of. Try taking a case into law that you’ve been ripped off by a psychic. There’s a lot of tacit protection for an industry that basically exploits people.”

Hyde says that while the digital revolution has “freed the industry,” offering successful psychics huge audiences to exploit without restriction, that same revolution has also created a world of “digital natives” that are, or at least will be, more wary of the services offered by online soothsayers.

“People are coming online at younger and younger ages and I think that sophistication means that there is a certain degree of online inoculation going on.”

Idealog gets another reading (again)

Feeling that neither phone nor text messaging had really gotten to the root of my issues, I decided to take one last shot at paranormal elucidation.

The Online Psychic Network lets you ask a forum of psychics a question and get responses for free, so that’s what I did.

My first question, ‘How can I cope with my crippling anxiety?’, received a lot of responses, none surprising and all in a similar vein:

Hi, contact me today, I have all the answers you’re looking for!” advised Advisor Summer.

There are many techniques to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. Please contact me today so I help you get started on the right path”, said Sylvia the Clairvoyant.

Hello my name is Advisor Dorothy and I would like to interest you in my services,” said Advisor Dorothy. “I am a very accurate and experienced psychic reader and I will provide you all the information you are seeking. With my guidance you will be at peace of mind and given clarity. Contact me now, I would love to chat with you.

So no great insights there.

Responses to my second question however got specific, then contentious, then predictable.

“What is the future of the digital economy?” I asked.

One word,” answered Psychic Dino almost immediately, “Bitcoin”.

Psychic Dino’s assertion did not pass unchallenged however.

There will be too much regulation for certain digital currencies to succeed,” retorted Sylvia the Clairvoyant. “Please contact me soon for more information.”

“Well you can’t both be right,” I offered.

Hello my name is Advisor Dorothy,” responded Advisor Dorothy, “and I would like to interest you in my services.

I am a very accurate and experienced psychic reader and I will provide you all the information you are seeking. With my guidance you will be at peace of mind and given clarity. Contact me now, I would love to chat with you.”

I bet you would, Dorothy. I bet you would.