In September 2016, a New York–based psychic was arrested for convincing a client that her failing marriage was caused by an evil spirit that could be driven out only by an expensive exorcism. According to a September 13, 2016, story in The Gothamist:
An Upper East Side fortune teller was arrested this weekend after she allegedly terrified and manipulated a distraught woman out of more than $60K. Among other things, the “psychic” convinced the woman she had a “demon/evil spirit” inside her that was a dead baby the victim’s mother had miscarried before the victim was born—and the only way to get it out was through increasingly expensive “demon removal work.” (http://tinyurl.com/z6m48d4)
Many fortune-tellers try to skirt responsibility by advertising their services as “for entertainment only,” though most people who visit psychics really do take the information seriously (as you might expect they would when paying around $60 per hour for “entertainment”). Those who seriously consult psychics are often troubled people looking for answers and guidance. Thousands of people are scammed by psychics every year, falsely told, for example, that they are cursed and that $10,000 in “faith money” can help end a bad luck streak.
The unidentified victim, a thirty-five-year-old woman, first visited “Psychic Lisa” (Victoria Nicholes) in 2013, seeking help in saving her marriage and concerned about her husband’s suspected infidelity. Nicholes allegedly convinced the victim that her marital troubles were caused by a demon inside her and that if the demon wasn’t exorcized, the woman would never again have a happy, normal romantic relationship. Fortunately for the victim, “Psychic Lisa” knew how to remove the demon and get her life back on track.
As The Gothamist explains:
First Nicholes allegedly said she’d need $33K in cash ($1K for each year of her age) for special candles and crystals to be used in the cleansing ceremony. Then she allegedly asked for a Rolex Daytona Everose watch with a black dial (valued at $30K) because (here we go) it would be used as part of a ritual that would “spring back time” to before the victim was born, thereby allowing her to remove the demon.
In the end, according to the complaint, the psychic conned the victim out of nearly $62,000 over the course of several months. Eventually, the victim grew suspicious and contacted a private investigator, who helped collect evidence that led to the arrest of Nicholes.
Nicholes’s alleged scam—as bizarre as it seems—follows a well-worn (and often successful) formula. Psychic scammers use various psychological principles to ensnare their prey.
One of them is incremental investment, or the escalation of commitment. Once a person has invested a significant amount of time, money, and personal experience in a project, they are more likely to keep going. At some point the behavioral and economic principle of the sunken cost fallacy often comes up: doubts or suspicions that something is not right are rationalized away because the person has already invested time and money—not to mention emotional attachment and likely even friendship—in the project.
The victim’s state of mind is important as well: People who go to psychics are a self-selected group who share certain characteristics that make them especially vulnerable to exploitation. Perhaps most obviously, they are not skeptics but instead people who believe in the existence of psychic abilities. Second, they are unhappy with some aspect of their lives and are seeking answers to important life questions that concern them: health, wealth, love, career, relationships, and so on. Psychic scammers become masters of emotional manipulation and quickly learn what deep psychological issues their client/victim is going through and thus will respond to. Anything is fair game, from fear of infidelity to illness to infertility.
The psychic con artist knows that if the client tells his or her friends and family about what’s going on, they may suspect a scam. Thus they often take steps to insulate their client from others, much like cults do. For example, a psychic may say that the whole curse removal process must be kept secret, and if the victim tells anyone the magic spell will irrevocably fail—or the curse might even get twice as bad. In a particularly insidious theme of victim-blaming, the psychic may even tell the client that the entire success or failure of the curse removal depends on their faith that it will work—that entertaining any doubts will jeopardize the plan.
Why would a person believe a curse has been placed on him or her? Belief in curses has its roots in magical thinking and superstition. If a person experiences bad luck, ill health, an accident, or some unexplained or unexpected tragedy, it’s common to look for some external reason why it happened. For many, it’s more comforting to think that something bad happened to you because of an enemy’s malicious actions than if it’s simply bad luck or the result of random chance. If you believe that your poor health or marriage troubles have been intentionally caused through magic by another person, that implies—and psychics are quick to offer—a remedy to remove the spell or curse. Curses are an answer to the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people.
Con games may play out over the course of weeks, months, or even years. Psychic con artists aren’t looking to earn a quick $50 for a half hour palm reading when—with the right victim and the right plan—they could easily take the victim for $5,000 or $50,000. Many victims of psychic scams never come forward because they are embarrassed at having been fooled by what in retrospect was an increasingly outlandish series of claims. Nicholes, who has a previous arrest history, including for grand larceny, is scheduled to go on trial later this year.