The secret is out: professional storefront psychics are mostly comprised of fakes, frauds, cheats, and con artists. Step into a psychic storefront – especially in New York City or Southern Florida where organized criminal elements of the Romani (gypsy) culture is a significant presence – at your own extreme risk.
Well, maybe that doesn’t seem like a secret to many skeptics, but the fact is that since the inception of the modern skeptic movement, skeptics have pursued and possessed specialized knowledge in the realm of paranormal claims such as psychic phenomena. Of course, skeptics are interested in a vast panoply of pseudoscience – a glance down the list of subjects at the Skeptic’s Dictionary will produce an alphabetical list of nonsense, from the doofus to the deadly, “From Abracadabra to Zombies,” as it says on the home page.
But the paranormal is a special area of interest and expertise, partly because of the so-called science of parapsychology, which for more than a century-and-a-half has attempted to establish the existence of psychic phenomena in the laboratory. Unfortunately, this science has yet to produce so much as a single replicable, paradigmatic experiment (as compared with even a “soft science” like psychology which has hundreds of such examples that can be readily replicated by new students and scientists alike).
Another reason for this interest is the role of magicians in the skeptic movement, who themselves possess specialized knowledge not only of deception and illusion in general but also in particular of the methods of psychics, which often encompass techniques that magicians and particularly “mentalists” routinely use in their own work. Thus the magician has been a key player in parapsychology investigation since the first committee on psychical research was organized by “Scientific American” magazine, with Harry Houdini as a member.
And finally – surely far from least – there is the terrible predation and damage that professional psychics do. Whether it is a television talk-to-the-dead medium who entraps people in their grief rather than helping them to return eventually, as they must, to the normal living of their own lives, despite the loss of their loved ones – or professional storefront fortunetellers-and-takers who use their traditional finely honed psychological weaponry to rob people of their dignity and self-respect, their self-control, and often their life savings.
In 1993, the “Nova” television series devoted an entire program, entitled “Secrets of the Psychics,” to James Randi and his work as a psychic investigator and consumer protection advocate. Although this episode of the famous science documentary series has been available in various recorded forms, including in segments on YouTube, the program has just been posted in its entirety here.
The show covers the gamut of psychic claims, and Randi’s investigations and insights. He looks at Russian psychics who claim to be able to gain special knowledge about a person just from examining a photograph. He tries to test specially psychically altered water, which seems to (rather hilariously) possess the special quality of being untestable. He looks at claims of the alleged psychic power to alter people’s blood pressure and brain waves. The program provides a synopsis of Randi’s legendary investigation of the faith healer Peter Popoff, and also provides a useful overview of Randi’s debunkings of Uri Geller during Geller’s metal-bending heydays.
Oh, and a young long-haired magician with a waxed moustache offers a brief original demonstration of psychokinesis in the first three minutes of the show. Go take a look!
The show is twenty years old but its principles and subjects are as fresh as today’s headlines, and literally so. As I write this, the trial of Rose Marks is in its second of an anticipated three weeks of testimony. Marks is a veteran professional psychic who was originally indicted along with eight other members of her allegedly criminal organization and family. The rest of the accused have reached deals with the prosecution such that Marks now stands trial alone, accused as the ringleader of an operation that has allegedly netted some 25 million dollars or more from an assortment of victimized clients over a period of perhaps twenty years, from operations in both New York City and South Florida. Perhaps a dozen of such complainants are expected to testify in the course of the trial.
Already, testimony has been given by a 72-year-old grandmother who claims to have given Marks about one million dollars over a thirty-year period, much of which she had borrowed from a friend in order to keep from losing the psychic’s predatory counsel.
Another woman had provided the psychic with a half million dollars in cash and gold coins that the psychic had allegedly only borrowed, promising to remove curses and other bad vibes from the riches before returning them all to their rightful owner. But then after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, the psychic told her client that all of the valuables had been destroyed as they had been in a safe located in the World Trade Center.
And most dramatically so far is testimony from a woman who enlisted the psychic’s assistance in trying to regain the romantic attentions of her husband, as well as seeking to obtain portions of his estate following his death, despite his having left her out of his will. And in a truly soapy operatic turn, the former wife was also trying to prevent the deceased husband’s subsequent lover from using the frozen sperm he had donated for the purpose of her having his child post mortem.
Still to come: anticipated testimony from world-renowned romance novel author Jude Deveraux who allegedly was taken for 17 million dollars over a twenty-year period.
Doubtless readers – and perhaps jurors as well – will find it difficult to understand how such people continue to pour good money after bad into the pockets of these cold-blooded predators. There is no simple answer, but much of it can be found in this sentence quoted in an article in the “Orlando Sun-Sentinel”:
"I was in so far, I had nothing to do but believe her. I didn't see any way out.”
And sadly, a judge, in a harsh ruling, prevented the prosecution from presenting an expert witness, a private investigator specializing in psychic and Gypsy crime, from testifying. The importance of such testimony is to try to explain to jurors the tactics in the psychological warfare these con artists use against their victims, and it is a shame jurors will be denied such insights and specialized but critically invaluable expertise. There are other such experts in the criminal justice field who specialize in these areas – I know some of them personally and have lectured to their professional associations and at their conferences – and while it is one thing for a judge to have rejected a particular expert, the notion of denying the use of such expertise in its entirety is an unfortunate misjudgment in my opinion.
Crimes of this nature are rarely prosecuted, among other reasons because victims are too embarrassed to admit publicly to their losses. Also, particularly in South Florida, psychics often offer reparations to the victims, in return for which prosecutors do not pursue charges. While one can understand law enforcement’s sympathy for the victims and intent to help them get their money back, this choice seems to me to simply assure that the criminality continue, at the expense of the next victim.
Meanwhile Marks’s attorneys will claim religious freedom, the right to practice spiritual beliefs, insist that customers received invaluable assistance and many were satisfied, and above all perhaps, “buyer remorse” in that previously satisfied clients were somehow convinced by law enforcement to join in the case as a way to get their money back. One hopes these elaborate piles of steaming horseshit will be rejected by the jury
I hope Rose Marks goes to jail for a long time. But I’m not really psychic, I just play one on stage. So we will have to wait and see the outcome. Skeptics should be watching the outcome of this trial closely. And make no mistake – this one trial represents a mere drop in the bucket of these kinds of criminally malicious psychic fraud. My psychic prediction: new victims will be found, and skeptics need to keep informing the public about these dangers
The Sun-Sentinel is covering the trial and for further reading here are their reports thus far:
Judge rejects potential testimony in fortune teller case
Psychic fraud trial starts Monday, pits fortune teller against former clients
Former clients testify against 'psychic' accused of $25 million fraud
Psychic said $500,000 in cash and gold burned in 9/11 terrorist attack, client testifies
Defense: Psychic's clients made up story to get money back
Widow says psychic promised help in battle over late husband's frozen sperm
Jamy Ian Swiss is Senior Fellow at the JREF. He blogs regularly at randi.org.