A 65-year-old woman named Michele Zlotkin walked into a sparse, peach-colored Boca Raton, Fla., storefront that advertised psychic readings. It was just over a year ago and she had recently retired from teaching elementary school. For the first time in 40 years, she didnt know what she wanted to do with her life. She wasnt married, didnt have children, and her elderly mother lived in New Jersey.
I thought, well, I have to start a new life, Zlotkin says. So when I passed this store that said Spiritual Healer and Psychic on the front, I stopped in, thinking they could help.
Zlotkin had been to see what she calls spiritual healers before and had always found them comforting. I sat down and talked to this guy named Trinity and I dont know what happened, but the next thing I knew, I was going to his place more often than I shouldve gone. Over the next six months, she would give $130,000 in gift cards, watches, and cash to Trinity, who told her he was using them to get her recently deceased father out of purgatory.
Its tempting to write Zlotkins story off as yet another misfortune of the superstitious or overly gullible. A search of newspaper records turns up similar arrests and trials dating at least as far back as the 19th century. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, over the past 20 years the percentage of Americans visiting fortune tellers and psychics has remained steady at 15 percent. Clearly not all those people would buy a $28,000 Rolex for a psychic who worked in a strip mall, as Zlotkin did. But hundreds of such incidents happen annually, and only a handful of psychics is ever prosecuted.
Recently, the number of cases seems to be climbing. In January, charges were dropped against an Orlando psychic after she returned $100,000 to a client whod paid her to remove a curse. In September, a 62-year-old psychic named Rose Marks was found guilty in a Florida court of running a $25 million scam out of storefronts in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Manhattan; during the trial, bestselling romance novelist Jude Deveraux testified that she paid Marks $17 million over nearly 20 years. Less than a month later, a Manhattan psychic named Sylvia Mitchell was found guilty of stealing $138,000 from clients who visited her Greenwich Village shop. She faces up to 15 years in prison.
At the low end, fortune telling starts with a simple palm reading. For a few dollars, a fortune teller will trace the lines on your palms and give a vague description of your past. Youve had troubles, the psychic tells you, something isnt going your way. Meanwhile, the psychic is watching you for clues.
Theyre very good at cold readings, by which I mean reading the body language of a stranger whos walked in off the street, says Bob Nygaard, a retired police officer with the Nassau County Police Department in Long Island. N.Y., who is now a private investigator specializing in fortune-telling scams. Nygaard operates mainly out of New York and Florida, which he says are hot spots with lots of fortune-telling activity. Zlotkin is one of his clients.
Nygaard is quick to point out that theres nothing inherently wrong with a palm or tarot card reading. In fact, fortune telling is protected under the First Amendment as free speech. Plenty of benign psychics will give you a glimpse into your futurehowever inaccurate that glimpse might beand then send you along your way. Nygaard isnt worried about them. Im talking about people who run confidence schemes, he says.
Fraudulent psychics will endure a long succession of customers paying just the basic fee for the novelty of having their palms read, knowing that eventually someone will walk into the ofisa, or fortune-telling storefront, wholl be psychologically pliable enough to be taken for a ride. Most victims of fortune-telling scams are emotionally vulnerable and socially isolated. Theyre often struggling with a personal heartache, such as divorce or bankruptcy. Theyre someone like Tiffany, a young IT contractor in Texas wholl give only her first name because shes embarrassed to admit that from 2007 to 2009, she gave $40,000 to a psychic she found on Craigslist.
The day after I lost my job, my boyfriend broke up with me. Then my dad got sick. I searched out a psychic because I wanted and needed answers at a time when my life was falling apart, she says. Tiffany is quick to point out that she is college educated (Zlotkin is, too) and not usually prone to superstitions. Her initial search for answers wasnt much different from peoplewho trade stocks based on psychic tipsor even Nancy Reagan, who famously scheduled White House events on the advice of an astrologer. In his autobiography, John DeLorean wrote that when his car company went into receivership in 1982, he was duped into giving money to a palm reader.
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Fortune Telling: Fraud With First Amendment Protection