“I wouldn’t presume to know whether or not Gwyneth Paltrow understands the gravity of promoting self-proclaimed psychics … but I, like you, fear that Paltrow’s The Goop Lab episode ‘Are You Intuit?’ will increase the likelihood of more vulnerable people being defrauded.”
When I interviewed private detective Bob Nygaard in August 2018 for a two-part article in Skeptical Inquirer online, he had been responsible for the successful prosecution of a total of thirty “psychics” and had recovered $3.5 million for their victims. We discussed some of his high-profile cases and talked about why people fall victim to psychic fraud. We spoke about the techniques used by the crooks to gain the trust of their victims and the difficulty of getting psychic fraud cases prosecuted. We examined the false claim that psychic detectives have helped solve missing persons cases. We also touched on who and what is to blame for the pervasive belief that psychic powers are real, as this belief creates an ocean of possible victims. And what a huge ocean it is; over 40 percent of Americans are believers!
So why am I interviewing Nygaard again? Since we last spoke, Nygaard has become part of the skeptical movement, has been a speaker at several conferences, and will be speaking at CSICon 2020 this October. But what spurred me to contact Nygaard right now was that I just finished watching the Netflix series The Goop Lab. And, to put it bluntly: I was outraged—especially by the final episode, “Are You Intuit?” This episode seemed to serve as a half-hour advertisement for Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal psychic medium, and worse, for the entire psychic industry. My take was that it will send more people to psychics and put them in danger of becoming victims of fraud. But perhaps I was overreacting? I thought getting the opinion of someone fighting the war in the trenches, so to speak, would be valuable.
Rob Palmer: On a February 2019 segment of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver did a critique of the psychic industry and pointed his finger at who he thought was to blame for enabling the very con artists you investigate. He said, “This surprisingly large, often predatory industry relies on popular culture to lend it credence and validity. Put another way, every time a psychic makes a grieving widow cry on Dr. Oz, ten con artists get their wings.” Of course, Dr. Oz and other TV shows promoting psychics alone aren’t to blame. According to Business Insider, Goop has been a key player for years, supporting the psychic industry’s growth due to its frequent promotion of psychics. What are your thoughts about the culpability of Dr. Oz, Goop, and all the other enablers in the media?
Bob Nygaard: Thank you for reaching out to me again Rob and for your, and the Skeptical Inquirer’s, continued interest in my work combatting psychic fraud. I find it reprehensible when members of the media promote psychic ability because it’s something that is scientifically unproven, and the flippant manner in which they often cover the issue often lends credence and validity to self-proclaimed psychics who emotionally abuse and financially decimate vulnerable people. That being said, I often work with responsible members of the media who assist me in exposing self-proclaimed psychics who commit fraud and in exposing police and prosecutors who refuse to do their jobs arresting and prosecuting these fraudsters. For example, it’s funny that you mention the scathing critique of the psychic industry that John Oliver did on Last Week Tonight, because I helped the producer with that show, providing him with ideas, opinions, and concepts that ended up being expressed in the show. (You can watch the video here.)
Palmer: After watching The Goop Lab’s “Are You Intuit?” episode and due to the huge audience Netflix has, my fear is that it will increase the number of people who believe in psychics and mediums and steer many of those new converts to visit someone claiming to have paranormal powers. This may lead to many more people falling for a con and into devastating financial loss. (So, this series may be sending you more clients.) Do you think Paltrow understands the gravity of what she has done by promoting this dangerous belief system?
Nygaard: I wouldn’t presume to know whether or not Gwyneth Paltrow understands the gravity of promoting self-proclaimed psychics because I’m not inside her head, so to speak, but I, like you, fear that Paltrow’s The Goop Lab episode “Are You Intuit?” will increase the likelihood of more vulnerable people being defrauded.
Palmer: I presume your friends and family, due to the nature of your work, must be more aware than most people are of the dangers in believing in psychics. Am I right about that?
Nygaard: Absolutely. My friends and family members are very aware of the dangers that often result from believing in psychics, given how acutely in tune they are with my work as a result of following my cases.
Palmer: Have you ever had to try to talk anyone you know out of seeing a psychic?
Nygaard: I talked with a relative of mine, who I learned had once hired a psychic for a party (prior to my specializing in investigating psychic fraud), and she hasn’t done it again.
Palmer: I know it was just released, but have you had conversations about this episode of The Goop Lab?
Nygaard: A few people have asked me about the episode, and I have informed them that, in my opinion, the episode is socially irresponsible.
Palmer: Let’s talk about why it is so very dangerous to fall for psychic fraud. Can you explain why someone who is the victim of this type of crime needs the help of a private eye in the first place? Can’t they just file a criminal complaint, have the person arrested, and get justice?
Nygaard: Falling for a self-proclaimed psychic can be extremely dangerous because it often leads to the destruction of a person’s emotional health and financial well-being. Unfortunately, when victims of psychic fraud attempt to report the crimes that have been committed against them to police and/or prosecutors, they are often met with laughter, and/or misreporting, and/or ignorance. I use my training and experience, both as a former law enforcement officer and a private investigator, to help victims navigate their way through a criminal justice system that is largely unsympathetic toward their plight and help victims overcome the many impediments that often exist when they are attempting to obtain justice.
Palmer: If you’re too busy to take a case, what are the victim’s other options?
Nygaard: I am extremely busy helping victims who hail from all over the world who contact me daily. Police and prosecutors largely turn their backs on psychic fraud victims, and I’m the only private investigator that I know of who specializes in this and has any success at helping such victims. So, when it comes to cases that I can’t take, the odds of those victims being made whole and obtaining justice without my help are bleak.
Palmer: Regarding your efforts at putting psychic con artists away … What are your stats now regarding convictions and recovered assets?
Nygaard: I have helped to cause approximately forty self-proclaimed psychics to be arrested and successfully convicted. I am currently hunting for five psychics who I helped cause arrest warrants to be issued for. I am also working on approximately thirty more cases, and I have helped victims recover in excess of $4 million. The aforementioned recovery amount reflects money and/or property that my clients have actually recovered as a result of my efforts. In terms of criminal restitution orders, the amount of money that I have helped victims get awarded is much greater. However, victims are largely unable to collect on such orders, given that self-proclaimed psychics rarely keep any assets in their name(s).
Palmer: I have seen you quoted in many news reports concerning psychics being busted. Some are not even about your own cases. Has having a Wikipedia article, or perhaps being in the Pink-Collar Crimes TV episode, boosted your name recognition with news outlets looking for input on these types of cases?
Nygaard: The Wikipedia article, as well as extensive publicity that I and my work have received as a result of public appearances (Skeptic Track at Dragon Con), and by giving professional lectures (NABI, Toronto Police Services International Financial Crimes Investigators Conference), have all greatly enhanced my mission to help victims of psychic fraud.1
Palmer: Let’s talk about your participation in the skeptical movement. I first heard about you on the Skepticality podcast and then wrote a Wikipedia article about you. Was doing that interview with Derek Colanduno your first encounter with organized skepticism?
Nygaard: The Skepticality interview with Derek was my first introduction to organized skepticism. I’m so happy that Derek contacted me because he opened the door, so to speak, to a whole new group of like-minded people, many of whom, including yourself Rob, I now consider to be close friends. It feels really great being embraced by a community of people who are passionate about combatting pseudoscience and magical thinking in an effort to make this world a better place, and I feel truly honored and privileged to have become a part of the skeptic community.
Palmer: The next time I heard about your involvement with skeptics was with your participation in the Skeptic Track at DragonCon 2018. Can you tell me how that came about?
Nygaard: After interviewing me on the Skepticality podcast, Derek asked me if I would like to give a presentation at DragonCon. Realizing what a great opportunity it would be to help spread the word about psychic fraud, I immediately jumped at the chance to participate.
Palmer: And what was the experience like?
Nygaard: Dragon Con is an absolute blast, and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s looking to have fun, socialize with members of the skeptic community, and learn a lot about skepticism. Fellow skeptic and magician extraordinaire, Jamy Ian Swiss, who has become a good buddy of mine, and I discussed psychic fraud for an hour on stage to a full house, and the reception from those in attendance was great. In addition to the Skeptic Track, I also was invited to appear on a few panels, including “The Science of Sherlock Holmes” and “James Bond-Spy Class” by Caro McCully, the wonderful director of the Brit Track. I really enjoyed appearing on those panels. Suffice it to say, there are many other interesting tracks at Dragon Con and something for everyone.
Palmer: And you did a repeat at last year’s Dragon Con? How did that go? What was different?
Nygaard: Last year’s Dragon Con was a blast. The biggest difference between my first year at Dragon Con and last year was the fact that I already had a group of established friends in the skeptic community, and it was a thrill getting together with everyone again. For those who haven’t experienced it, the camaraderie within the skeptic community is fantastic. Last year was also different in that I gave a one-hour solo presentation on “Combatting Psychic Fraud.” Like the previous year, there was a full house, and those in attendance were very welcoming and receptive. I was really impressed by the many intelligent questions that were asked of me during the question and answer session that followed my presentation, and I thoroughly enjoyed the one-on-one interaction with the audience and the exchange of thoughts and ideas.
Palmer: And of course, as Skeptical Inquirer is the magazine of CSI, I need to ask you about your plans for the CSI conference this October, CSICon 2020. I heard you will be speaking! How did this happen, and what are the plans?
Nygaard: I was contacted in January by Barry Karr, the executive director of CSI and Skeptical Inquirer, and asked if I would be interested in attending and giving a talk at this year’s annual CSICon in Las Vegas. I was absolutely thrilled to receive the invite and immediately accepted the opportunity to spread the word about psychic fraud at such an esteemed event. I intend on speaking about how dangerous reliance upon self-proclaimed psychics can be and things that can be done to combat the problem.
Palmer: I have not yet been to a Dragon Con, but from what I have seen and read about that con, the experience in Vegas will be somewhat different. For the most part, there is only a single track, so people do not have to pick and choose. And most noticeably perhaps, people there will only be in costume at the Halloween party. What are your thoughts about the differences?
Nygaard: While I definitely enjoy the diversity of tracks, the costumes, and the party atmosphere at Dragon Con, I’m really looking forward to CSICon because of its focus on science, critical thinking, and skepticism.
Palmer: Thanks again Bob! I’m looking forward to finally meeting you in person in Las Vegas at CSICon.
Photo credits: Except as noted, all photos in the article were provided by Bob Nygaard.
My other articles on these topics:
- Introducing Psychic-Busting Private Eye Bob Nygaard (Part 1) (Skeptical Inquirer online, August 2018)
- Introducing Psychic-Busting Private Eye Bob Nygaard (Part 2) (Skeptical Inquirer online, August 2018)
- Belief in Psychics: What’s the Harm and Who’s to Blame? (Skeptical Inquirer online, April 2019)
- Pepper Potts: Supervillain? Gwyneth Paltrow brings Goop to Netflix (AiPT Comics, February 2019)
- Netflix Slimes the World with ‘The Goop Lab’ (AiPT Comics, February 2020)
- Bob Nygaard on Wikipedia
- Partial list of media outlets that have publicized Nygaard’s psychic fraud work:
- Print: Skeptical Inquirer online, GQ magazine, Boca magazine, Cleveland magazine, Houstonia magazine, Stylist Magazine France, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The New York Times, LA Times, Miami New Times, New Times Broward, South Florida Sun Sentinel, New York Daily News, New York Post, The Palm Beach Post, Dallas Observer
- Television: 20/20, Dr. Oz, Crime Watch Daily, Pink Collar Crimes, The Security Brief with Paul Violis, Achtung Abzocke (on German TV’s Kabel Eins), various local and national news broadcasts
- Radio: NPR Public Radio, WFUV Fordham University, WNYC The Brian Lehrer Show, WOR 710 The John Gambling Show
- Podcasts: Skepticality, AARP’s The Perfect Scam, The Grift, The Modern Man, Security Matters, The Brainstorm Podcast