Disappearing hypnotist: The $59.08-a-pound diet

When Terry Fry signed a one-year contract with a local hypnosis center, she had no idea how expensive losing 25 pounds could be.

Fry had been seeing ads for Positive Changes Hypnosis in the Daily Progress since early spring, and when her doctor told her she needed to lose weight, she decided to give it a try. In July, she paid $1,477 and began the program.

The program consisted of personal sessions with a hypnotist and weekly trips to the office on Rio Road to watch videotaped lectures on nutrition and receive a half hour of "audio hypnosis," says Fry.

"Everything was going well," she says. "I went faithfully, never missing a session, and lost 25 pounds."

However, when she arrived for her session on November 1, she found the door locked and a sign saying that Positive Changes had closed and clients would be contacted by mail.

The mail notification, however, never arrived, nor did any refund check. Fry believes the company owes her $984 for the eight months left on her contract. Two emails to an address listed on the company's website also went unanswered. The money Fry has spent works out to $59.08 per lost pound.

I looked through the materials Fry received, which promise that clients will "gain the personal skills and behavior characteristics of naturally thin people," "use the most effective, modern, transformational hypnotic devices and technology available today," and "[turn] weight loss goals into your healthy obsession!"

Positive Changes, headquartered in Virginia Beach, has approximately 80 franchisees in the U.S. and Canada. Its founder and executive director, Patrick Porter, Ph.D., touts a device he calls "Advanced Bio-feed-in," which combines "gentle pulses of light and sound through specially designed glasses and headphones."

Fry describes these as "plastic glasses with red flashing lights in circles." Clients are supposed to wear the glasses and the headphones while reclining in comfy chairs and listening to hypnosis tapes.

Porter spoke to me from Virginia Beach and identified his brother, David, and sister-in-law, Heidi, as the former Charlottesville franchisees.

They had only "about 11 clients," Porter said, and he attributed the center's collapse, in part, to the drought. When I told him about Fry's experience and the money she believes she's owed, he disagreed, saying, "She got her services."

When I asked if he thought a lawyer would agree with his assertion that a 12-month contract could be fulfilled in only four, however, he had no response. In any case, clients shouldn't look to Porter for redress, as each franchise is set up as a separate legal entity.

Even so, when six of the former Charlottesville clients called to complain, Porter offered to let them attend Saturday sessions in Newport News– nearly three hours away– or continue by mail. Fry, not surprisingly, would prefer to get her money back.

I listened to two of the tapes Fry received and concluded that although David may have encountered business difficulties, he's a lot better speaker than his brother. His voice is soothing, the pace leisurely, and the content a typical mix of affirmations and encouragement for positive thinking.

Patrick, on the other hand, not only rattles on at a rapid clip, but also says some really strange things. Consider, for instance, the following: "As you conquer mood-altering foods, I say to you now, soon you will be unaware of the abdomen, chest, and back."

I wanted to speak with Heidi or David, who, according to Porter, now live in Shipman. When I asked for their number, however, he said he didn't have it. Oddly enough, directory assistance does list a Patrick Porter in Shipman, but when I called the number, the woman who answered said there were no Porters at that address.

Fry intends to file a complaint with the Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs. I'll report the company's response, if any, in a future column.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.