Uncle Sam Challenges Miss Cleo

Describing it as "permeated with fraud," the Federal Trade Commission has gone to court in an effort to shut down Miss Cleo's psychic hot line.

Florida authorities announced a separate lawsuit, challenging the service's spokeswoman, Youree Dell Harris, known as "Miss Cleo," to prove that she really is a renowned shaman from Jamaica.

A person who answered a gate intercom at Harris' home west of Fort Lauderdale on Thursday said Harris had no comment. A lawyer for the service, Sean Moynihan, said, "The only unfair and irresponsible practices involved in the lawsuit are those of the FTC."

The two Fort Lauderdale, Fla., companies behind the telephone psychic reading service, Access Resource Services Inc. and Psychic Readers Network, have also been sued by Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The FTC complaint, filed Wednesday in the District Court for the Southern District of Florida, accuses the service of misdeeds including false promises of free psychic readings, tricky billing tactics to squeeze money out of consumers and unrelenting and abusive telemarketing calls.

"Considering the laundry list of unfair and deceptive practices in this case, it's a mystery to us why Miss Cleo and her employers haven't seen this coming," said Howard Beales, the agency's director of consumer protection. He said the FTC acted after getting more than 2,000 consumer complaints.

Moynihan said the complaints are a "handful" out of millions of satisfied callers and that the service would fight the charges.

Beales said the service promises a free psychic reading, but when consumers call a toll-free number they are directed to a 1-900 number charging $4.99 per minute.

An average call costs more than $60, Beales said, noting that nearly 6 million people have called the service. A telephone bill running into the hundreds of dollars is the first sign for many callers that they are being charged.