Mar 22 2016

Fake Psychics Scam Billions

The Anything Can Happen Recurrence

I know, it’s redundant. All psychics are fake and a scam, but some are worse than others.

When most people think of psychics they conjure an image (see what I did there) of someone dressed in robes in a mystically decorated parlor who reads your palm or the tarot cards for $40. They are making a meager living giving people a bit of harmless entertainment. Some may actually think they have powers, some may know it’s all an act, but what’s the harm?

In truth, however, many psychics are predators who scam people out of hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. They prey on the vulnerable and the desperate and can ruin lives. This is not a benign industry.

A recent report from Toronto is just one of many – a steady stream with no expectation of ending. They report stories of people who have been victimized by psychics promising to turn around their fortunes, while parasitically bleeding them of as much money as possible. 

How the scam works

Encounters usually begin like any street-corner psychic, with a simple reading. Everyone who comes in for a reading is a potential mark. The more desperate the better.

Such psychics (I am just going to use the term “psychic” for convenience, but assume the usual caveats – alleged, fake, etc.) are adept at creating the illusion that they have some magical insight. They are, after all, just mentalists, and usually not very good ones. They don’t really have to be, as their audience wants to believe, often desperately.

Their primary tool is the cold reading. This is the technique of listening to what your mark says, then feeding it back to them as if it came to you magically. You can also make vague statements that are likely to apply to most people, then following up when you get a positive reaction, while glossing over any misses. Simple observation also plays a role. A willing target will do most of the hard work, making all the connections in their own mind. This can seem quite impressive to someone naive to the technique – in fact a skilled mentalist can seem impressive even to someone familiar with it.

This is all part of the grooming, drawing the mark in and gaining their confidence. This is, after all, a confidence game. Once you believe that the psychic has the magical power to fix your life, you are lost.

They then use a variety of tricks to bleed their marks of all their money. They may use some slight of hand, like pretending the water their mark gargled is full of insects, or an egg used in a seeing is full of black ichor. They try to convince their mark that they are cursed, and that the psychic has the power to lift the curse. This frequently involves praying over cash, gift cards, or other untraceable items of value – items the mark never sees again.

In one case a psychic scammed a business man whose girlfriend died unexpectedly out of $700,000.

Don’t blame the victim

It’s tempting to just think that this is the fault of the victim. How can someone be so stupid? In general, it’s not a good idea to blame the victim.

Many of the victims of psychic scams believe themselves to be rational, even educated, people. They are not all rubes. OK, some are, but many are just desperate and vulnerable. Anyone can suffer misfortune and become depressed as a result.

Further, con artists are practiced at their craft. It is naive to think that you could never be fooled. Anyone can be fooled. Sure, people need to be careful and take responsibility for their actions, but that does not mean they are to blame when they are victimized. This is like blaming a mugging victim for not being proficient at martial arts.

The con artist is entirely to blame for the con, and they are the ones who should be held responsible.

I also place some of the blame at the feet of the government. They allow psychics to practice their trade, and, in my opinion, all psychics are somewhere on the spectrum of fraud. Unless they make it absolutely clear that what they are doing is for entertainment purposes only, and they are not exploiting their audience at all (in which case they are just magicians), then there is some level of fraud involved.

The lax regulations also make it nearly impossible to prosecute the truly predatory psychics. The Toronto article details this well. Victims are reluctant to come forward because they are ashamed and feel stupid. Con artists generally depend upon this to continue their craft.

The money that exchanges hands is all in cash or gift cards, without any receipt or paper trail. Victims therefore have a hard time proving their allegations. Prosecutors therefore are not motivated to pursue such cases. They have a poor witness and little evidence. (That, by the way, is another state failure.)

The end result

The result of all this is that there is a multi-billion dollar industry that is based upon fraud that targets vulnerable people, often the elderly, those who are sick, have recently lost a loved one, or who are having family or financial problems.

Predatory psychics are like drug dealers. They are offering a temporary salve to the pain, telling their marks what they want to hear. Visiting psychics can then become a compulsive behavior. The most vulnerable can get sucked into a scam costing large sums of money, and like drug addiction just adding to their problems.

The truly predatory con artists hide behind the perception that the psychic industry is benign, mostly for entertainment. I think the industry is inherently malignant. It is based on lies and deception (even if some psychics are self-deceived).

I get that belief in psychics is like a religious belief, and we cannot ban belief. If an adult wants to waste $40 getting their palm read for fun, I don’t think we should make that illegal. But given the propensity of the industry to foster and harbor predatory con artists, people who can truly destroy lives, we need more effective regulation of the industry.

Essentially we need to make it at least difficult for a psychic to con a mark out of hundreds or thousands of dollars with false promises without that being directly illegal and creating the means for successful prosecution.

The law could, for example, require a disclaimer that psychic readings are for entertainment purposes only. They could illegalize certain claims, like the claim that someone is cursed, or promises of specific outcomes, like getting back together with a lost love. They could require that receipts are given for any transaction, or ban the request for items of value.

The police then need to be proactive in enforcing these laws, with occasional sting operations to check up on practitioners.

It seems to me that the reason these things are not done is because psychic fraud is not taken seriously. This comes from a combination of blaming the victim and accepting the cover that psychics are harmless fun.

Predatory psychics, however, are heartless con artists who prey upon the vulnerable and cause massive harm. It is worth the effort to shut them down.

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