According to a recent Gallup Poll, three quarters of Americans believe in the paranormal, including over a quarter who profess belief in the ability to read the past and predict the future through either clairvoyance or astrology. Surprisingly, the wealthy and educated were often more likely to put their faith in such institutions.

What leads someone to reach out to a psychic? According to one former psychic, their customers are having domestic issues, money problems, or trouble finding love. They call because they are desperate for answers about the future. And mostly what they want to hear is some good news. Hope.

This article is not interested in debating the merits of making life decisions based on paranormal forecasts of the future, or seeking solace in the land of possibilities. Whether or not psychic readings are credible, the fact remains there are a large number of con artists passing themselves off as psychics and then bleeding their vulnerable marks of large amounts of money.

Last year, Tracy M. Tan was convicted of fraud for the psychic reading and spiritual work scams she ran from her home in Naperville, Illinois. She would provide psychic and tarot card readings which resulted in her proclaiming the customer had a curse placed on them, thus requiring her further “counseling sessions”. According to the local Sheriff John Zaruba, during these sessions Tan would “charge her victims thousands of dollars for her services and products, which provided them with a false sense of hope.”

Aside from the three years she will be spending in prison, Tracy Tan has also been ordered to make full restitution to her victims upon her release. Indications from the court records in this case showed the first victim losing $162,001.53 to Ms. Tan, the second $108,044.27, the third just $12,050. That brings the total restitution owed for the crimes she committed to $282,095.80, and additional victims are suspected, if not proven.

This is not an isolated case. Psychic scam artists are regularly being prosecuted for fraud in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Authorities are certain those caught represent the tip of the iceberg, but people continue to pump large sums of money into this industry. And its reach is spreading.

It used to be you had to seek out the psychic. Whether you knocked on the door after seeing the colorful neon advertising in the window of the storefront which likely doubles as their home, or found them sitting at a small café table with a hand-drawn sign promising a palm reading, if you wanted to know your fortune you had to visit them on their own turf.

The scam artists among them were required to keep you coming back in schemes similar to Ms. Tam’s. They would have to convince you to invest in their services or products in order to keep the cash flowing. Often they would give the victim a task or ritual to complete with a return visit scheduled a couple of weeks later. The more invested the victim became in the process, the more investment they made in the scam.

A woman in New York was recently bilked for over $200,000. She met a psychic offering $15 palm readings from a sidewalk table outside a local restaurant. The psychic did a vague reading that struck a chord with the woman, and convinced her that the inheritance she had recently received was tainted by evil. On the psychic’s instructions she began bringing in increasing sums of money to be blessed by the scammer.

The victim paid hundreds of dollars for special spiritual candles, and bought gift cards and various items at the direction of the psychic in an effort to cleanse the money she was convinced had been spoiled by evil spirits. After gaining the victim’s trust, the psychic had her accumulate $160,000 in cash, and an additional $40,000 in bought merchandise that was then to be left with the psychic over a weekend for one last final cleansing ceremony. When the woman returned at the appointed time to reclaim her money, the psychic was long gone. She has still not been apprehended.

In the 90s, telephone psychics became the rage with late night advertising. The half-hour commercials for Psychic Friends Network featuring Dionne Warwick and a bevy of low-wattage celebrities became ubiquitous viewing on late night television. With profits now coming from the phone charges, the business model changed a little, but the basic idea of keeping the customer coming back for more remained the backbone.

The telephone psychic game is simple, keep people on the line. They need the callers to amass large bills, but not so large they can refute them later. The key is encouraging the customers to develop relationships with specific psychic operators whom they would continue to come back to exclusively with their problems. The telephone psychics basically began filling a role as the caller’s therapist.

For the companies running these psychic hotlines, fear of a stagnant marketplace forced creativity. In order to keep their customers calling, especially in light of having potentially solved whatever initial issues they might have reached out regarding, the advertising and call-takers began departmentalizing. There was a hotline for love, for business, for heath, for lucky lottery numbers, and the list goes on.

What you see with these companies though, is not always what you get. In the mid-90s and then into the early 2000s, the airwaves were inundated with commercials for the Psychic Readers Network featuring Miss Cleo, a Jamaican psychic. The ads led callers to believe they were actually calling Miss Cleo directly, when in fact; they were simply being connected randomly to a waiting operator. Miss Cleo was simply the spokesperson for the company and not in fact its owner or operator as the ads indicated, and wasn’t actually taking any calls.

In 2002 the FTC charged Miss Cleo’s promoters with deceptive advertising, billing and collection practices; they agreed to settle for a fraction of the monies taken in. Around this time, CourtTV, along with several other outlets, reported that the psychics giving readings over the phone for Psychic Readers Network were actually reading from prepared scripts. No genuine psychic powers were involved.

The newest medium for psychic consultation is the internet. Spam emails, often containing the recipient’s real name and/or some specific piece of information, will direct the customer to a website where they can sign up for emailed horoscopes or chat with a psychic live online.

The email lists are normally a monthly fee. But be careful. Sara Freder regularly sends spam emails offering a free horoscope. Once received, the customer will be invited to pay for a weekly horoscope. The payment options are not secured though, and unauthorized withdrawals can happen. She will also push any number of magical items, like pictures of herself and special powders for additional fees.
The live online psychic chat basically operates like a telephone psychic, you pay for the time you are online.

If using these psychic services, either via phone or online chat, is something you are dead set on doing, be aware of the following. Never get coerced into additional time, minutes of “magical” fixes. A psychic who insists they are infallible is overcompensating for their con artist roots. And keep your ear open for information fishing which will then be incorporated back into your reading. This seems obvious, but our desire to believe can sometimes clog the ears.

There is no form of psychic accreditation recognized by any federal, state or local government. There are those psychic practitioners operating with honesty and integrity, who truly believe they are improving the lives of those who reach out to them. How can you tell them from those who know they are scam artists?

This type of psychic scammer will be explored thoroughly in the second installment of this article, when we will interview a former psychic telephone operator. He will detail his brief, but illuminating, time in the industry. His story starts with a ridiculous job interview; includes shady training, provided scripts and tips he received for keeping customers on the line; provides details of the telephone interactions he had with those he now regards as victims and the tricks he used to keep them coming back for more; and finally ends with the crisis of conscience that led a formerly unemployed actor to walk away from easy money.

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