Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
So here's the words I hear whispered on the wind, Claire... listen carefully to all that is presented to you, but you DO NOT have to buy into it. Particularly regarding events that will occur or be presented come around December 22-28th. There is a woman, with white hair and possible dark skin? A guardian or Mentor, a benevolent woman who may be feeling a bit insecure who secretly is in need of love and attention. She seems to have an impact on your life around January 29th or is related to that date. —Tabetha Berry, psychic reading over text message
Etsy may be best known as the crafty little online marketplace (valued at a not-so-little $3.5 billion when it went public last April, but now, far less) where you can score vintage crochet bikinis, decorative wine glass markers, leather backpacks, and homemade art festooned with sparrows. But the site also has a burgeoning reputation as a destination for a quick psychic fix.
It's where I met Tabetha, the psychic who gave me the above reading via iMessage. I paid for the transaction online, provided Tabetha with some background information, and went to bed. I was asleep with my phone on the Do Not Disturb setting when Tabetha sent the text through; my morning grogginess immediately dissipated when I read her highly specific insight, still in bed with one eye closed. The reading exalted me. And I'm a skeptic.
Etsy has 8,694 results (and counting!) for "tarot reading," 7,650 for "psychic reading," and 945 for "astrology reading." The Etsy psychic community conducts its business digitally, sending results over email, video chat, or text message. Psychics and fortune tellers can perform their services as quickly as they would were a customer to enter a neon-lit storefront, depending on when they see the request on Etsy and receive payment, up front, using PayPal, debit card, check, or money order. But instead of wandering into a physical shop and displaying vulnerability to a mystical stranger, Etsy customers experience readings from the comfort of their own homes.
There are many kinds of psychic readings available on the site. Among the most widespread is tarot, in which a reader analyzes cards drawn from a deck to answer a question their client has posed; Etsy tarot readers send customers photos of their card spreads. Astrology readings are based on zodiac birth charts, which are essentially maps of the star, planet, sun, and moon alignments at the exact moment a person is born. Etsy shopkeepers also sell energy readings, during which they use alleged extra-sensory abilities to perceive the invisible field of energy surrounding a customer, including her chakras and aura.
For $3,300, you can have a psychic named Doreen meditate on what sort of goddess you are.
The prices of metaphysical readings on Etsy range wildly in price, generally based on the depth of the reading and the amount of time the psychic puts into the work. A one-card reading from Gemini Tarot is less than $2. One of the most expensive readings available on Etsy is something called a psychic archetype reading from The Mystical Rose. For $3,300, you can have a psychic named Doreen meditate on what sort of goddess you are. After obtaining a customer's birthday, Doreen meditates on each goddess archetype and asks the spirit questions accordingly. For example, "Hag, what in you is ugly and terrifying? How can you redeem this monster?" The shop has 836 positive reviews.
Proprietors on Etsy also sell healing crystals, protective amulets and talismans, aura analysis drawings, and sometimes — illegally — magic spells. Etsy classifies itself as a marketplace and prohibits the sale of services sitewide, mystical or not. Psychics are required to sell their online readings with a "tangible item," which can be as simple as a .pdf or .jpg file, and are not allowed to make any explicit or even implicit promises, which means spells are strictly forbidden. To monitor psychic shops that have been skirting site rules, Etsy clarified its policies over the summer.
Site guidelines now state that "any metaphysical service that promises or suggests it will effect [sic] a physical change (e.g., weight loss) or other outcome (e.g., love, revenge) is not allowed, even if it delivers a tangible item." According to site regulations, Etsy also reserves the right to remove any listings that are not in the "spirit of Etsy." When the change occurred, the Etsy psychic community worried about revenue loss. Many took their services to sites with looser rules for spellcasters, like Bonanza, Keen, and Kasamba.
According to an Etsy rep who otherwise declined to comment for this story, the purpose of tightening up the policy was to "reiterate that we do not allow services and to protect our community from business practices that prey upon vulnerable and desperate shoppers — such as those seeking a treatment for cancer or infertility, or those with self-esteem issues who are seeking a spell for weight loss or beauty enhancement (think penis or breast enlargement)." Etsy deletes listings that prey on sensitive customers, but many still slip through the cracks.
Here's where things get murky: A penis enlargement spell listing on Etsy led me to Justin Schultz, a practitioner of magick ("magick" refers to the purported ancient art of manipulating energy forces to create change, as opposed to Tony Wonder-style stage magic). Etsy has since removed the penis enlargement listing from Schultz's House of Magick Etsy shop, but he still sells liquid spells, shipped by mail, including the Wiccan Extreme Love Spell Orange Essential Oil, a 5-milliliter bottle of which retails for $199.
That an expensive love spell like Schultz's remains on Etsy seems to be against site policy, and Schultz's methods come across as particularly predatory. When I ask Schultz about how he operates, he tells me, "I meet with your spirit self on the astral plane through mediation. During so I use your information to persuade the universe to remove the restrictions that it had given you and allow the changes you desire." Schultz could not lead me to any helpful manuals on astral meditation because it is a "difficult self-taught art."
Schultz often gets requests for breast enlargement, "booty enhancement," and fertility spells. "Men are more after the penis, muscle, and money spells. Women, oddly to me, are also more into the vampire and werewolf transformation than men," he adds. Call it the Twilight effect.
"The tower is a card of calamity. Even reversed it's sort of a ‘proceed with caution' sign. That said, you absolutely SHOULD tell him how you feel, BUT you shouldn't expect it to go the way you want. He probably doesn't reciprocate, but it's better for you to clear the air and get it off your chest. It might hurt, and it might not turn out the way you want it to, but it's something you need to be able to move on." —Compass Tarot, tarot reading over email
I'd been hung up on the same person for several years. My therapist suggested I tell him how I felt so it no longer weighed me down, then move on, try meeting someone nice on Tinder. I didn't do it. Despite myriad signs pointing to the contrary, I hoped my feelings would be reciprocated. But then I paid a tarot reader named Clover a dollar to send me a PDF of a personalized one-card reading. She advised me to do almost the exact same thing.
So I followed the psychic's advice and told the guy how I felt a few days later. He was eating some sort of grilled ham sandwich at a Greek diner. I was drinking a Corona Light and picking off an ill-fated orange gel manicure. Telling him about my feelings went pretty much exactly how she — and my therapist — said it might. Afterward, I woke up with a rush of adrenaline every morning for two weeks. Then I moved on. I can see why engaging with a psychic can make people feel a bit better at the very least, and maybe even change their lives.
It's not lost on me that the type of therapy I attend, cognitive behavioral therapy, utilizes the same guiding principles of openness and mindfulness that psychic readings do. Dr. Karen Stollznow, a linguist who studies how psychics communicate with customers, acknowledges the similarities between the two practices, though she emphasizes that a psychic is, obviously, not an alternative to a mental health professional. "There is a stigma attached to seeing a psychiatrist or a psychologist. People would rather be a ‘client' of a psychic than labeled a ‘patient,'" she says. "Seeing a psychic also appears to offer the promise of a fast answer to one's questions, versus years of therapy and hard work."
Therapy is hard, much harder than getting readings. Therapists encourage patients to take responsibility for their problems, whereas psychics leave it to the supernatural. And, of course, humans hear what we want to hear. "An important part of the reading is the client's interpretation of the reading," says Stollznow. "Usually, believers will only pay attention to the hits but ignore the misses."
It's not a total stretch for me to try out readings on Etsy. Like many women my age, I ascribe to a larger narrative of wellness. It's trendy right now. I may be on all sorts of mood-altering and anxiety-relieving medications that I get from a psychiatrist, and I may still drink too many whiskey ginger ales and eat too much butter, but I've found pockets of honest-to-god contentment with meditation, ancient Eastern medicine, herbal fixes, and willfulness.
Thanks to Etsy, and the onslaught of Instagram and Tumblr feeds that highlight earthy products photographed in soft light, what's old is new again.
Jessa Blades, a natural beauty and wellness expert, sees the rise of the Etsy psychic as part of the fashionable resurgence and rebranding of folk wisdom, which includes tarot and energy work. Blades thinks of her mother, a 1960s hippie whose choice remedies and cure-all products are on-trend now, just elevated and higher-end. Thanks to Etsy, and the onslaught of Instagram and Tumblr feeds that highlight earthy products photographed in soft light, what's old is new again.
It goes like this: The girl who turns to Etsy for a piece of rose quartz to set on her windowsill for aesthetic purposes might learn about the mineral's supposed self-empowering properties as she checks out the product description. She might even eventually buy more crystals, not just for the way they look, but because they hold within them an opportunity, however impractical it may sound, to heal her. I've done it. It's the same reason I got into yoga, though its benefits are certainly more established. I liked the yoga look, those spandex leggings and tank tops that provide the illusion of health, but then I took a class and found taking an hour to focus on my breath and stretch a little bit did help quell some of my anxiety.
Even for people like me who don't quite buy into fortune-telling, spending a buck or two on Etsy isn't much of an upfront investment. Blades observes that the customers who give Etsy psychics five-star ratings don't necessarily believe in clairvoyance or ascribe to tarot, but rather think it's a fun lifestyle choice.
"I think people don't feel well. That's what this comes down to," says Blades. "And the self-care movement that we are going to see, primarily led by women, is a result of people looking for alternatives." Those alternatives often lean on intuition and nature, rather than peer-reviewed studies about efficacy.
The trouble comes when open-minded people are swindled, when vulnerable people pay big money for a bill of goods that doesn't exist. Blades, who herself works with healers and energy workers, wonders how a self-proclaimed clairvoyant can address issues over the internet: "My curiosity about these online folks is if they're working with energy, isn't it important to be experiencing that person's energy? Skype is lovely, but what about the energy fields that are happening in person?"
Right now you seem to have some control and authority, but you're not getting to where you should be. You're meant to achieve much more, and also at the same time there are going to be some other ideas that will come across your attention for writing a fictional story. Maybe you'll first think, "Maybe it's silly, maybe it's dumb," and you're going to feel discouraged by it, but I do think you'll receive recognition for it. And I see it being something that, while maybe this is cliché, it is important to inspire people. We all have a purpose to touch people and I think this story is going to be something that will inspire a lot of other people. —Josephine Lynn, tarot reading over FaceTime
I'm applying to graduate school in earnest right now for fiction, a process that, despite my chronic oversharing, I hadn't told many people at the time of this reading out of fear and self-consciousness. Because of my uncommon last name, I'm recognized online as a writer, but I have no fiction published. Josephine might have been able to glean from a quick Google search that I'm a reporter, but it seemed to me like it took real intuition for her to know I wrote fiction too. Out of all the other Etsy readings I underwent, I wanted this one to come true most desperately. I almost spent more money for a follow-up reading with Josephine.
But then I thought about what Bob Nygaard, a private investigator and esteemed defender of psychic scam victims, told me.
"They're going online for public records and seeing what kind of property people own, how much they have, if they're worth it, if they're a good mark."
Nygaard is the best in the business. He's a retired New York City police officer who, after retiring from the force, dedicated his life to bringing down psychics scamming people out of money. He helped the feds catch a Fort Lauderdale fortune teller named Rose Marks who defrauded her clients out of $25 million. You may remember a few months ago when a Brooklyn man gave his entire savings to a psychic who claimed she could build a 80-mile bridge to reach a woman trapped in another realm. The man helping with that case is Nygaard too.
Nygaard has never dealt with Etsy psychics, but he has helped plenty of clients who have been bilked out of money thanks to online fortune-telling. On Etsy and other websites, unlike with a storefront business, fraud can be tracked easily using IP addresses and credit card or PayPal statements. But online psychics hell-bent on defrauding a customer also have more time and resources to understand his or her anxieties.
According to Nygaard, in the time between the client-psychic introduction and the reading, psychics can do research and provide a "hot reading," a reading in which they already secretly know details about the client. "They're going online using services like Intellius that PIs would use and paying $19.99 for a background check," he explains. "They're going online for public records and seeing what kind of property people own, how much they have, if they're worth it, if they're a good mark."
Fortune-telling is illegal in several states including New York, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina (this also covers online readings wherein any part of the transaction is done in these states). In Florida, the prohibition of fortune-telling is incorporated into its gaming statute. Canada has a law against "pretending to practice witchcraft," which extends to anyone who "pretends to exercise or to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment, or conjuration."
Of New York, Nygaard explains, "You cannot say or report to have supernatural or occult powers and collect a fee and in return say you can influence people's spirits or influence curses. It's against the law. It's a misdemeanor."
There is no real way to prove someone is lying about their psychic abilities. Even Nygaard, who takes down psychics for a living, doesn't attempt to do so. "A lot of people, police and prosecutors included, think when you take one of these cases it's about proving if a person has psychic abilities or not," he says. "That has nothing to do with the case."
Instead, most cases hinge on allegations of theft and tax fraud. Even so, police rarely become involved in psychic crime, arguing that victims gave their money away on their own volition. "But that's a really terrible argument," says Nygaard. "If you look at Bernie Madoff, people willingly gave him their money by investing with him. Bernie Madoff still got arrested."
Despite writing explicit restrictions on psychic services into their guidelines, sites like Etsy rarely participate in fraud-busting; Nygaard believes this is because it would hurt their bottom line to lose users. Etsy charges sellers a $0.20 listing fee, a 3.5% transaction fee, and a 3% + $0.25 processing fee. Those little fees add up in instances where psychic shops have hundreds of listings, and Etsy pockets the cash.
"Sites throw up a little blurb in their terms saying, ‘This is for entertainment purposes only. We're not responsible for anything,'" says Nygaard. "So in the legal disclaimer that these big companies have, they pretty much get lawyers to write it up so they're not responsible."
Given all the empowering, spiritual language Etsy psychics use, it's easy to forget they are also — or maybe primarily — businesspeople. I speak to Fiona Sinclair, who's tied to the Etsy psychic community in an unlikely way. In addition to being an intuitive mystic and energy worker specializing in shamanism, she's also a search engine optimization expert who knows the ins and outs of what language surfaces listings. She helps clients create a master keyword list for their metaphysical shops that are tested over time and gives insight into targeted traffic.
Sinclair's number one tip to people seeking her services? Know what's hot.
"Consider Kabbalah and the celebrity interest that made it so popular to study," Sinclair says of the ‘90s craze. "In the 1970s, ‘Pyramid Power' was the rage, socializing by asking ‘What's your sign?' was considered expected, and transcendental meditation was extremely popular thanks to the Beatles exploration of it in the ‘60s. Fast forward to the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy consulted with an astrologer." Fast forward a bit more, and Sinclair points to 2006's New York Times bestseller The Secret, which made the "law of attraction" the subject of dinner table conversation and introduced a whole new generation to the concept of psychic energy.
Yellow Aura shows you are analytical, logical, and very intelligent. You would probably excel in any careers that involve teaching and study. Sometimes you have a tendency to work too hard and can easily become a workaholic putting your work above personal relationships. You are prone to mental health pressures though and can become withdrawn and depressed when stressed when life overwhelms you. You have very good observation skills and can read people easily. You possess extremely good perception. Because you do not suffer fools gladly, you choose your few friends carefully. You tend to put your head above your heart when faced with difficult choices and decision making. You also may tend to be overly critical of yourself and others. —Namaste Spiritual Shop, aura reading over email
At the end of it all, I can understand that most of what I enjoy about my time with Etsy psychics is the careful attention they pay to me. For 10 minutes over FaceTime, or via text message, or through email, someone affirms me. Someone tells me that I'm good, that my hard work will be acknowledged, that my aura is yellow and my feet are on the ground, that I'm too hard on myself. That I'm going to be all right soon.
Etsy guidelines prohibit psychic shops from making promises, but they don't need to do that to make money. Comforting their clients is enough. The greatest Etsy psychic of all would be one who tells me I'm okay just as I am and makes me believe it.
Claire Carusillo is a freelance writer in Brooklyn.
Editor: Julia Rubin