When a Psychic Reading Costs You $740,000
January 13, 2020 9:58 AM   Subscribe

 
It's still mind-boggling that psychics, fortune-tellers, crystal healers, etc. aren't already illegal in the first place.
posted by the legendary esquilax at 10:08 AM on January 13 [7 favorites]


Because you'd have to make all religion illegal? At least they're open about their payment fees.

Years ago you could buy and sell spells on ebay. No physical product, just someone promising to sacrifice a chicken for you or say some words or whatever. And they had tens of thousands of sales. Ebay eventually banned sales of non physical items but selling charms and the like is still a huge business. People are just suckers when it comes down to it.
posted by fshgrl at 10:39 AM on January 13 [16 favorites]


Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Oh, how does it work?
Lisa: It doesn’t work.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?
Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 11:07 AM on January 13 [31 favorites]


I found this fascinating to read as I'd seen stories like this before, but this is the first time I'd read something like this

Regarding the private investigator in the article:

They’ve also accused him of discriminating against Romani Americans, who are over-represented in his cases and who, as a marginalized community, have long struggled with racist stereotypes about criminal behavior.

This definitely has be rethinking about how these sorts of issues should be handled. I don't have any coherent thought about it, really, but I wanted to highlight that passage because it's important to consider.
posted by acidnova at 11:10 AM on January 13 [9 favorites]


For some fictional background, I found Shut Eye absolutely fascinating.
posted by porpoise at 11:27 AM on January 13


The problems with banning "psychics/fortune-telling" include "do you ban children's games and jump-rope rhymes?" The problem with banning "fortune-telling for profit" include "do you ban the sale of fortune cookies?" And that's before getting into religious aspects, both the scam "buy a blessed prayer towel for $100" and the less abusive, "attend services and you can join our prayer circle... and of course, we welcome donations to keep the circle active."

There is no sharp easy line between "fortune telling for entertainment purposes" and "fortune telling that convinces someone the 'psychic' has the ability to predict or prevent disasters." Especially since there's no separating the placebo effect from the value of connecting with a person who listens and offers empathy, or a community that provides emotional support.

And banning psychics won't end the scams; they'd just take different shapes. The people who are susceptible to "your family is under a curse; pay me $10,000 to start removing it" are also susceptible to "your retirement savings are vulnerable to regulations that may empty the account; pay me $10,000 for a recession-proof set of stock market investments."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:52 AM on January 13 [14 favorites]


Recipe for profit:

Them: I'm so heartbroken that my significant other left me.
Me: Hmm, I can see you are troubled. Give me $100,000 and I will do the magic that makes love blossom again and get you two back together.
Them: Hmm, I'm skeptical but why not. ok here is $100,000

Me (to their former flame): Hey bub, wanna make an easy 50k????
posted by ian1977 at 11:56 AM on January 13 [5 favorites]


We should just ban selling anything.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:06 PM on January 13 [9 favorites]


I'm not opposed to that!
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:12 PM on January 13 [6 favorites]


The people who are susceptible to "your family is under a curse; pay me $10,000 to start removing it" are also susceptible to "your retirement savings are vulnerable to regulations that may empty the account; pay me $10,000 for a recession-proof set of stock market investments."

Right. The writer goes out of their way to make Ruth seem sane and reasonable but she's clearly not. She had a lot of problems before meeting the psychic and had burnt a lot of bridges and her reasoning powers were not normal. I'm not sure how best society can protect people like that but banning one scam at a time seems like playing whack a mole.

Also psychics etc are really important in many cultures, filling the typical role of any spiritual advisor: giving advice, doing marraige and grief counseling, helping people cope with stress, giving hope etc. They're not all huge scammers, many take the responsibility as seriously as your average mainstream clergyperson does.
posted by fshgrl at 12:36 PM on January 13 [18 favorites]


They're not all huge scammers, many take the responsibility as seriously as your average mainstream clergyperson does.

I think it's pretty safe to say that every psychic who can afford a storefront in Manhattan (there's more than one in the West Village! the West! Village!) probably is, though.
posted by praemunire at 12:49 PM on January 13 [8 favorites]


I think most clergy people are scammers too so I'm probably not the best person to judge societies tolerance for scamming but I know psychics are pretty important counselors/ confessors in many central and south american cultures. So its certainly very possible some in Manhattan are filling that role for many residents and you're just not aware of it. Of course they could just be ripping off insecure rich people too.
posted by fshgrl at 1:02 PM on January 13 [4 favorites]


The wife of the CFO of my previous company paid a woman 1,700 miles away $500/mo for several years to pray for his family. I told the CFO I could do it twice a month for $450 (literally a steal!), but they passed.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 1:09 PM on January 13 [8 favorites]


So its certainly very possible some in Manhattan are filling that role for many residents and you're just not aware of it.

I don't think you appreciate just how expensive storefront space in Manhattan is. Maybe I should've said "south of 125th." There's a psychic on my old block, where a fifth-floor walk-up studio of about 350 sq ft that I once lived in rented for nearly $2700/mo. not that long ago. It's been there at least fifteen years, outliving a knitting store, a popular restaurant across the street, etc. You aren't paying that rent with small contributions from the relatively few Central and South Americans living in a substantially white neighborhood. You do have a point that it might be different in Inwood or Washington Heights, though.
posted by praemunire at 1:35 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]


If anyone says the word "curse," seriously just get up and leave. That seems to be the red flag BS word of all BS words with this shit.

Also, who was sitting around putting curses on you, anyway? You probably don't live in a horror movie....
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:00 PM on January 13 [2 favorites]


What prevents psychiatrists and counselors from persuading their clients to hand over all their cash? (Or check into a facility that literally starves them to death, etc.) Obvs some secular counselors *are* scammers, so there’s some countervailing force. Maybe we could regulate the worldly behavior of all manner of advice-providers.
posted by clew at 2:02 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


At least within the pagan circles I'm in, there is alot of community education about what is and isn't acceptable practice(s). Never buy a spell. We repeat this over and over and over . That spiritual work is internal work.

It's OK to to pay someone for their time, for a reading, for guidance, whatever but you are paying for their time. The time they spend focused on you. Much like a therapist or a life coach or a personal trainer or whatever. But you shouldn't be paying them to do things without you ever.

There are free things and community events happening all the time. It's fine to buy trinkets of for own and most spirituality has stuff you can buy from crosses to icons to prayer beads to books to incense. That's not abnormal.

What is abnormal is someone requiring money for your wellbieng, and stating that only their religious expertise/store can fix something. Most problems can be fixed without any one particular person ever. That some expensive object can make things better and only that expensive object.

Lots of these people who fall for these scams don't actually identify as a part of a spiritual community. They are isolated.

I'm not sure how to cleanly define the line between what is exploitation and what is spiritual guidance. Above is a sort of summary of the adhoc way as the pagan community we address the issue. And it's generally internal, we aren't educating the broader community on what is going on and the discussions we are having about these problems.

Spiritual frameworks are important to lots of people for lots of reasons, that isn't new.

It's problematic. Religious scams aren't limited to one kind of religion or practice . There are plenty of ways that people elevate themselves in the eyes of someone, you don't have to go far too find them.

I think the work he is doing to stop this from happening is important. I do worry about the consequences of not involving minority spirituality in the discussion regarding lawmaking. Spirituality isn't illegal having spiritual practices isn't illegal. Targeting someone for their wealth should be.
posted by AlexiaSky at 2:42 PM on January 13 [25 favorites]


who are over-represented in his cases and who, as a marginalized community, have long struggled with racist stereotypes about criminal behavior.
This definitely has be rethinking about how these sorts of issues should be handled.


How it should be handled is the same as any other case - if the evidence is there, the evidence is there.

Having done my fair share of fraud investigations (almost $2 Mil total) the people who are "ethically challenged" sure seem to group together. And family/community ties lead to helping a person committing fraud they admit they would not otherwise have pulled off and is known as Affinty Fraud.

Rallying around someone because they are in a marginalized group happens and the psychic will do this trying to create a defense. From the IMDB of a 'psychic':
" Utilizing a Facebook fan-page to publicly post his predictions, and taking full advantage of the time stamp feature, Steven remains the only psychic to retain a verifiable, near-perfect success rate. Since 2012, Steven has repeatedly (and accurately) predicted everything from the winner of Big Brother to the Super Bowl results. His most significant prediction was 39 minutes before the Aurora Theater shooting, when he stated he saw orange hair, bullets, film-strips and people dying."

Ya know what else is from 2012? Articles about modifying the posting time on Facebook

To take the position of not calling out a 'marginalized group member' then means an asshole move of using 2 mass shootings and a date/time change to a post to claim psychic powers would not be considered approperate.

Assholery is assholery and marginalized group members can be an ass.
posted by rough ashlar at 3:13 PM on January 13 [7 favorites]


There is also such a thing as having people from marginalized groups targeted for more scrutiny and investigation than for those committing the same crimes who are not from marginalized groups. In my comment, I never meant to somehow imply that members of a marginalized group never commit crimes or scams or can't be assholes.

But if they are by any chance being over-represented, it's worth consideration and I wanted to bring it up as not everyone commenting will read that article. The PI only takes about 10 cases a year. How many of the people he chooses to go after come from marginalized communities like Romani vs those who don't? How does that rate compare to the overall numbers of people who have these businesses set up in the US? And of those cases which go to trial, what's the conviction rate and what are the sentences? That's information I don't have but I'd be interested to know about.

Assholery is everywhere, of course, but the balance of convictions and punishments are often skewed heavily on racial lines.
posted by acidnova at 3:33 PM on January 13 [6 favorites]


the balance of convictions and punishments are often skewed heavily on racial lines.

DAs like to have a good win/loss ratio. The simplist way to do that is pick cases where the defendant can't afford to take the matter to trial. That can be by picking slam-dunk cases. Another way is by picking where the defendant can't afford a defense.

Now I've not seen it codified in writting but the claim is a public defender is judged by the number of appealable errors they have. The simplist way to have no appealable errors is to not do much so there is less chance for an error.

Not being able to afford a defense or appeal also skews heavily on racial lines.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:02 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


This kind of thing is so complicated. I once lived down the street from a little voodoo shop in New Orleans, a city that is legendary for these sort of scammers. Seriously, the fortune tellers in Jackson Square are impressively ruthless con artists.

This store was a hole in the wall in a low-income, majority-minority neighborhood that sold candles and oils and a few completely goofy products like Mr Money Bubble Bath. Basically the kind of place you might see on a fantasy TV show set in New Orleans, haunted by the ghost of Marie Laveau.

I was fully primed to see it as the same kind of scam, spinning stories about magic and curses in order to take the hard-earned money of people who didn't have much money to spend in the first place. But I went by to check it out and found that I had badly misjudged the place.

Most of the people who came in while I was there bought hardly anything at all. Mostly they would come in, spend a few minutes talking to one of the staffers about whatever problem they were dealing with, and the staffer would listen and then give them a little bit of advice. They might or might not recommend some specific candle or ritual - as often as not the person walked out without buying anything at all.

After that I developed a habit of stopping in every now and then and buying a candle or some silly bubble bath to support them. The owner could have made bags of money if he had moved his shop to the French Quarter and started selling "authentic voodoo" to the tourist crowd, but instead he chose to keep his shop where he could serve the community.

Point being, it's possible to not particularly believe in spiritualism, be mad about scammers, and also recognize the positive impact that spiritual advisors can have on people's lives, especially when therapy is out of reach.
posted by Basil Stag Hare at 9:10 PM on January 13 [21 favorites]


“Definition of insider trading: Stealing too fast.” Calvin Trillin Essayist.

I remember this line from Letterman, decades ago, and IIRC at the time it was coming out of the mouth of Spalding Grey. But nevertheless, it makes me kind of sigh and think about where we draw the line. It is all a scam, we are all suckers. Just a question of how much, when.

A) There is a pagan or spiritualist or whatever, and they make their money selling trinkets and crystal woo stuff off a TV tray at local events around their state. They give spiritualist / non-scientific explanations for why their stuff is useful, and it sells for vaguely more than a random bit of crystal or a crudely made bit of craft would sell for otherwise. This person scrapes by.
B) Someone runs a premium call line where they will "tell your fortune" for $1.99/minute. Really they are mainly just a sympathetic ear for lonely and marginalised people. They know the tricks to try to get you to keep talking. They make a decent living, are by no means getting rich, and it is a pretty tough job to be focused and talking on the phone hours on end.
C) The head of a mega-church drives a Bentley and lives in a mansion, his gig is giving sermons multiple times a week about how being rich is because Jesus, and upselling parishoners on all the in-church services. He makes really good money doing this!

What if person A figures out how to outsource the production to China, and gets a good online presence, and manages to market to masses via Facebook? And they start getting really rich? Learning to tailor the message to different target groups?

What if person B figures out how to shunt the saddest and lonliest people off to the $9.99/minute service, and sets up a call centre with 20 people taking calls?

At what point is it "stealing too fast"? Why does person C get to be a respected member of the community? Why do CEOs get to skim millions of cream off the sweat of the working class?

Why is there no justice in the world?
posted by Meatbomb at 2:03 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]


Oh and sorry one other thing.

The scammer described here I think we all agree is bad. She was manipulating people based on their insecurities to get their money.

That is describing the whole beauty industry, right? Not to mention skin lightening creams and all the other toxic shit. Transglobal companies with CEOs making millions.

Sorry, it is all just really disheartening to me. It is poor people not knowing their station and stealing too fast, those are the ones we should catch and punish.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:14 AM on January 14 [3 favorites]


And banning psychics won't end the scams; they'd just take different shapes. The people who are susceptible to "your family is under a curse; pay me $10,000 to start removing it" are also susceptible to "your retirement savings are vulnerable to regulations that may empty the account; pay me $10,000 for a recession-proof set of stock market investments."
Turns out that given any set of regulations people will attempt to game the system—criminals are quite ingenious. The trick is to ban the end result—in this case, theft by fraud. Banning individual scams is like banning various methods of murder. I am uncomfortable with the idea that some people are just dumb and if they get scammed, bad on them. Not sure if that was the thrust of your comment or not—I don’t mean to put words in your mouth. But I think a point of society has to be to protect the less capable from predation.

It is true that many scamsters will hide in the fractal boundary between religion and less organized forms of irrationality. That’s where that “game the system” thing comes in and that’s why society and the law are works in progress.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 7:50 AM on January 14 [4 favorites]


In Canada we used to have section 365 of the Criminal Code which made it a crime to fraudulently practice "an occult or crafty science". In the context of that section, "fraudulent" meant that you charged money.

Despite what was arguably an overly broad provision of the criminal code that could be used unjustly, it was very rarely used, and as far as I can tell only in situations like the one above, where someone was very clearly being defrauded. Frankly, the police and Crown in Canada tend to be able to perpetuate systemic injustice just fine with their regular day to day toolbox.

It's been repealed in the last few years, I gather the crown is just going to rely on the generic fraud provisions of the Criminal Code going forward. I'm not sure if there's been any effort to continue prosecuting this kind of fraud in Canada - anyone on mefi who can speak to this?

The "stealing too fast" point is a good one. I know it's tempting to criminalize any transaction where one side is paying and the other is providing absolutely no quantifiable value whatsoever, but what's next? Are we going to criminalize financial advisers, holistic medicine, or the prosperity gospel? I mean... I'm certainly open to the idea, but what politician is willing to put themselves out there like that?
posted by LegallyBread at 7:59 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]


Man, I wish I had whatever it is that makes it possible to scam people
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 8:00 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]


I have one - will sell to to you for $100
posted by InfidelZombie at 9:06 AM on January 14 [13 favorites]


She was manipulating people based on their insecurities to get their money.
That is describing the whole beauty industry, right?


Yet there are actual mental reactions in others based on looks.

While a "life coach" is an unregulated advice giver like a psychic is an unregulated advice giver a life coach can say "here is my life - that is why I am qualifed to have you pay me money to offer you life advice."

No one is staking out that psychic powers exist. And while plenty of abusive relationships exist and have been outlined in this FFP the basis of a psychic is fraud, is it not?

Man, I wish I had whatever it is that makes it possible to scam people

Try voting Republican as a start. Becoming a religious leader might also work for ya.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:53 AM on January 14


I have one - will sell to to you for $100

At that price how can I afford not to
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 5:18 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


I have one - will sell to to you for $100

At that price how can I afford not to
I have two for only $299!
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 9:28 AM on January 15 [2 favorites]


On a related note, I'm listening to Oh No Ross and Carrie and they mentioned that the psychic they saw last year, Sister Rocky, told Carrie she'd get cancer if she didn't pay up for some healing from her.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:00 AM on January 15


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