you probably don't wanna knowNote: There’s some recent news in this case; see the update below.

I’ve long complained that Johnny Law tends to turn a blind eye to the machinations and lies of “psychics.” Criminal prosecutions are extremely rare. At worst, when caught, they pay off their victims (sometimes only partly) then lay low for a short time and move on to new targets. They almost never see the inside of a prison. No wonder it’s such a lucrative business!

But the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports on the unusual example of one such trial, which got underway today (WebCite cached article):

When Fort Lauderdale fortune teller Rose Marks goes on trial Monday, accused of masterminding a $25 million fraud, the case will offer a rare peek inside the secretive world of those who say they have psychic powers.

The amount of money involved in what prosecutors say was a 20-year scam and the celebrity status of the main witness — best-selling romance novelist Jude Deveraux, who they say lost $17 million — have brought notoriety to the case.

Though it’s not the first time a “psychic” has been criminally charged with fleecing customers, trials in such cases are uncommon, records show. Most fortune tellers accused of fraud have reached plea agreements with prosecutors or agreed to pay back what their clients said they owed.

Among the schemes employed by Marks and her family (the rest of them have already pled guilty) is their own variation on the old “gypsy curse” scam:

Marks and her family convinced some of the walk-in clients that their problems were caused by curses that had dogged their families for generations and that the family could perform rituals and other services to remove those curses, prosecutors said.

While they acknowledge that fortune telling is not against the law, “any more than performing magic or card tricks is not unlawful, or telling lies is not, per se, unlawful,” prosecutors say that Marks and her family committed fraud by making false promises and not returning money they said they would give back.

Marks herself protests her innocence and claims to be the victim:

In an exclusive interview about the case, Marks told the Sun Sentinel in December that she did nothing wrong.

“I gave my life to these people. We’re talking about clients of 20 years, 30 years, 40 years. We’re not talking about someone I just met and took all their money and ran off,” Marks said.…

Marks told the Sun Sentinel that she earned the money Deveraux paid her during their 17-year friendship. She said she was a personal assistant to Deveraux and negotiated a fee of about $1 million a year when she agreed to give up her profitable business to work almost exclusively for the wealthy author, whose work includes more than 35 books on the New York Times bestsellers list.

Marks also said that she helped Deveraux write some of her novels.

“I was her inspiration and gave her insight on Romani mysticism and beliefs in the after life and religion and the psychic world and the spiritual world and romany theology and … it took a lot of time and effort,” Marks told the newspaper.

Oh, and, of course, this prosecution was triggered by anti-Romani prejudice:

Marks’ defense says she is the victim of bias against the Roma, also known as Gypsies, and that investigators drummed up the charges against her after some of her long-term clients experienced “buyer’s remorse.”

While there’s no doubt that there’s anti-Romani prejudice in the world, that doesn’t mean there can’t still be some crooked Romani out there who genuinely deserve to be prosecuted.

At any rate, it’s heartening to see the criminal justice system actually take on these metaphysical swindlers. What a lot of these psychics do is fraud — plain and simple — and it ought to be prosecuted a lot more often.

Update: Putative “psychic” Rose Marks was given a 10-year federal sentence for her swindle (cached) after being convicted in September 2013.

Photo credit: Flood, via Flickr.

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  • Yup. They let the psychics, palm readers, and pawnshop usury just slide on by most of the time, but that poor slob who gets caught tokin' on a doob while sitting in his truck at the boat ramp watching the seagulls dive after the bait fish in the shallows gets the BOOK thrown at him.

    I'm not a proponent of drug abuse, but I am an opponent of stupid laws. If you can consume alcohol by the case and chew on prescription painkillers like M&Ms, I just don't see what's wrong with smoking some marijuana occasionally.

    NOTE: I do not partake of alcohol or drugs, but I think people should be able to partake if they want, as long as it's done responsibly… right place and time, etc.

    • You're right, the criminal-justice system's priorities are more than a little out of whack. There's quite obviously a big difference between just "tokin' on a doob" as you put it, and a multi-million-dollar confidence game. But then again, it's usually the case that white-collar crime is taken less seriously than blue-collar crime (is there even any such thing?). Embezzlers, for instance, routinely get far lighter sentences for their thefts than they would had they held up a place at gunpoint and stolen the same amount of money that way. Although there's no violence involved in embezzlement while there is in robbery, I'm not sure that difference merits the sentence being 10x or 100x lighter.

      The good news is lots of states are now treating weed less severely than they used to. People caught "tokin' on a doob" are frequently getting wrist-slap sentences, often as a result of being shunted into "community courts," and aren't getting the serious time they would have, as little as 3 years ago. Of course, all that depends on the state you're in. I don't know about Florida, but up here in the Land of Steady Habits, we've legalized medical marijuana, the state is opting not to prosecute cases of weed possession in small amounts, and "community courts" are handling a lot of the rest of the cases.

  • True. Progress has been made over the years regarding recreational and medicinal marijuana use. There's still room for improvement, though.

    Actually, there's room for improvement in many aspects of our current existence as a species on this beautiful orb floating in the midst of near-nothingness.

    </philosophical reply>

  • The worst part about fake psychics is that they not only robe you away but also tell you a fact that actually has nothing to do with the reality. Mostly people consider that whatever the psychic must have some solid grounds i should not question his/her source of knowledge. People tend to believe in something strongly that they either deviate from the real life but also recommend others to do so because things have changed in their lives this way. People fall prey and suffer losses a lot.

    • You're right … the apparent "knowledge" that a psychic has about someone, triggers trust within the subject. The problem with this, of course, is that their "knowledge" is either based on guesswork (e.g. cold reading or warm reading), or on information gleaned elsewhere. A great example of some psychics having been trapped by this last item, was when BBC tested 3 psychics, and they "channeled" a deceased factory manager … whose story was fully fictional, having been planted on a fake Web site for the the company. Video can be seen at http://youtu.be/u4qGfNViVN8 if you care to watch. (I recommend it, it's highly entertaining, watching these "psychics" engaged in their fake shenanigans.)

  • Good points here…. my questions is are there real psychics today? I guess in a word that people are faced with challenges, they will listen to anybody during a time of crisis. I wonder how the law can regulate this unless they make it illegal for psychic readings. For the fake ones, you will pay for your lies… one day.

    • Re: "my questions is are there real psychics today?"

      To date, no psychic's "powers" have been objectively evaluated and verified. Some have tried, but failed. It's not that testing is impossible. It most certainly can be dome. It's that psychics rarely will consent to a test; on the rare occasions they do, they eitehr tend to get it structured in ways that are favorable to them, or they end up failing, but refuse to accept that the failure means anything (often citing "the shyness effect" as a rationale).

      Re: "I wonder how the law can regulate this unless they make it illegal for psychic readings."

      I'm not certain any such law would hold up to the First Amendment. That said, there certainly are legal protections. Fraud, in any form and done by anyone, not merely psychics, is a tort and a crime. (The case discussed in this post is an example; the "psychic" ended up being convicted.) Should there be "more" protective laws in place? That's an open question.

      Re: "For the fake ones, you will pay for your lies… one day."

      Unfortunately, it's exceedingly rare for one of them ever to be forced to "pay for" his/her lies. It happened in this case, but it's very uncommon.

  • Lock man

    The sad part is people believe so called psychics at a time of need. I do believe some may be real, but the ones you see in a shack on the side of the road are most likely not. How do you explain mediums? Any documents in that regard? Fort Lauderdale Locksmith

    • How do I "explain" mediums? That's easy. They base their trade on "wishful thinking." People want to have some connection with their departed loved ones, so when someone comes along who claims to be able to communicate with them, they latch on. They don't care that there's no known mechanism by which this could work; they just want that connection, goddammit, and the medium provides it. So (all too often) they're sold.

  • Lock man

    How do you explain a medium who claims to be communicating with a deceased relative, and turns out they are sending messages that are specific to the person and only that person receiving the message knows of its existance. How do you explain detailed information like that being provided. For example, “The Long Island Medium” had a show that provided remarkable information being provided from the deceased. People were in shock because the things she would tell them was personal detailed information.

    • First, Long Island Medium is a television show, which means everything about it is staged. One can neither confirm nor deny the reality of paranormal powers based on what one sees in it.

      Second, there are lots of ways psychics can seem to know things that they’d appear to have no way to know. Among those techniques are cold reading and warm reading. It’s not rocket science, and paranormal powers aren’t required.

      Third, psychics certainly are in a position to demonstrate the existence of their magical powers. They could, for instance, participate in controlled studies which would isolate out all other factors and conclusively show they can do what they say they can do. In fact, there have been controlled studies of psychic powers … and to date, none have been borne out.

      Fourth, it’s fine to demand that I provide you an explanation for how psychics do what they do without magical powers (and I’ve linked to a couple explanations, above) … but if you do, you should also demand the psychics explain their powers. How does their magic work? What are the mechanics by which they operate? What makes them “special” and magically gifted to talk with the dead while most of humanity can’t? For that matter, what’s the point of dead spirits lurking around, hoping to come across one of the few people on the planet who can speak to them? What kind of a cosmic system works that way … and if it does, why?

  • Not all psychics are reliable. But there are some who are. We just really need to be careful and sure before we get into it.

    • When has any "psychic" ever been tested under controlled conditions to determine if his/her "gift" is genuine? I've never heard that it's ever happened. And if it ever should happen, the person should take up the Randi paranormal challenge and get a million dollars.

      Until that happens, I plan to consider all psychics unreliable. Period.