Here’s an idea that WINZ have yet to suggest — but it may not be far off!

According to a recent report in the New York Times, the Big Apple’s city welfare department has been recruiting welfare recipients to work from home as telephone psychics. The city’s Human Resources Administration has placed 15 people with a company called Psychic Network in the last year of operation.

Like here, late-night television in the US is packed with advertisements for “incredible psychics”, who are guaranteed to solve your problems at $4.99-a-minute. For welfare recipients, the lure of $10 an hour plus bonuses has brought budding psychics out of the woodwork.

The city doesn’t require applicants to demonstrate clairvoyance, but their intending psychics do have to have a high school equivalence degree, “a caring and compassionate personality” and the ability “to read, write and speak English”. Anyone interested in the programme is directed to Business Link, a division of the Human Resources Administration which finds and trains workers from the welfare rolls.

Group screening is arranged and tarot card reading training sessions are provided at Business Link.

The New York Times was keen to find out more about the operation, but city representatives cited confidentiality issues. Over 150 companies are involved with the Business Link plan, qualifying for wage subsidies and federal and state tax credits of up to $10,000 for each worker.

The New York Times reported a city administrator as saying that “the city does not investigate the businesses that participate to determine if they are in trouble with the Better Business Bureau, the Labor Department, the bankruptcy courts or the Internal Revenue Service”.

The reporter was unsuccessful in her attempts to reach the only Psychic Network listed in the Manhattan telephone directory. The local number had been disconnected in July, and the only street address given was one in West Palm Beach, Florida, where a variety of records show it to be the residence of a man, William B. Tide, who uses several names and has an unlisted telephone number. A Florida owner of a Psychic Network bookstore had been bombarded with complaints meant for the other Psychic Network since Tide failed in several efforts to acquire her trademarked name and toll-free number. The story noted that they were unsure of any connection between Tide and the New York operation, and the city would not provide any contact details for the company they were dealing with.

The New York Times noted that federal, state and local agencies have struggled to curb abuses in the boom-and-bust psychic hot line industry. The story quoted investigators as saying that market leaders with a changing array of names and affiliations have been accused of defrauding customers, creditors, employees and stockholders around the country.

“Investigators typically reacted with disbelief to New York City’s welfare-to-work psychic venture, but an enforcement official with the Federal Communications Commission, where 40% of all complaints concern psychic pay-per-call operations, laughed uncontrollably, then begged for anonymity.”

The New York Times contacted some “genuine” psychics who were reportedly not amused. One said that it was a scam, as genuine psychics study for years, adding that “the city should not be doing this — it’s shameful”.

The city defended its support for the programme, saying that the pay was good and the work suitable for mothers with young children. However, actual experience suggests otherwise. Despite promises of $10-12 an hour, actual pay at these networks is often far less, because it is usually based on a per-minute rate paid only for time spent on the telephone with callers. A bonus — typically 25 cents — is paid for every name and address that can be extracted from a caller; information which is then resold to direct marketers.

As has been the case in New Zealand, telepsychics are encouraged to keep the punters on the phones for as long as possible. In one case in Northland, telepsychics were instructed to feign the need to disconnect after the maximum billing period had been reached so that the punter had to call back and initiate a new set of charges. In the US, it is common practice to route calls to those workers who achieve the longest billing periods. There are also deliberate ploys to extend the time, such as telling the caller you are seeing — veeeeeerrrryy sloooooowwwly — their winning Lotto numbers.

Investigators also are familiar with the practice of “cramming and slamming”, which involve padding a customer’s telephone bill with charges which they never knowingly incurred, and switching their long-distance service to another carrier without permission.

Despite attempts both here and in the US to crack down on the worst scams, it is the callers and the teleworkers who end up out of pocket and out of a job. Little has been done to those operating the pyschic phone hot lines.

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