Psychic Scams

September 10, 2015


They didn’t foresee their arrests—no surprise there—but some New York City fortunetellers have been revealed as, some frankly admitting that they were nothing more than, scam artists engaging in grand larceny. Here, from a New York Times article by reporter Michael Wilson (reprinted in The Buffalo News, August 29, 2015), are some of their stories.

  • Betty Vlado, 46, calling herself a “gypsy,” fleeced multiple victims from her shop on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, of sums totaling $55,000. This included $14,500 for a rock she sold to one woman, presumably as a talisman, alleged to be part of a meteorite she got from a “NASA insider.” She promised to pay back all the money but missed the court’s deadline and ended up in prison. Vlado, who read tarot cards, says if she’s paroled she will give up fortunetelling.
  • A Times Square psychic, Priscilla Kelly Delmaro, 26, was jailed and charged with bilking a businessman of $713,975. She promised to reunite him with the woman he was in love with—even after he had learned she died. 
  • Celia Mitchell, 38, worked in the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan. In 2009, she claimed that sinister spirits were inhibiting a client’s happiness, and offered to make them go away for a Rolex watch (valued at $11,450), many candles, and additional money—a total of $159,205, as stated in a criminal complaint. Asked by a parole board commissioner, “What is the psychic business? Is it real, or a bunch of baloney?” she answered, “It’s a scam sir.”

I used to follow such cases more closely when, for a few years, I was a member of a group called Professionals Against Confidence Crime, largely made up of magicians and detectives. I have occasionally been consulted in a case of fortunetelling fraud. Also I once demonstrated for a Discovery Channel special—“The Science of Magic” hosted by Harry Anderson—the secret of the “gypsy” or Roma “great trick”: passing an egg over the client’s body supposedly to remove evil influence, then breaking it open to reveal some repulsive mass (or blood, or a spider etc.) as apparent proof the evil exists. Many big city psychics have performed this or a similar trick.

I once obtained police warrants against a psychic medium who bilked several séance sitters by producing “spirit precipitations,” and I went undercover several times to expose other mediumistic deceptions. I have also given withering critiques of TV psychics like James Van Pragh, Sylvia Browne, and John Edward—once helping advise Dateline NBC on the latter, who was subsequently caught cheating (passing off information gleaned earlier as revelations from the spirit world). (For all of these exposures see my Real-Life X-Files, 2001, and The Science of Ghosts, 2012.)

Not every alleged psychic is a deliberate con-artist. Some (many with fantasy-prone personalities) first fool themselves, then unintentionally fool others. Cases like those reported by the NYT’s Williams, however, reveal the extent to which some psychics—claiming to dispel evil influence—are instead responsible for inflicting it.