Do televangelists, psychics, and ghost hunters know they are scam artists or are they true believers that happen to suck other people up into their delusions? It's a question that most skeptics have likely struggled with at some point. After all, there are people who are out to con others who clearly know exactly what they are doing---Nigerian email scams anyone?---and others who promote false beliefs that they clearly share, such as anti-vaxxers and a whole lot of religious people. But there is a hazy area where you can't be quite sure, and psychics sit in it. Are they people who are good at reading people and telling them what they want to hear, but think that gift is somehow supernatural? Or are they charlatans who know exactly what they are doing and just don't give a fuck?
Well, an interesting article in the NY Times suggests that the latter is likely the case. In New York, if you take too much money from people with psychic scams, you can be convicted of things like grand larceny. In order to get parole, many psychics---who seem to be all women, basically---come clean with parole boards about what they were up to.
Celia Mitchell, 38, was pointedly asked that exact question last year: “What is the psychic business? Is it real, or a bunch of baloney?”
She answered, “It’s a scam, sir.”
“The whole thing is a scam?”
Others admit to "making stuff up" and "corruption". In some cases, the parole board toys with them, making you feel almost sorry for them:
“Are you going to be given an open date or not?” Joseph P. Crangle, a commissioner, asked Ms. Vlado. “You’re a fortuneteller. Tell me what I am thinking.”
“I am hoping you’re thinking to give me a chance to go home,” she replied.
“That’s not what he asked you,” another commissioner interjected.
Commissioner Crangle asked again, “What am I thinking?”
“I am not going to read your mind.”
Of course, the irony in this situation is women become successful as psychics by being able to read people and tell them what they want to hear. So they may just be doing that to the parole boards when they say things like, "It’s all a scam. It’s by their demeanor." Or, "If they are taking your money, they are not for real."As one parole board member pointed out, one woman who expressed remorse in front of them had done so before at her last parole hearing, where she was let go and she went straight back to it. But overall, I think it shows that they do know what they're doing. Their story changes depending on the audience, which suggests malice instead of delusion.
Some of these women are financially desperate, but some are just amoral scammers. (For some reason, the last name "Mitchell" pops up a lot.) It's interesting to me that nearly all of them seem to be women. Con artistry is something we tend to associate with men more than women, but women have absolutely cornered the market on this particular kind. I suspect that's equal parts stereotypes about women being somehow less human---and therefore more mystical---than men and the fact that psychics tend to focus on topics associated with women, like romance and family.
A lot of these women went to jail after targeting male marks. One woman extracted a $12,000 watch from a client and another got three-quarters of a million from a man by promising to reunite him with his lost love, who turned out to be dead. I don't know if that's because men are far more likely to have the sums of money that capture law enforcement attention like that, or if it's because men are more likely to let their emotional guard down around women, making the vulnerable to this scam. Or maybe it was just a coincidence. But it shows that the stereotype that psychics are all just about taking $20 to tell women that their boyfriend intends to marry them isn't quite right. That's part of it, but a wide swath of people are vulnerable to having someone tell them that the universe is about to give them what they want, if they just keep writing checks and asking questions. I'm glad law enforcement is taking this particular crime more seriously.