The June 6 edition of the “Broward/Palm Beach NewTimes” contains an excellent long-read piece, “How Modern Fortunetellers Pull Off Their Scams”. Reporter Kyle Swenson recounts detailed and horrifying stories of four devastated victims of fortuneteller scam artists.
The article provides an excellent overview of sorts to the subject of psychic con artistry, including not only the stories of the four victims, but also looking at the law enforcement aspect of these moral and legal offenses, particularly as practiced by the criminal subculture elements of the American Romani, i.e., Gypsy, culture that specialize in a long tradition of such psychic fraud, and some current prosecutions taking place in South Florida (one of two “hotbeds” of such activity, the other being New York City).
The victims, all women, include a 27-year-old woman of Indian descent who grew up in England; a 42-year-old Indian woman with a husband and two children; a divorcee in her early 60s; and a young 19-year old woman. All were experiencing struggles in their lives and were emotionally vulnerable when they exposed themselves to heartless predators ready to take advantage of such wounded prey. This is one of the most important lessons for skeptics: rather than offer a haughty sneer at the poor decisions these victims made, rather try to find both empathy and insight as to who and why and how otherwise rational people become entrapped by professional con artists who possess an arsenal of finely honed skills of psychological manipulation, with which to ruthlessly take down anyone who, at a weak moment in their lives, makes the mistake of opening the door to a dangerous wolf in sheep’s clothing.
In the case of the 27-year old woman, “In swift succession, she lost her job, and her four-year marriage snapped.” In the course of three years after meeting the psychic, “She remortgaged her house, took out loans, borrowed from family.” And ended up handing over $140,000 before running out of resources.
The married 42-year-old, who earned a masters degree in applied economics, was in the midst of opening her own business when she fell into the psychic’s clutches. “Her sister was ill, her brother's marriage was ending, and the economy was threatening to sink her father's business…” She would end up losing her business and giving up $130,000 to the psychic in less than a year’s time.
The other two victims recount similar tales. The divorcee, in her 60s, gave up $140,000. The 19-year-old went broke after paying $30,000 to her personal predator. “She maxed out five new credit cards, plus three she already had.”
While these stories may seem incredible, they are far from uncommon; storefront psychics look at every new client as a potential golden goose to bleed dry over the long, brutally patient haul. The rare aspect of these stories is that the victims went public and the cases were prosecuted. Victims are usually too humiliated to admit to such losses; they have difficulty understanding themselves, much less explaining to others, how they get in so deep and for so long. Cognitive dissonance provides a part of the answer, along with the skills of the victimizers. Once people make significant commitments of belief and money, it becomes increasingly difficult to face the possibility of having made a terrible mistake, and people tend to hand over more money in the hope and faith that their investment will pay off, in the form of relief from the struggles and pains that sent them seeking help in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle that a cold-blooded con artist knows how to skillfully maintain and feed off of.
On the law enforcement side of the story, the reporter talks to retired Nassau County cop turned Palm Beach Private Investigator, Bob Nygaard, who specializes in helping victims of Gypsy crime and substantiating such cases for law enforcement. Nygaard points out that Florida law enforcement is much less aggressive about pursuing such cases than their counterparts in New York. Also, Florida prosecutors will often drop charges in return for con artists paying back money to victims. While this understandably helps the victims, it also assures that the criminals get to stay on the street and proceed directly to the next victim, a tragedy that plays out over and over again throughout the course of a lifetime of these career criminals.
Several notorious South Florida psychic scam artists are currently awaiting trial, as mentioned in the report, including Rose Marks, set to go to trial in August for her part in an alleged $25-million dollar scam that included taking romance novelist Jude Deveraux for some $17 million dollars over a twenty-year period. Deveraux, who has not yet told her story publicly, experienced a divorce in the late 90s, and later had to deal with the death of her 8-year-old son in 2005, all factors which likely led to her becoming vulnerable to these costly depredations. Meanwhile Rose Marks, along with eight members of her family, was indicted in a major sting operation in August of 2011; Marks will be the sole defendant going to trial, as all the others who were charged have since pleaded guilty.
To the reporter’s credit, he manages to speak to an “elder” in the Romani community, “on condition of anonymity.” The source describes some interesting Gypsy cultural traditions, concerning women, marriage, the young, and other facets of this hidden world. But the source is also disingenuous, claiming at one point, in talking about psychic scam crimes, that “Cultural codes prohibit violence, as well as bleeding a victim dry. ‘Take a taste. Don't swallow.’” This is romantic nonsense. Criminality knows neither kindness nor restraint, much less the kind of systematic, generation-to-generation, organized crime that marks the long tradition of Romani psychic scam artistry.
I recommend the story, but I also encourage skeptics to pursue a deeper understanding of the issues. You can learn about the techniques of psychic readings from the excellent book, “The Elusive Quarry” by Ray Hyman [Prometheus Books, 1989]. There are a number of websites that discuss Gypsy crime in general and the psychic scams of “curse cleansing,” “money cleansing” and the like. And last but far from least, the path to an empathetic understanding of victim psychology can be helped along significantly by reading “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007].
Remember the magician’s lesson: Everyone can be fooled.
Jamy Ian Swiss is Senior Fellow at the JREF. He blogs regularly at randi.org.