Psychics, or fortune-tellers, predict information about a person’s life.

For most people, sitting in front of a proclaimed psychic is funny, and the laugh is worth the five dollars.

Unfortunately, for some, those who might be weak or vulnerable, consulting a psychic is too often a sure way to lose significant money and to be emotionally thrown further down the proverbial rabbit’s hole.

Psychics, in person, on-line, or on the telephone, cheat people during times of trouble in areas of romance, money and health.  Those who are lonely, have undergone a recent romantic breakup, who have suffered a financial setback, who have been sued, are sick, or have sick relatives sometimes turn to psychics, and actually pay these frauds significant money so that they can hear their future, hoping that future will be better.

P.T. Barnum, of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, is widely credited with the understanding for this phenomenon:  there’s a sucker born every minute.

Psychics, mediums, palmists, card readers and others who claim supernatural abilities to predict the future are used by millions of Americans every year.  In one study in 2009, the Pew Forum found in that year that about 1 in 7 people consulted a psychic or other type of fortune-teller.


While virtually every part of our lives are regulated, it is shockingly surprising that these frauds are not as regulated as one might think.  Laws governing fraud exist in every state, but few states actually have laws addressing the scam perpetrated by psychics and their like.

Regulating an industry that calls itself supernatural, one that claims it is beyond the understanding of modern science, one that has no educational requirements, but still charges, and often heavily, for its services, is quite challenging.  Some psychics claim their services are religious activity and that their earnings should be treated in a manner similar to donations to other religious organizations (not taxed).  Others offer that they are entertainers and they even post disclaimers, to shield themselves from any losses or injuries suffered by their customers who take their advice. Some rely on the First Amendment’s right to free speech.

Interestingly, there is religious opposition in Christianity, Islam and Judaism based on scriptural prohibitions against divination.

New York makes Fortune Telling a class B misdemeanor:

A person is guilty of fortune telling when, for a fee or compensation which he directly or indirectly solicits… he claims or pretends to tell fortunes, or holds himself out as being able, by claimed or pretended use of occult powers, to answer questions or give advice…

Pennsylvania has a comprehensive fortune-telling statute:

A person is guilty of a misdemeanor… if he pretends for gain to tell fortunes or predict future events, by cards, tokens, the inspection of the head or hands of any person, or by the age of anyone, or by consulting the movements of the heavenly bodies…  pretends to effect any purpose by spells, charms, incantation… administering love powders, potions…

Maryland requires psychics to undergo a police background check.

Salem, Massachusetts (of all places, right?) also requires background checks and caps the number allowed in town.

Warren, Michigan requires fingerprints.

Criminal Cases

A criminal lawyer (yes, a criminal lawyer!) went to a psychic woman and paid her more than $100,000.  She convinced him that she was the embodiment of his deceased sister and that she would help him achieve financial success.

A Boulder, Colorado woman claiming to be a psychic was sentenced to five years for stealing more than $300,000 from her clients, telling them that she needed their cash and credit card numbers “to draw out bad energy.” One of her victims had a son who was thought to be dying.

Sylvia Browne, a self proclaimed psychic, appeared on weekly television for years and told families that missing loved ones were dead (when they were not), or alive (when they were not).  Of 115 pronouncements, Browne was correct exactly 0 times. She was never convicted of being a fraud, but then did get convicted of grand theft for falsely selling shares in a gold mine.

In 2002 “Miss Cleo” was shut down by the FTC for advertising fee phone readings that cost customers up to $100 per call.  She aggressively told customers that had to pay.  She was required to forgive the debts, estimated in the millions ($44.3 in Florida alone), and to undo the damage to customers’ credit ratings.

How they work

Psychics take advantage of people.  They are, in many cases, highly skilled in terms of reading people and picking up (when in person) on body language. When on the telephone, psychics can also hear subtle changes in breathing, tone, and cadence of speech that equate to reactions.

They all begin in about the same way.  They begin by providing an inexpensive “cold reading” where they deliver generalized statements with solemn authority, and they continue until they hit upon something that triggers a reaction.  They then feed back the information they have picked up on, gradually convincing their clients of their “powers.”

Astute people will roll their eyes and terminate the session.  Others will fall prey to the psychic’s predictions and promises.

A better alternative

Recall the Magic 8-ball manufactured and sold as a children’s toy by Mattel.  It had 20 “answers” such as:  It is Certain; Without a Doubt; Signs point to yes: Yes, Definitely; Better Not Tell You; My sources say no; Don’t Count on it,” and so on.

The 8-ball sells for under $10.00 and is available at Walmart.

Civil Cases

Civil lawsuits against psychics mostly fail.  There are primarily two reasons.

First, the psychics’ “entertainment only” disclaimers are a strong defense.

Second, the victim’s irresponsibility, or even call it stupidity, often motivates judges to hold that despite the apparent ridiculous nature of the promises, the victim’s role in being duped is equally the cause of the loss.

If a psychic said a spouse did not have cancer, but in fact he or she did, a lawsuit by the aggrieved survivor must prove that the psychic presented the information as a fact and as an expert medical opinion, and that the psychic’s reading caused the survivor to reasonably rely on that information.  Note the word reasonably.

A court would certainly ask why the survivor consulted a psychic instead of a doctor, and thus a lawsuit against the psychic would fail.

In 2009, in South Dakota, a woman sued for the return of $30,500 from a psychic who promised to bring her husband back.

In 2010, in New Jersey, a woman’s psychic told her that she was suffering from a curse.  The psychic promised to remove the curse after the woman paid her over $160,000.  The woman recovered $19,000.

Courts rule on reason and evidence.

Prediction:  if you go to a psychic you will lose money and gain nothing valuable, unless for your ego you want to be told how attractive you are.  (Note: you are beautiful.)

Advice:  Don’t let the psychic sell you a potion to enhance that beauty.

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