Belief in Psychics: What’s the Harm and Who’s to Blame?

Rob Palmer

A few months ago, quite out-of-the-blue I received an email from a woman whom I will call Ann. She was the victim of a “psychic,” and the subject line read: “Psychic Fraud $42,000+.” The text of the email, and the attached copy of the paperwork Ann had filed with Superior Court in Connecticut, was disturbing. Over ten weeks, this woman had apparently lost her life-savings to a psychic. (Note: picture air quotes around psychic and medium every time you see those words in this article; that will save me from wearing-out the quote key on my keyboard.) 

This was the first time anything of this nature had happened to me. I am not involved in law enforcement, and have no expertise in these matters. There was nothing I could do for Ann. To be contacted by someone in such a bad situation, who thought I could help her somehow—where I was actually powerless—was quite a disheartening experience.

About this time, you may be asking yourself the same things that I did after I read the email: “Why did Ann reach out to me? And how did she get my email address? Why did she think I have anything to do with this sort of thing, or that I could help her in any way?” Ann did not make any of that clear and was not specific as to what she expected me to be able to do for her.

After just a little thought, I came up with a hypothesis as to how she got my contact info: it was probably because I interviewed the psychic-busting, private detective Bob Nygaard for Skeptical Inquirer, and the two articles are available on the CSI website. As a test of this hypothesis, I Googled “psychic fraud private eye.” This is what the search results look like:

Bingo! The top three search hits are all my handiwork. (I also wrote the Wikipedia article about Nygaard before I interviewed him for Skeptical Inquirer.) The phrases psychic fraud and private eye were both used extensively in all three articles, and my name and email address are available from the SI articles.

Nygaard was obviously the person Ann was looking for; he helps victims of this type of crime obtain justice, and this was made clear in both my interview and my Wiki article. For some reason, Ann didn’t go one step further and Google Nygaard’s name. If she had, she would have seen this:

The top two hits are Nygaard’s Wikipedia article and his Twitter account. Both contain Nygaard’s contact information. In any case, the one thing I could do was put Ann in touch with Nygaard, so I wrote a sympathetic reply, and gave her Bob’s contact information. I also contacted Nygaard to give him a heads up. Sadly, Bob informed me that he averages four or five calls or emails like this every day. The odds of him having the time to take Ann’s case were not good, and there is apparently no one else who specializes in this type of fraud work. But I did what I could.

You might ask why a victim such as Ann needs to hire a private eye in the first place. She had put her trust in someone who had conned her out of a huge sum of money. Then, after realizing she had been scammed, she had gone to the proper authorities and asked for the woman to be prosecuted. Fraud is a crime—psychic or otherwise—isn’t it? That should be all Ann needs to do. Right?   

In a perfect world, maybe. But in our reality, when someone reports to law enforcement that they are a victim of this type of fraud, they are often turned away and told it is a civil matter. The attitude is that “You gave away your money of your own free will. No one put a gun to your head. There is no crime here.” Nygaard told me after he contacted Ann that this is exactly what happened to her. The authorities told her there would be no arrest and prosecution, and to obtain justice her only recourse was to sue the psychic in a civil case.

The fact that these cases are rarely prosecuted as crimes is one reason it is always open season on the psychics’ victims. Psychics know they can usually avoid arrest and prosecution. Even when threatened with a trial or lawsuit, the worst that usually happens is they are forced to return the ill-gotten gains from the one specific victim who filed a complaint. They are then free to continue practicing their craft, like vampires on the prowl for a new supply of rich blood. I have to ask: What if the only punishment for robbery was to have the thief give back the goods that they were caught red-handed with one particular time? Not a powerful incentive to go straight!

According to Nygaard, the likelihood of getting jail time if you commit a crime of this nature is very low. The number of people who fall victim to these con artists, and cannot obtain justice for one reason or another, must be staggering.

How much money is lost to these criminals? Consider just the small subset of victims who contacted Nygaard over a period of about ten years, which he took on as clients and for which he initiated a successful prosecution. In total, this amounts to over three million dollars. Keep in mind that this was for just one set of prosecutions over the span of a single decade. Attempting to extrapolate this staggering sum to the total amount of money lost and never recovered by all victims of psychic fraud is beyond my capabilities. Some individual losses are relatively small—though perhaps not to the victim—but some are huge by anyone’s standards. Nygaard is familiar with one individual case concerning $15 million in unrecovered losses.

It is not only uneducated people who become the victims of this crime. According to Nygaard, these con artists are experts at psychological manipulation, and having an advanced education does not inoculate one from falling for their well-practiced scams. Nygaard says that he gets calls from people like lawyers, medical doctors, CEOs, and college professors. They tell him their horror stories, but sometimes feel the nature of these crimes is too humiliating to bring to light. Someone can feel their reputation is worth more than the hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more, out of which they were defrauded, so they don’t pursue justice. Don’t assume psychics are unaware of this bit of psychology.

So from where is this pool of victims obtained? How are there so many people who can be convinced to turn over huge sums to a psychic? In a 2018 Pew Poll of Americans, 41 percent of respondents said they believe in psychics. Never mind a pool of victims … this is a veritable ocean from which these con artists can fish for their victims.

Why do so many believe in magic today? Like most psychological things, this is a complicated matter. I don’t pretend to understand all the reasons, but among the factors must be the lack of critical thinking courses in early education. Also note that the aforementioned Pew poll shows that religious Americans are over four times as likely to believe in psychics as are self-identified atheists. It seems that if your worldview includes belief in the paranormal and an afterlife, then it’s a small step to believing that telepathic communications with your dead relative (whose name begins with a “J” or an “M”) by your neighborhood psychic medium, is not only possible but perhaps even likely. I asked Nygaard (who was raised as a Lutheran and says he still believes) if he thought that religious belief lends itself to making people fall victim to psychic fraud. I was a bit surprised when he told me “You know, I’ve never come across a case where an atheist got taken by a psychic. I’ve never had a case like that. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but I haven’t seen it.”

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In addition to the age-old impact of religion on such beliefs, I place much blame squarely on psychic themed “reality” TV shows and on the entertainment outlets which create this drivel. I’m talking about the TV shows portraying mediumship totally credulously. Among the long list of offenders are The Hollywood Medium with Tyler Henry (on E!), Monica the Medium (on ABC Family), Long Island Medium (on TLC), and Seatbelt Psychic (on Lifetime).

On these shows, thanks to a combination of favorable editing, cold reading, and other forms of deception:

  • Tyler Henry “demonstrates how he uses his unique gift of communicating with the other side to bring comfort, closure, and hope to his [Hollywood celebrity] clients.”
  • Monica Ten-Kate, a student at Penn State University is shown “dealing with college, boys, and the fact that she can talk to the dead.”
  • Theresa Caputo, “an average mom from Long Island … [helps] individuals connect to the spirits of their departed loved ones.”
  • Thomas John “picks up ride-share passengers and reveals he can communicate with the dead.”

I can hear the believers saying “It’s reality TV, so it must portray just what goes on in front of the cameras, right? They wouldn’t edit these shows to hide all the misses and only show a few lucky hits, would they? They wouldn’t use deception of any sort, would they?”

And unfortunately these TV shows, each dedicated to a single medium, are just the tip of the iceberg. Besides these, there are countless appearances of psychics and mediums on daytime TV being given free rein to perform their act, unchallenged by people who know the techniques and tricks being employed. Some of these were highlighted in a wonderful take-down of psychics and their media supporters on a February 2019 segment of Last Week Tonight by John Oliver. The clips of talk show introductions for the psychics and mediums, which Oliver included, were exemplary of the credulous nature of daytime TV:

  • “My next guest started communicating with the dead when she was just a toddler … .” (Meredith)
  • “She’s a wife and a mom who also happens to talk to dead people … .” (Steve Harvey)
  • “Please welcome celebrity pet psychic … .” (LIVE with Kelly & Ryan)
  • “Our next guest is a clairvoyant to the stars … .” (The Doctors)
  • “We’re back with a group of friends who share a very unique bond: they’re all psychic … .” (Dr. Oz on The Dr. Oz Show)

And regrettably, the problem is not contained to just TV. Many influential media outlets, print and online, join in the selling of this nonsense to the public. For example, Anthony William, the “Medical Medium,” is given a platform and was lauded by Gwyneth Paltrow’s popular woo juggernaut Goop as: “one of the most unconventional and surprisingly insightful healers today … the voice of a divine force called Spirit guides him to identify the roots of his patients’ hard-to-diagnose illnesses and find the best solutions to restore their health … .” (The archived article is here.) 

By the way, how is William not prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license? And why is Paltrow not charged with something (being complicit in medical malpractice perhaps) for promoting his paranormal medical services?

So, add up all this media influence, and you get the average person thinking: “Hey, Gina Marks in that little corner store-front place down the street, who advertises a first reading for free, is surely legit. What’s the harm if I check her out? Hey, it’s free!” If only the true believers would seek out the truth, instead of just accepting as fact what they see portrayed on these TV shows.

There are counterpoints to the “psychics are real” mantra easily available to anyone looking … if they would only look. (One example is this video which brilliantly exposes the cold-reading techniques used in live-audience psychic readings.) And every well-known psychic medium has a Wikipedia article that includes a collection of damning criticism that should convince everyone except (perhaps) the medium’s own mother what is going on. See for example Tyler Henry, Monica the Medium, Long Island Medium, and Thomas John.

As an example, let’s take a look at psychic medium Thomas John. On February 26, 2019, The New York Times ran a story reporting on a sting operation run by Susan Gerbic and Mark Edward, which proved John was using information acquired from faked audience Facebook accounts during group readings. (Well, to be fair, maybe it wasn’t John or his support team. Maybe it was the spirits John was in contact with. Maybe they hate the guy for misrepresenting them and disturbing their well-deserved slumber, so they accessed the faked Facebook posts and gave John the fabricated info to make him look bad. Yeah, that’s the ticket!)

Gerbic also did an in-depth analysis of John’s Seatbelt Psychic Lifetime show and reported that the “unsuspecting” riders given readings by John on the show are actually actors. All this is now documented in Thomas John’s Wikipedia article and is a Google search away for anyone looking to check him out.

But these types of psychic takedowns do not happen frequently enough to counter the B.S. spewed to the public from seemingly everywhere. And those who have already been convinced to believe do not generally look for evidence that would negate their strongly held beliefs. Anecdotally, I fail miserably whenever I try to provide disconfirming information to a true believer. They will not generally even look at it because they know I am wrong … because they have seen it on TV.

So back to the victims like Ann. Not all psychics take large sums from individual victims, but enough of them do to keep Nygaard busy full time for the rest of his working life. As he says, his clients are just “the tip of a huge iceberg.” And it’s an ever-growing iceberg, composed of financially shattered victims.

Believers tell me that a percent of everyone in any profession—even doctors—are bad apples, so exposing bad mediums doesn’t prove they all are con artists. True enough. I will even grant that some percent of people claiming psychic powers may be self-deluded, want to help people, and are not running (intentional) cons. Self-delusion is a powerful thing. This subset of psychics may actually believe they are helping people, take only nominal payment for their “services,” and have no intent to extract huge sums from clients, up to an including bankrupting them.

So, what’s the harm in assuming someone may have paranormal powers and could help you? Well, you need to go to a medical doctor on occasion. And we know medicine is real and often necessary. The difference is that psychic powers are not. There is absolutely no reason to take a chance on a psychic. Believing that someone has these powers—when no one does—leaves oneself open to a disastrous con, for no good reason. Because, did I mention that No One Can Do This? 

How can we skeptics claim this with any assurance? The short answer is that we know the tricks that are used, and we know that no one has demonstrated such powers under controlled conditions (i.e., conditions that remove the possibility of deception). If anyone could demonstrate such powers conclusively, in the long history of such claims, wouldn’t someone have by now? Besides the (only recently defunct) One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge (which many have taken, but none have won) there are a plethora of other smaller prizes. A true believer told me that “real psychics have nothing to prove or gain from winning such a challenge.” Really? How about turning modern physics on its head and winning a Nobel Prize? How about proving once and for all to everyone that there really is an afterlife? If they don’t need the prize money, then donate it to a charity or cancer research. What a pathetic excuse!

To summarize: despite the persistent lack of confirming proof, and despite all evidence to the contrary, the ubiquitous psychic-powers reporting in the media collectively reinforces the average person’s belief that this imaginary phenomenon is real. This contributes, at least in part, to convincing people that a psychic can help solve their problems. This needlessly exposes them to the possibility of destructive, unrecoverable financial loss at the hands of con artists who are masters of psychological manipulation. It seems apparent that any and all media outlets perpetuating the public’s belief in psychic powers have substantial bloodstains all over their hands.

Rob Palmer

Rob Palmer has had a diverse career in engineering, having worked as a spacecraft designer, an aerospace project engineer, a computer programmer, and a software systems engineer. Rob became a skeptical activist when he joined the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia team in 2016, and began writing for Skeptical Inquirer in 2018. Rob can be contacted at Like Rob's Facebook page to get notified when his articles are published.