Posts Tagged “con artists”

novastock0015A lot of the time, metaphysical beliefs that people have appear harmless. What’s wrong, for example, with believing in angels? That wouldn’t seem a detrimental belief — unless one believes in angels so fiercely that one thinks one can leap from a rooftop and be caught by angels before hitting the ground (not that I think people are doing that).

Among some other metaphysical beliefs that also appear to be harmless, is reincarnation. When combined with the notion of karma, however, a lot of potentially-harmful complications can result from it. This story, reported by the Associated Press via ABC News, provides a sterling example of how this is possible (WebCite cached article):

A psychic accused of bamboozling clients out of tens of thousands of dollars was convicted on Friday after a trial that peered into the legalities of a business built on mysticism and uncertainty.

Sylvia Mitchell’s case drew back a bead-edged curtain on a Greenwich Village parlor where customers were warned about “negative energy” and their problems were traced to past lives. Prosecutors argued that Mitchell was a fortune-telling fraudster who preyed on vulnerable people.

The AP offers two examples of how Mitchell used the combination of reincarnation and karma to swindle people:

Lee Choong wandered in while working 80 to 100 hours a week at a New York investment bank, missing her family at home in Singapore and struggling with a one-sided workplace crush in 2007, Choong testified.

A skeptical but scared Choong gradually paid more than $120,000 as Mitchell told Choong she had “negative energy” and said Choong’s family had harmed the object of her affection in a past existence but concluded the two had a future together, according to testimony and prosecutors.…

Debra Saalfield, a ballroom dancing instructor from Naples, Fla., went to Mitchell after losing a job and a boyfriend within a day in July 2008. Mitchell told Saalfield she’d been too attached to riches in a previous life as a princess in ancient Egypt so she needed to prove she could part with money by giving Mitchell $27,000 to hold, Saalfield testified.

This is why reincarnation coupled with karma is the ideal platform for a perfect scam. According to the reasoning behind these ideas, you can explain anything for anyone at any time by appealing to “something happened in a past life” … and get away with it, because of course no one can remember anything from a past life and verify whether or not it’s so.

Which leads me to wonder about the logic of reincarnation and karma. If — as I’ve been told by “New Agers” who believe in this sort of thing — we each live multiple lives in order to learn cosmic lessons, it makes no sense for us to have no directly-accessible memory of all those past lives. What cosmic lessons can we possibly be “learning” if we can’t recall any of those past lives?

Maybe this is the kind of question that only occurs to viciously-cynical godless agnostic heathens like myself. Maybe I’m the only person in the entire cosmos who doesn’t inherently understand it. Oh well.

Photo credit: Gerard Fritz, via Flickr.

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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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