Seeking answers about what might lie ahead in life, and paying for it, has been around for centuries.
Even now, in a high-tech world, being a professional fortuneteller is good business.
A 2016 report estimated the industry pulls in $2 billion in revenue each year, and employs more than 85,000 people nationwide.
In the Bay Area, roadside signs advertising psychic services are a common sight, with many fortunetellers also conducting their business online. That's because fortunetelling is totally legal in California. Not so in many other states.
In New York, the same palm reading or tarot session you can buy in the Bay Area could get a fortuneteller fined $500 -- or 90 days in jail.
California didn't always have this anything-goes approach to the psychic world.
For most of the 20th century, fortunetelling was banned in many places, including San Francisco. In 1985, the city of Azusa in Los Angeles County received a First Amendment challenge from the Spiritual Psychic Science Church of Truth. The California Supreme Court agreed with the psychics, rendering all bans on fortunetelling unconstitutional .
“Society's skepticism or outright disbelief,” declared those judges, “does not justify denial of free speech to the believers.”
But that doesn't mean it can't be regulated.
How are psychic services regulated?
While some California cities, like Oakland and Berkeley, have no psychic-specific rules, other places care a great deal about how people tell fortunes for money. In San Francisco, the Police Department gets involved.
Fortunetelling isn’t just mentioned in the San Francisco police code. It gets its own section -- starting with a rundown of all 70 things SFPD counts as fortunetelling.
This includes: clairvoyance, cartomancy, phrenology, tea leaves, tarot cards, coffee grounds, crystal gazing, astrology, palmistry, telepathy, and placing or removing curses.
“Fortunetelling," the police code reads, “shall also include pretending to perform these actions.”
San Francisco takes such pains to define fortunetelling because the city regulates it -- via permits granted by the SFPD. Anyone wanting to legally tell fortunes in this city, whether via tarot, palm or crystal ball, has to travel to the Hall of Justice on Bryant Street and ride the elevator to the police Permit Bureau.
“We deal with a lot of different permits here that people may not think need a permit,” says Sgt. Gigi George, who has worked in the bureau for five years. In her office, would-be fortunetellers fill out the same form, and stand in the same line, as people wanting a permit to operate a pedicab business, run a bingo night or deal firearms.
“We treat everyone the same,” she says. “It's all a business.”
The application process for a San Francisco fortunetelling permit involves a background check, fingerprinting and even a public hearing. The fees are just under $350 -- more than a permit for a masseuse, but less than one for a tow operator or walking-tour guide.
There have been a total of 75 approved fortuneteller permits issued since 2003, and only eight in the last two years. Once granted, the permit requires psychic practitioners to clearly display their rates in their place of work and provide paying customers with a receipt.
Why does San Francisco want to regulate psychics?
Unlike other Bay Area cities that require fortuneteller permits but don't explain why, like Benicia and Lafayette, San Francisco says these permits are to help fight fraud. The police code says the regulations should “protect the public by preventing people who have been charged with deceptive practices from having easy access to persons who may be vulnerable to fraud or confidence games.”
Of course, when it comes to fortunetelling, the very notion of fraud is a subjective one. There are many who see any kind of paid psychic service as dishonest by its nature -- whether a reading costs $10 or $10,000. But the kind of fraud SFPD cares about occurs when a person -- often someone vulnerable -- is convinced they need to keep paying money to a psychic. People have lost their life savings this way, and such cases tend to attract public attention because of the large sums of money involved.
In 2003, officials at the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office said they'd received a growing number of complaints about fortuneteller fraud over the previous five years. They thought permit laws would help them better investigate and prosecute claims.
Despite the dissent from several psychics at the time, regulations were put in place and have now been on the books for 15 years.
Does regulation affect the psychic business in San Francisco?
The short answer is ... not really.
The S.F. District Attorney’s Office has received zero complaints in the last couple of years. The SFPD wasn’t able to say how many reports it has received about this kind of fraud recently, because fortunetelling fraud is not a unique category of crime it tracks.
In her five years handling permits for the SFPD, George says she’s seen only one case of fortunetelling fraud. However, she thinks it’s an underreported crime, and urges anyone affected to come forward. “It should not be a shameful feeling for them,” she says.
As for San Francisco’s psychics themselves? While some see getting and renewing their permit as a mere part of 21st century fortuneteller life, others don’t think the permits are necessary -- and haven’t bothered to get one.
Bay Area tarot reader Lance Juniper, who organizes the annual San Francisco Psychic Fair, says he doesn’t actually know any reader in the Bay Area that has one.
Considering how the telling of fortunes has endured for hundreds of years, in all its forms, it’s hard to imagine this business going away anytime soon. Permits or no permits.
Coming soon: Who’s Telling -- and Buying -- Fortunes in 2018?
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