Saturday, December 13, 2008


On psychics and fraud

Les, at Stupid Evil Bastard, talks about this news item:

A San Francisco woman who advertised herself as a psychic has been sentenced to two months in jail for bilking a love-sick customer out of $108,000 and talking her into buying her a sports car in exchange for purifying her of evil spirits, Santa Clara County authorities said Tuesday.

Lisa Marie Miller, 27, of San Francisco victimized a woman who “sought her out because she was in love with a fellow who was not returning her affection,” said Deputy District Attorney Cherie Bourlard. The woman contacted Miller in 2005 after seeing a newspaper ad that offered a $10 reading.

Miller convinced the woman that she was cursed and needed “spiritual cleansing,” authorities said. The woman gave Miller $108,000 from her checking, savings and retirement accounts as well as cash, jewelry and gift cards. She also financed a Corvette for Miller, authorities said.

Now, at one level, this unnamed “San Francisco woman” is very much like the Nigeria-scam woman: they both were taken for a great deal of money through situations in which they should have known better, in which most people would have known better. On the other hand, for some reason there seem to be a great many people who are taken in, at least somewhat, by the whole “psychic” scam. Otherwise intelligent people often say that they think “there’s something to it”, that it’s not completely bogus, despite all objective evidence that it is, in fact, completely bogus.

Yes, completely. Every attempt to show that it has any legitimacy has failed, and many charlatans have been exposed over the years. If there’s anything to it at all, despite that, no one has yet figured out how to channel it for real.

But that failure is not for lack of trying, and we all know that there are a great many people out there who lay claim to being psycho psychic, and who suck money from people — usually a lot less money than this — with those false claims.

And so we get to a point Les makes that I want to look at more closely. He notes that she was charged with “theft by false pretense”:

So I’m wondering what the crime actually is? How do they prove that she didn’t cleanse the “victim” of evil spirits[? ...]

I’d be curious to see what the false pretenses supposedly are. How is what she did any different than, say, Sylvia Browne who charges $850 for a phone reading?

Indeed, an interesting thought: when does one cross the line between fraud and... um... fraud? Between, I guess, just-for-fun fraud and criminal fraud?

Is it a question of the amount of money? The number of incidents? The promises you make? Surely not that last: why should it be OK to promise to tell one’s future, or to talk with one’s dead relatives, but not to “cleanse one’s spirit”? They’re all equally ridiculous. And the practitioners are all equally fraudulent.

But why should cheating someone out of $50, or $100, or $850 not be criminal too? Surely it is, in other contexts. If I take $850 from you for a Rolex watch, and I give you a $10 watch from K-Mart, I’ve committed fraud. So, if I take $850 from you to tell your future, and I tell you random, meaningless crap (And what else could I tell you?) haven’t I done the same?

Why are any of these people allowed to practice? Why aren’t they all rounded up and shut down?