Therapists and counselors in private practice find all kinds of creative ways to keep clients coming back. Some therapists offer clients package pricing, which they might also call a prepayment discount. For example, a therapist who charges $100 per session might offer five sessions for $450 if the client agrees to pay up front. Under either name, the therapist agrees to a price cut in exchange for a commitment to a certain number of sessions.
At first glance, everyone wins with such an arrangement. The therapist has cash in hand, the client saves money, and the client’s commitment to therapy may reduce dropouts and missed sessions. But such arrangements carry meaningful risks for therapists. These discounts can wind up costing therapists much more than they are worth.
Therapists and counselors around the country have been targeted by scams via phone, email, and postal mail. Here are warnings on three of the most common recent ones.
The pre-payment scam. In a therapy-specific variation on an old scam, a therapist receives a call from someone looking to set up therapy for themselves or a family member, telling the therapist that the client is not yet in their city but will soon be arriving (usually for work or school). The caller asks to prepay for several sessions in advance, and mails a check. Within a few days, they call back to say the “client” has had an emergency change of plans, and the money needs to be refunded immediately. Only after the therapist has issued a refund do they discover the original check has bounced.
What to do: This scam could be stopped at several points in the process. 1) Don’t accept payment for services from someone you’ve never met in person. 2) If you do accept pre-payment, do not accept pre-payment for more than one session at a time (this at least limits your potential losses). 3) You may choose to not accept check payments at all; many therapists now accept fees via credit cards, which offer much better fraud protection. 4) If you do accept checks, your bank may allow for instant electronic check processing, so you’ll know right away if a check will not be covered by the issuing bank. 5) If you accept prepayment by mailed check — and again, it’s far better not to — have a clearly written refund policy that establishes your process and timeline for issuing refunds on services paid but not received. This may be part of your cancellation policy, which is related. 6) Never issue a refund before you have actually received the funds in your account.
The counselor scam. A privately-owned company called the American Psychotherapy Association (I will not link to their site because they don’t deserve the traffic, but you can Google it if you’re really interested) has been blanketing California with brochures promising MFTs that they can become “grandparented” into being a “Board Certified Professional Counselor.” The brochure appears to be carefully crafted to mislead MFTs into thinking that the certification might equate to LPC licensure (it does not and will not), without actually saying anything that is factually untrue. The organization does offer a Counselor Certification, and California MFTs can be “grandparented” into it. At least in the sense that the requirements for that designation will change if California eventually licenses professional clinical counselors, as it may soon do.
What to do: Look, I don’t know anything about the American Psychotherapy Association (not to be confused with the far better-known APA); they do have a few folks I highly respect on their board, they put on an annual conference, and they may well be a worthwhile organization. But this is a callous marketing effort designed more to take advantage of California MFTs’ lack of knowledge about how LPC licensure might work than anything else, and it greatly tarnishes their reputation in my eyes. If you receive their mailer, throw it away.
The “men’s movement” spam. On the CAMFT listserv, there have been several posts from therapists who received an email threatening to take action against them based on their name and contact information being listed on AllAboutCounseling.com, one of many sites that host therapy-related articles, blogs, and a therapist directory. (I’m naming them because they’re a victim here, though I would caution that this site was unknown to me before researching this post.) In the email that’s been going around, the attacker — who doesn’t deserve to be named or linked to — suggests that there are dangerous and false articles on the site, and that therapists should be fearful of associating themselves with it. Having reviewed what’s actually on the site, I can’t say it’s all that good, but it’s certainly no worse than what’s on a hundred other therapy- and counseling-oriented sites. What seems to have gotten this attacker’s anger up are the articles about women and women’s issues. He claims to be part of a “men’s movement,” but a men’s movement that uses threats to get its way does a massive disservice to the term “men’s movement” and to men in general.
What to do: This is a tough one. If you’re listed on the web site (and not that many are), you can ask to have your listing removed… but should you? That would seem to be giving in to the threat. On the other hand, if you leave your listing up, this guy could make good on his threat, spewing bile onto the internet and attempting to associate you with his attacks. Yes, his actions are wrong, threatening, juvenile bullying. But some therapists understandably want to be nowhere near anything that looks like controversy. Is it a battle you want to fight? That’s a judgment call.
Generally speaking, therapists can avoid scams like these by using common sense; if a prospective client sounds too good to be true, asks you to violate your own policies or standards, or raises other red flags for you, consult with colleagues, supervisors, and your professional associations. And if you’ve been the victim of any of these scams (or any others), the worst thing to do is stay silent out of embarrassment; that only allows these scams to continue. You serve the profession and the public well by alerting others to such risks.