We Need a Psychic Fraud Law Too

The UK seems to be way ahead of Canada in protecting the public from the deceptive practices of psychics.  Not only did the Brits already have a Fraudulent Mediums Act, but they are now replacing it with something that is intended to be more effective.  In May, psychics in the UK will fall under Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (CPRs).  And why not?  A fair and just society should be able to demand that services transacted for financial gain be subject to validation and review.  Canada should follow suit.

The UK’s Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951 makes it an offence, at least until May, for anyone who:

(a)  with intent to deceive purports to act as a spiritualistic medium or to exercise any powers of telepathy, clairvoyance or other similar powers, or

(b)  in purporting to act as a spiritualistic medium or to exercise such powers as aforesaid, uses any fraudulent device

The law requires proof that the psychic act was done for reward in the form of money or goods, but it cannot be applied if the psychic act is “done solely for the purpose of entertainment.”

Apparently, the law has not been enforced very actively.  Between 1980 and 1995, only six prosecutions were recorded, of which five resulted in convictions.  Many commentators point out that psychics typically avoid prosecution by giving their readings for free under the guise of entertainment but charging a fee for the venue.

Last year, UK skeptics, presumably led by BadPsychics, initiated a petition to tighten up the law:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Revise the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951.  The Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 has rarely been used in the prosecution of mediums and psychics, who claim to contact the dead relatives of people.  Yet there are increasingly more TV shows and live acts where people claiming to be mediums and psychics prey on vulnerable people who have lost loved ones, giving them spurious information and taking their money.  We call upon the Government to revise the Fraudulent Mediums Act and make it easier to prosecute these people.
The petition closed on 21 September 2007 with a mere 365 e-signatures.  However, it prompted the following response from the UK Prime Minister’s Office on 19 October 2007:
The Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 will be repealed from April 2008 by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2007 (CPRs) which implement the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD).

The CPRs include rules prohibiting conduct which misleads the average consumer and thereby causes, or is likely to cause him to take a transactional decision he would not have taken otherwise.

Although the average consumer would arguably not be misled by a person who claims he is able to contact the dead, such conduct would still be unfair under the CPRs if it deceives the average member of (i) the group to which it is directed, or (ii) a clearly identifiable group of consumers who are particularly vulnerable to this type of practice.

Unlike the Act, there is no requirement in the CPRs to prove an “intent to deceive”.  This means that where practices are aimed at vulnerable consumers or average members of particular groups, it should be easier to take action against fraudulent mediums than under the Act.

The CPRs will be enforced by both civil (injunctive) action and criminal sanctions.

I’m jealous.  I don’t recall the Canadian government ever making a rational policy statement like that against pseudoscience.

Apparently, precognition of this policy move eluded the psychics, but they did rally after the fact.  The Spiritualist community initiated a counter-petition, which closed on 6 February 2008 with 2,613 e-signatures:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Consider the discriminatory implications of singling out the Spiritualist religion for inclusion within the Consumer Protection Regulations and not other religions.  Any changes to the Fraudulent Mediums Act should only be made after extensive consultation with all the main spiritualist organisations.  Whilst we agree that those who are deliberately fraudulent should be prosecuted it should be remembered that, other than the Church of England, Spiritualism is the only other legally recognised religion in this country. The others are only tolerated.  The Religious Discrimination Act states that all religions should be treated equally.  If Spiritualism is to be included within these regulations then so should all the other religions.

Fortune-tellers, mediums and spiritual healers in the UK seem to declare themselves a religion when it suits them.  Indeed, the UK’s 2001 census showed Spiritualism to be the nation’s eighth largest religion with over 32,000 adherents, but this number is hardly significant when compared with the over 390,000 people who declared themselves Jedi Knights as a faith.

Pretence aside, the Spiritualists’ petition had no evident impact.  The CPRs are expected to go into force by the end of May in place of the Fraudulent Mediums Act.

On Friday (18 April 2008), Reuters reported that a group of psychics protested outside 10 Downing Street, this time let down by clairvoyance, which should have alerted them to the fact that the PM was in the US and not home.

In the article, the co-founder of the Spiritual Workers Association is quoted as saying:

By repealing the [Fraudulent Mediums] Act, the onus will go round the other way and we will have to prove we are genuine.  No other religion has to do that.

To which the chief executive of the British Humanist Association quite rightly responds:

It is misleading for spiritualists to claim that, as “religious” practitioners they should not be regulated under consumer laws.  The psychic industry is huge and lucrative and it exploits some very vulnerable, and some very gullible, people with claims for which there is no scientific evidence.

Absolutely right.  If you run a business, then you should expect to be held liable for truth in advertising, proof of claims and warranty of effectiveness.  The money is given as a transaction, not a religious contribution.  The Catholic church may rake in a lot of money through donations, but they have not transacted indulgences since before the Reformation.

For a great take on this issue, I recommend Daniel Finkelstein’s editorial, “All that clairvoyant stuff – I don’ t see it myself.”  He revisits the common critique that, if fortune tellers are really legit, then why are they grubbing for money at local psychic fairs instead of getting rich with their powers.  He resists the notion, however, that psychics should be prosecuted, feeling that public sympathy would turn against the effort and that suckers have only themselves to blame.  Perhaps, but following that logic argues against all fraud laws.

Unfortunately, there are those in society who are vulnerable to psychic predation.  Age, mental deficiency, cultural background and emotional fragility can make people susceptible.  A case in point is the families of missing children.  As Kelly Jolkowski points out on her Project Jason website:

Psychics and other users of purported paranormal phenomena, cause unnecessary and damaging pain and anguish to families of the missing.  They can also add to financial stress if they charge fees.  We’re already on a roller coaster ride of events and emotions, and we should have no desire to add to it. …  The evidence that psychics are not helpful and in some cases even harmful, is overwhelming.

The UK has found a possible response to this type of victimization.  So what is Canada doing about it?

20. April 2008 by barry
Categories: Psychics/ESP, Topics | 1 comment

One Comment

  1. So a man or woman walking down the street says “It’s going to rain, I feel it in my bones.” and along come the skeptic police to arrest him or here – or maybe it’s that preacher in the pulpit who talks about a God, along come the skeptic police to arrest him and even more, they arrest every person in the sound of that preacher’s voice as accessories. What about the teacher in a class about creative literature possibly covering the subject of ancient my ancient mythology, should they also be arrested? Consumer protection is a very necessary endeavor. The general public need to be aware of those who make false or misleading claims, I totally agree. Skeptics should be subject to the same criticisms and regulations as anyone who might possess an imagination. They should be required to back up their claims with hard evidence too. Slander, defamatory statements, attacks on another’s reputation are all criminal activities and prosecuted with the same vigor as the writer of this post wishes to inflict on others. Many things exist that we take for granted, we believe in their reality, Understand it is not what we see or don’t see that provides evidence, that is done more by what effect that which we believe in has. We don’t see air, but we do feel the breeze and see the trees bow in it’s presence. We don’t see thoughts or creativity, but we read what is written, we admire what is painted, and we enjoy that which is sang, I don’t support misleading other, or lying, or any type of deception. I do think that we all have a responsible to live within those same standards, whether we believe or not. This includes both practitioners and skeptics.