The high-risk digital world of occult sales and psychic services

Terence P Ward —  March 22, 2017 — 15 Comments

TWH –The explosion of online platforms has been a boon to many in the polytheist and Pagan communities who can now sell crafts, books, and esoteric services more easily than ever before. At the same time, owners of all-sized businesses must be able to accept electronic payments in an increasingly cash-free society. Sometimes, vendors fall afoul of rules against the sale “occult” items or “fortune-teller” services, which now seems to be near-ubiquitous in the industry’s user agreements.

[Photo Credit: Rosenfeld Media]

[Photo Credit: Rosenfeld Media]

The Witchery is such an online business. Its owner, who declined to give a name, was unaware that the popular processor Square is one of those no-occult zones.

In a Facebook post Wichery’s owner, who is a “practicing hedge witch with Hoodoo influences,” recounted being notified of the Square’s decision to cancel the business account.  It was reportedly based on the fact that businesses are “prohibited by Section 6 of the Square Merchant User Agreement,” the most relevant section of which appears to be accepting payments in connection with “occult materials.”

One interesting variant in the regulation of occult sales is the broad text found in the terms for Dwolla, another online payment platform. That site simply forbids “activity that indicates, in Dwolla’s sole discretion, that there may be a high level of risk associated with you.”

The notable exception to the problem often faced by occult merchants is PayPal, which has become a safe harbor of sorts.

When The Wild Hunt reported on Square’s terms of service seven years ago, bloggers were largely giving it the benefit of the doubt, saying that “this is boilerplate text supplied by the credit card companies, and was most likely penned to protect them from liability in cases of fortune-telling scams.”

Indeed, the verbiage used in the Square terms of service today is reflected in that of many other providers, often down to paragraph numbering. The question on whether or not the rules will be enforced has since become clear: violation of those terms can and has led to account termination.

“I think if Square had terminated accounts several years ago before there were 10 other services just like it there would have been more impact,” observed Charissa Iskiwitch of the Pagan Business Network.

“The general consensus in the conversations I participated in years ago was they were attempting to give themselves an out for fortune-tellers.”

In the years since Pagans first raised concerns over the Square terms, selling platform updates also resulted in tightened rules that targeted mostly intangible religious and magical services. The most consequential of these were likely eBay in 2012 and then Etsy in 2015.

As a consequence, vendors must jump through additional hoops to use these convenient services: wording that downplays or specifically disclaims any supernatural benefit, the providing of some kind of “product” in association with a psychic reading (e.g., a copy of the reading in electronic form), or seeking out a high-risk merchant account and continuing openly.

While the cost for a merchant account can be appreciably higher, it is the only viable alternative if tip-toeing around rules presents a philosophical problem. Esoteric service providers may find that downplaying the effectiveness of their work is counterproductive. Not only might potential clients be turned off by the language, it could conceivably erode the power of belief-based magic.

While many people do not fully read online service agreements, a small sampling of Pagan purveyors suggests that most of them are aware of the risks. It’s why Valerie Lord won’t open an account with Square. The term “occult” is too broad, and she’s not sure if any of the Pagan items she sells online would count.

“Until they specify what they consider occult items we will either have to keep a backup available or find something else,” she wrote.

[Pixabay.]

[Pixabay]

Jason Barna uses both Square and PayPal at Phoenix Rising Apothecary. He also questioned the lack of a definition for “occult,” and joked that he could run into trouble if his athames and bolines were deemed firearms, which are also forbidden for sale.

These issues were news to Ashley Hunter, and she said she’s worried about how it might impact Pagan Pride celebrations such as the one held in Conway, Ark. that she’s helped run.

“This would definitely have a negative impact on us if we attempted to organize another event in the future,” she said. “Events are kept afloat by vendors that sell things, and most people these days use cards, not cash. It would be very helpful if there was a list of alternate providers that don’t discriminate against witches and Pagans so that we would know who to turn to.”

Bernadette Montana, owner of the brick-and-mortar Brid’s Closet, uses Square and has never had a problem with it, she said, despite the many tarot readings performed at her shop.

Anti-occult terms are something Dominique Smith is well aware of, although she doesn’t feel she can do much about it, “I navigate these issues with nothing more than hope and bubble gum keeping things together.”

“I recognize that in using these platforms, service and my ability to use them may be withdrawn by the provider at anytime without notice,” Smith said. “I’ve been lucky enough that the hammer has not found me and I suspect that when other occult retailers are eventually ‘found out’ it’s because a client has complained directly to the point of sale provider and they are forced to withdraw service to avoid litigation. I believe it would be naive to think that Square in particular has any targeted axe to grind with the occult community and without a doubt they are completely aware that businesses such as mine are using their system.”

However, Smith added that because there are still anti-witchcraft laws on the books in Canada, she and other Canadian entrepreneurs “have a harder road to navigate.”

Some esoteric business owners are calling for members of the community to clean house. Commenting on the announcement from The Witchery, one user wrote, “Until the community starts policing itself and outing the folks selling ‘love sex power’ demons ‘trapped’ in rings for $300 and crap like that no one will take any of us seriously. The scammers are giving everyone a bad name.”

Smith agreed, saying, “If we do not want our communities to be associated with the assumption of fraud, we need to self-regulate. If there are individuals within our community that are committing acts of fraud we need to speak up and that typically doesn’t happen, so by association we are all painted with the same brush.”

The Witchery’s owner will be more careful about wording on the web site going forward, and is grateful to have had a backup processor already in place. It was actually only through the process of elimination that the owner determined that it was “occult materials” proviso causing the problem.

For the most part, companies such as these do not respond to customers after such a decision has been made, much less members of the press. An inquiry sent to Square’s press office did not receive a reply by press time.

Psychic Amanda Linette Meder did succeed in getting a favorable response from Stripe in 2012, leading to the conditional approval of her account with that processor. Meder opined at the time that this unfairly inflates the cost of psychic services by increasing the cost of doing business.

On one side, there is the concern about fraud, on the other hand there is the call for religious freedom. The small number of persons affected by these rules may make it difficult to redraw the fine line between the two, unless perhaps all Pagans begin doing business solely with cash.

Terence P Ward

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Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.
  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    How do the anti-witchcraft laws in Canada comport with the religious provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

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  • kenofken

    I’ve heard calls to “clean house” and self-regulate within the Pagan community for years, but I’ve never heard a plausible scheme for how to do such a thing. Who’s going to make the call on whether a particular divination service or occult product is “legitimate”? What credentials and credibility will those judges have before the rest of our community, consumers and governments or consumer protection agencies?

    There are no accepted objective tests or curricula for evaluating a diviners skills. We cannot expect much support from the state on developing such things as all forms of divination are considered to be unscientific and inherently deceptive.

    We have no consensus on what defines ethical practice, beyond perhaps opposition to deliberate fraud and blackmail. Plenty of diviners are still of the mind that it’s unethical to charge at all for such gifts. Others will have different ideas of fair compensation and whether remote reads over the phone or Internet are legitimate etc. We have no orthodoxy of belief even at the coven level, let alone across traditions where fortune telling is concerned (or anything else). Even if we did, Pagans are a minority of those in the Tarot or other divination businesses. Many are some flavor of Christian/New Age or don’t associate any particular religious belief with their skills.

    Simply “calling out” those felt to be fraudulent is a dodgy game. It would turn into feuds and mutual destruction before long. We call the guy selling $300 “demon rings” a fraud. He retaliates. Corporations like Square or Etsy are sure not interested in trying to sort out the particulars. They’ll just ban everyone connected with the issue. There is also something troubling in making ourselves responsible for society’s comfort level before we’re allowed to expect just and equal treatment.

    The one approach which might have some success is for Tarot Readers and others to form trade groups and try to educate consumers. People could know that members of the association hold certain principles about ethics and fair trade practices, and they could make their choices accordingly.

    • Franklin_Evans

      Self-regulation or -policing is very problematic, as you put very well. However, your suggestion about “trade group” is a step in that direction that, one hopes, doesn’t step on toes in a destructive way. It provides evidence that the community is aware of and discussing the crucial issues. That, I suggest, is as far as we can go with it.

      • kenofken

        Good to see you sir! I catch some of your writing over on Rod’s blog, but alas, I cannot participate. I think I have been cast out of the universe over there. I never got formal notice or anything, but anything I submit seems to go into the void.

        • Franklin_Evans

          Rod has often mentioned difficulties in his moderator view, and there’ve been numerous glitches with Captcha. If you’re motivated to do so, send him an email with the email address you use for your posts.

          Good to see you and be seen. 😀

    • I think what I understand by professionalizing or legitimizing a psychic business is about the small business standards that create professionalism. Rates clearly marked, a refund statement, a clear mode of communication and consistency to me these mean as much, if not more than the direct service being offered.

  • Verity

    I have the same issues as kenofken with the thought that the “community” is responsible for “policing itself.” Sometimes that can be a valid idea, but often it’s just an unworkable one, and this is an unworkable area. It’s kind of like saying that because I have a gmail account I am responsible for outing all get-rich-quick scams that purport to come from gmail.

  • kenofken

    As an aside, I hope stories like this will finally convince us to take contract law seriously. There seems to be this concept that “boilerplate” clauses in contracts mean nothing and will never actually be invoked. I don’t know where that assumption came from, but we need to let it go because it’s not true and it’s never worked for us or anyone else. Read the fine print and take it seriously.

    • Dana Corby

      Exactly, kenofken! I’m one of the bloggers who left Patheos, my reaons being in large part because I know damn well nobody inserts restrictive boilerplate into a contract unless they intend at some point to use it.

  • gwendolynhbarry

    I’ve been ‘in business’ since ’91. We began as a small shop in Pompano Beach FL and after 10 yrs retooled as a wholesale maker for shops here and abroad. In ’11 I put a retail website up (I do the marketing via socials) to compliment income and I began with and have stuck by Paypal. They offer many services, including small business loans easily paid back through % of sales, as they lend with sales as their governor in how much you can barrow. It’s been a lifesaver time to time. When the topic of credibility or affiliation comes up / rings being sold with ‘demons’ trapped within, etc./ the buyer beware should be stamped all over it. And a disclaimer saying ‘for entertainment purposes only’ simply doesn’t cut it either, imo. There are wonderful counselors / readers out there with INTEGRITY. They pay the price here. Paypal offers any customer the recourse of disputing the payment for goods … and perhaps thats the solution? I don’t know…. since ’11 I’ve had 3 disputes … and they all were about lateness in shipping. I’ve been fortunate enough to resolve them right away and to ‘make it up’ to the customer.

    — For a majority of makers and crafts people in the Pagan (collective Spiritual) community, this isn’t just a business… it’s a path in life. The many little makers I know and have supported have a wonderful INTEGRITY with customers / they care. — Then I think of the post was it a week ago on corporate ‘witchery’ where you have a profiteer out there wanting to clamp down copyright onto “Yule”…. / further …. a few weeks prior to that you have a sensationalist (I’ll stick with that term) suggests (and then gathers nearly 8K American ‘witches’ to assist) in a ‘group ritual’ to bind / hex the orange madman in DC …. public hexing. I commented on the original blog post 4th or 5th one in and gave opinion as to the INTEGRITY of that one. Within a few days I had several young or newbie solitaries messaging me on FB as to what the ‘rules’ were on such ritual energies.

    My point here can be delivered with Hermetic exactness … As Above, So Below. Take a grand look at the world around us and the cosmic influences WE KNEW were upon us to shift the consciousness of this end of our galaxy. IMO, we are healers, magicians, lightworkers, energy anchors for our Earth Mother, ourselves and our community. A new eon is right on top of us. Use your common sense is my motto with anyone questioning the validity or genuine-ness of a practitioner with goods or services to sell. Your inner guides are there to assist. And even when we make a choice that brings ‘lessons’…. it is for the fuller awareness in the long run. Take that one to the bank. I am a crone. Who are we to ‘judge’ who is and who is not a talented counselor or reader? Who are we to ‘judge’ who makes the ‘working’ magical tool? No thank you, brothers and sisters. We have an opportunity here to make an energetic difference for a much larger project: the evolution of a planet. Or stand by bickering as it perishes. imo. of course. Set up a business bank account and pay the fees for cc use. ANY business can do that. As, with my ceremonial sisters and brothers of the Golden Dawn, I say …. what goes around, comes around. When did we dismiss or forget that the first initiation is KNOW THYSELF? Or that Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be The Whole of the Law, UNDER LOVE?

    I still can’t get over the copyright thing. Outrageous. Good piece, Mr. Ward.

  • Banking systems are indeed a huge issue for people in such services. I run Queen of Wands tarot and bank via Stripe. They tried to terminate me but for the intervention of my scheduler who has an agreement with Stripe, they have since let me alone while culling many others.

    My advice is to have a legal name that is not immediately identifiable as a psychic or tarot related service AND line items in what goes charged to be consultations or coaching. A hard search specifically at a business will not help, but to the casual bank desk jockey, it might be enough to fly below the radar. I have also had success getting merchant accounts through brick and mortar banks which require a credit card check, possibility legitimizing you in other ways. Brick and mortar banks also have online merchant services for websites, I used PNC for years before switching to Stripe.

    The official reason is that of course those fly by night psychic hotlines are the reason why they deny now, those hotlines or websites have a high chargeback amount costing the bank loads in revenue. Since Stripe still charges a fee even WITH a refund now, there is no reason except for bias, plain and simple.

    What really astounds me is that businesses such as my own work with high ethical standards and professional accountability, attempting to mitigate the stereotypes of our industry, but when we do attempt to professionalize, the doors that let us do that slam in our faces, almost forcing us to go underground.

    It is 2017 and the witch hunt is still very real.

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  • Dana Corby

    Back when I was first starting out, every item in every occult shop had a little sticker on it with the words ‘novelty only.’ We all rolled our eyes but this legal disclaimer of any actual usefulness of the products kept the shops open and their customers’ needs met. Perhaps adopting something similar would mollify the very well-named Square.

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