Miss Cleo and Me 🔮

A fundraising scandal involving the former president’s aggressive approach to recurring donations reminds me a lot of something that a famous TV psychic did to my credit card 20 years ago.


So, I don’t dabble in politics very much with my writing, but sometimes something happens that forces me to really hone in on the political. And that news story this week was the news that the former president’s failed reelection campaign was essentially using his biggest supporters as piggy banks.

The story was pretty shocking—just the willingness to charge supporters on a recurring basis in a “money bomb” to catch up to his opponent is the height of unethical behavior.

But the thing that really got me about the whole thing was that it made me remember that decades prior, I was the victim of a relatively similar scheme. The scheme involved the psychic television personality Miss Cleo, and $400 in charges I was very much not expecting on my credit card. I should note that this came at a time when I was just out of high school, before the days when you could check your bill online with any sort of regularity. I got the bill in the mail one day, and there it was—four charges from Psychic Readers Network, the service that Miss Cleo famously promoted on television.

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For entertainment only.

I have no idea how they ended up there—maybe they stole my number, maybe I decided to try it as a joke and found that they were more than happy to take advantage of my self-amusement—but whatever led to them charging me hundreds of dollars was not worth that fee. This was at a time when I was in college and at a job that paid only a few cents more than minimum wage, so $400 dollars was a big chunk of my paycheck, just as those massive charges for Trump supporters left many of his biggest fans in dire straits.

But despite being defrauded, I remember feeling this sense of, “holy crap this is going to be a great story to tell someone about someday.” And more than 20 years later, here we are.

(The opening anecdote on the Times article, involving a man with terminal cancer who gave away hundreds of dollars to the Trump campaign only to soon find that he was struggling to pay his rent, really highlights how awful the move really was—and my situation, though more novel, shows that this practice is not exactly associated with normal businesses.)

I wrote about the rise and fall of Miss Cleo (birth name Youree Dell Harris) a few years ago and how infomercials like hers played into dark patterns, as we call them now.

In that case, the FTC was able to force about $500 million to return to consumers, of which about $400 was mine.

Given that the Trump campaign’s effort—so significant that major banks said that it took up a significant portion of their fraud departments’ time—was very much driven by fine print and easy-to-miss dark patterns, I guess the only conclusion that I’m able to come to is that Donald Trump is the Miss Cleo of politics.

At least I was able to get those charges cancelled on my card relatively painlessly. Not everyone during the prior election season was quite so lucky.

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Ernie Smith

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Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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