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The Legal Fortunes of Psychics and Fortune Tellers

Most people don’t believe fortune tellers and psychics can predict whether they will meet the love of their life, but rarely do we image them as thieves. However, there are some fortune tellers and psychics who cross the line. Ann Thompson was arrested earlier this month by the New York Police Department for defrauding clients out of $800,000 in cash.

One victim, a mother from Canada, was scammed out of $740,000. Thompson convinced the woman that she would never find love again unless she gave Thompson a 9.2 carat diamond ring. The victim also gave Thompson thousands in cash in exchange for spells to ward off demons. The private detective who reported Thompson to the police, Bob Nygaard, claims he has helped prosecute 30 physics and recovered about $3.5 million for his clients.

fortune tellersCould Fortune Telling Be Consumer Fraud?

Psychics and fortune tellers would claim they are offering advice to patrons, similar to therapists. The advice may be vague, but they can be meaningful for the listeners. Some psychics and fortune tellers might charge high fees, but so do other professions that people hold in higher regard.

On the other hand, there are clear distinctions between therapists and fortune tellers. The former are usually licensed by the state, follow certain regulations in their practice, including client confidentiality and billing fees, and are upfront about what their services are for. Fortune tellers and psychics are not licensed by the state and they do not follow any standard rules, hence an enormous difference in fees. More importantly, any advice offered by a psychic is cloaked in the supernatural to lure in customers who believe such things.

To be sure, there are some services that do not always pan out, but which are not fraudulent. Attorneys who lose at trial have not committed fraud if they have properly advised their clients about the potential wins or success rates. Similarly, patients who do not make it through surgery or who pass away from complications cannot always successfully sue their surgeon. There must be something different about psychics or fortune tellers beyond the mere success or failure of their advice or predictions.

The issue with the advice or service given by a psychic or fortune teller is that objectively they give no measurable economic value. People who believe in demons and ghosts might find value in the spells that women like Thompson provide, but courts cannot sanction them as market commodities. It is very troubling that such fortune tellers are often the only ones capable of diagnosing a problem, without any expert opinion that can verify their claims.

Is There Potential Criminal Liability for Fraudulent Fortune Telling?

For a prosecutor, proving Thompson and others in the fortune teller business are criminally fraudulent would be even trickier. Criminal fraud requires proving intent to defraud. Although most people and a court may not believe the fortune teller profession is selling anything real, that doesn’t mean they have intent to defraud. Defendants could argue that they subjectively believe what they are selling is real. Even if psychics and tellers don’t believe what they are peddling is genuine, they could still believe that the illusion and advice given could genuinely help the customer. Either defense would mean there was no intent to defraud.

Gathering evidence would also be difficult. Searching a fortune teller’s business would be of little help, since most tellers and psychics go very far in making the experience authentic.  It would be easy to argue that they honestly believe in what they say or that the smoke and mirrors were necessary to comfort their clients.

There are some “purchases” that are absolutely suspicious. A diamond to find a lover sounds like a bad deal – there are plenty of cheaper alternatives to find love. Indeed, the larger concern for a prosecutor is potential money laundering. Organized crime often uses items of subjective value, such as real estate or paintings, as cover to move large sums of illegally obtained money. Fortune telling could easily fall into this category – the value of the “advice” is not legally clear and defensible as emotional comfort if law enforcement questions the transactions.

This is not to say that all fortune tellers and psychics are fraudulent or involved with money laundering. Some could honestly believe they are doing right by their clients and there are probably plenty of people who feel they got their money’s worth, even if other people wouldn’t pay the amount of money they did. But tellers who accept large sums of money like Thompson should try harder to keep their businesses above board.

Jason Cheung

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