For Entertainment Purposes Only: Whose Fault Is It When A Psychic Scams Someone?

The New York Times published a story this weekend about Niall Rice, who was taken for $718,000 by two Manhattan psychics, and has recently taken them to court. While it’s likely that one of the psychics will spend a year in jail for fraud, it’s unlikely that Rice will ever get any of that money back.

The story itself is both heartbreaking and confounding. Rice was in a vulnerable position and was convinced by these two “psychics” that terrible things would happen to him, and that he’d never find love again if he didn’t give them piles of money.

It’s easy to blame the victim in cases like these, and it’s hard to imagine yourself in their shoes. It’s easy to think “there’s a sucker born every minute,” and this could never happen to you or I because we’d laugh in the face of anyone asking us for that amount of money. It’s easy to say that it’s Rice’s fault for being dumb enough to give them the money in the first place. I can say with confidence that this is not something I’d ever do–but I’m also a pretty hardcore skeptic who is not in any kind of emotionally vulnerable position. I also don’t have $718,000 to begin with. I’m not who they would target.

In order to convince people that they have magic powers, professional psychics become adept at “cold reading,” which allows them to “read” people and make assumptions about their lives that are more likely to sound true. Thus, they tend to be pretty adept at identifying who is most likely to cough up the most amount of money.

The people that get targeted in these schemes tend to be people who are in extremely vulnerable positions. Rice had just gotten out of rehab and was devastated by a breakup. Many times, these “psychics” contact families of missing children, offering to divulge the child’s whereabouts for a fee (which is the most horrific and evil thing I can imagine a person doing). The elderly are often the ones targeted by mail-order clairvoyance scams promising riches beyond their wildest dreams. The people who talk to “mediums” are often devastated by the loss of someone they love and willing to shell out good money for the illusion of having them back for a moment.

Rice’s story is not unusual. Several psychics have been sued for fraud within the last several years. Some cases have been successful, but only because they were based on financial irregularities that would otherwise be illegal. It’s an industry that’s completely underregulated. Pretty much anyone can claim to see the future and demand loads of cash in exchange for telling people some bullshit. I could do it right now. I could start a business in which I pretend that I’m psychic, and there would be people who would believe me and give me money for that. That’s messed up! I should not be allowed to do that!

There are very few ways in which I will ever disagree with the ACLU, and this is one of them. I don’t believe this is a “freedom of speech”  issue, as much as it is about protecting vulnerable people from predatory scumbags who want to take advantage of them. We protect people from con-artists selling land in Florida and the Brooklyn Bridge, we send people to jail for running Ponzi schemes–there should be some way to protect people from so-called psychics.

To be entirely frank about my own biases here, I think that “psychics” are at best delusional and at worst predatory monsters. I don’t believe anyone has magic powers. I don’t believe they can see into the future, or talk to your Great Aunt Miriam, or cast a spell that will make your ex want to love you again. From the Fox Sisters, to Uri Gellar, to Sylvia Browne–basically every person who has become famous for having paranormal abilities has been outed as a fraud. Why would a random person with a shady storefront be any less of one?

I think the same thing of people like Joel Osteen and Pat Robertson and other preachers who tell people that their lives or their health or their financial situation will improve if they give them money. I think the same thing of people who sell “homeopathic dilutions” that are just sugar pills with literally nothing in them. It’s frustrating to me that people are allowed to take advantage of vulnerable people, just because they say they’re doing magic or are particularly in touch with god or something. I wish all these practices were illegal, and I am eternally furious that they aren’t.

I do think that there are ways to regulate “paranormal services” and protect people from being defrauded as severely as Rice was. The warning “for entertainment purposes only” isn’t enough–it doesn’t protect consumers, it protects the con-artists from being liable when they screw people. If it’s for entertainment purposes only, then these people should not be allowed to guarantee results of any kind. If you are promising results, you should be required to produce results or give people their money back. I don’t order something on Amazon thinking that “maybe” it will arrive in the mail–either it arrives or I get a refund.

My ideal scenario would be to require psychics and their ilk to prove that they actually are what they claim to be, but that’s unlikely to happen. For 19 years, the James Randi Educational fund offered a large sum of money–eventually a million dollars–to prove that they had some kind of paranormal ability under scientific conditions. Unsurprisingly, no one ever won.

It should, most importantly, be illegal for psychics to contact people directly on their own, especially families with missing children. In situations where it’s found that a psychic or other paranormal worker has purposely reached out to a person in a vulnerable position, or promised a service they did not deliver on (like bringing an ex-lover back), they should have to both return the money they conned out of them, and go to jail.

Unfortunately, most people who are defrauded by psychics (i.e., everyone who has ever seen a psychic, basically) are too embarrassed by the fact that they were taken for a ride to actually sue them. This is why we need some other protections in place to keep this from happening. I don’t know if it would be possible to regulate the amount they’re allowed to charge for their services, but that would be a start.

In conclusion, please do not give your money to anyone who claims they have magic powers. You’re better off flushing it down a toilet, because at least the toilet won’t come after you later claiming that it can get your old boyfriend back if you flush a thousand more.

[New York Times]