How Modern Fortunetellers Pull Off Their Scams

How Modern Fortunetellers Pull Off Their Scams
Illustration by Stephanie Hans/Stephanie Hans

The voice on the other end of the phone, spiky with trans-Atlantic static, told Iiyah that if the curse were lifted, one day she'd be worshiped like a god. The key step now was to build a temple in Egypt that would clear out the dark energy.

Sitting in her bedroom in Luton, 30 miles north of London, Iiyah, 27, was getting used to such advice. In the four months she'd been swapping calls with the American psychic she knew as Sienna Miller, news flashes from the spirit realm had been reliably weird. But deity status didn't sound too bad.

"Bloody hell, who wouldn't want something like that? It was like a dream come true," she says today. "You're going to be like a god? It was going to be an end of all my suffering."

Iiyah, born in Bangladesh but raised in England, was a pretty, moon-faced accountant living a steady middle-class existence until the summer of 2006. In swift succession, she lost her job, and her four-year marriage snapped. She and her soon-to-be ex still shared the same house. Their fighting was constant. The only guy Iiyah felt tugging at her heart already had a girlfriend. She also felt lingering sadness from the still-unexplained death of her father when she was 13. "I was just stuck," she recalls. "I was scared as well. I didn't want the rest of my life to carry on as it was."

One day, she happened upon a website — 1masterpsychic.com — that promised a free reading from a psychic. "Will you revitalise your love life? Change your job or get a promotion? How will your finances grow and develop?" the crudely designed page asked. Iiyah dialed the 888-number.

Miller "said that me and [my crush], we were soulmates, and we were really meant to be," Iiyah explains. "It was really rare." But the psychic also sensed negative energy. She'd need $200 to scout the ether for an answer. Iiyah wired the money.

Miller reported that in a past life, Iiyah had killed a woman to be with her soulmate. The woman retaliated with a curse that kept the lovers apart in future lives and also blocked Iiyah from realizing her full potential. Only serious work could lift the spell.

So began a three-year ordeal. The lonely English woman funneled funds to Miller to pay for candles, quartz crystals, oils, and figurines. She remortgaged her house, took out loans, and borrowed from family. The money was wired to Miller's "assistants" in Hollywood, Florida.

Every time cash vanished from her accounts, Iiyah felt bad. But weekly phone conversations with Miller propped her up. When Iiyah fought with her family, Miller attributed it to "a manifestation of dark energy." If she complained about money, Miller said that in the future, she'd make more than she knew what to do with. Like a one-woman cheering section, the psychic constantly promised that a grander life was coming.

By mid-2009, Iiyah was dry. After she stopped paying, the waits between phone calls stretched. It was like the end of a long romance, death by small, painful degrees. "I just want to tell you that I am still here working for you and I have been kept away and only able to speak with the spirits," Miller wrote in a final kiss-off email. "Please stay strong and keep faith."

Then, radio silence. Iiyah had handed over more than $140,000. "I hated myself. It was just the worst," she says today.

Iiyah's self-loathing is the standard fallout from a run-in with a psychic scammer. Armed with impressive magic acts — a modern-day fortuneteller might wield a combo of internet savvy, Eastern mysticism, and/or freaky rituals with fruit — bogus psychics tell victims they're cursed, then fleece them for money. Law enforcement sources say many such scammers are Gypsies, or American Romani, operating out of South Florida. "It's something that appeals to the culture because it's such a lucrative way to make money," says Gregory Ovanessian, a former San Francisco Police Department detective and director emeritus of the National Association of Bunco Investigators, a trade association for fraud cops. "A good fortuneteller can make $200,000 to $300,000 a year easily."

In August, Fort Lauderdale psychic Rose Marks is scheduled to go on trial in federal court for her role in a record-setting alleged $25 million fraud perpetrated against best-selling romance novelist Jude Deveraux and other clients. Besides the high-profile names involved, what really distinguishes the Marks case is that it was prosecuted at all. Fortuneteller scams happen all the time here. They just rarely see the inside of a courtroom.


Until summer 2011, the Marks family ran the Fort Lauderdale arm of its business from a charmless one-story storefront near Federal Highway and Davie Boulevard. Clients were a mix of curious entertainment-seekers and genuinely fragile people hoping to patch up emotional damage.

That August, Rose Marks and eight other members of her family were arrested in a sting dubbed "Operation Crystal Ball." Authorities allege the clan used its spiritual hold to squeeze $40 million (later discounted to $25 million) from clients. The state's key witness, Jude Deveraux — author of bestsellers such as Scarlet Nights, Days of Gold, and 35 other books that together have sold more than 60 million copies worldwide — first fell in with the family in 1991 after walking into a Marks-owned shop in Manhattan. Over 20 years, Marks leveraged Deveraux's marital problems, pregnancy fears, and grief. Large sums of money and valuables passed between the author and the psychic, all to be used in rituals to clear out curses. Deveraux allegedly lost $17 million. (Marks and Deveraux both declined to be interviewed for this article.)

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22 comments
dontbefooled
dontbefooled

I've got a little test for any supposed psychics out there. This is open only to those that believe that they have psychic powers. 

I have written a random number down on a piece of paper. I am looking at the number right now. I will look at the number again from time to time. Simply channel my thoughts, and tell me the number. 


NayaAerodiode
NayaAerodiode

These fortune tellers are selling hope, and honestly, I'd rather them make the profit from their sales than any of the other purveyors of hope out there - that is, politicians and religious organizations.  At least the fortune tellers only scam the willing, and they only spend the money on cars and vacations, rather than the really destructive things that churches and political organizations do.  If a fool is going to be separated from his money, I'd rather it go to these guys than preachers.

wingedwolfpsion
wingedwolfpsion

Please don't refer to these people as psychics.  They are NOT psychic. They are frauds.  There are many legitimate people out there who are trying to use their abilities honestly.  You may not believe in them, but THEY believe in themselves, and do their best to represent their skills honestly.  (Here's a hint - no one legitimate tells you that you're cursed, and offers to lift it for additional money - they'd either offer to lift it for free, or wouldn't offer at all.  Plus, that sort of thing is pretty rare (depending on where you live).

Also, haven't the Roma been discriminated against enough, without being implicated, as a people, in things like this?  Discrimination against Roma in the US has been less severe than in many other places.  Fueling it is reprehensible.

gypsyhunter
gypsyhunter

sometimes people are in dire need of answers to the problems in their life. When someone is already in a vulnerable place, seeing a psychic for direction may seem like the last resort. Nobody goes to a psychic already knowing that they are cursed. Perhaps they should change their con to something different bc it seems like everyone that goes to them is somehow cursed. While some psychics are not fraudulent and may offer words of wisdom, others are in for the kill. The difference is that these fraudulent fortune tellers are selling false hope to vulnerable people, they are stealing money by false pretense. If what they are doing was not criminal, they would not be arrested and prosecuted. More and more people are stepping up to the plate and going after them. The majority of them chose to remain illiterate and not assimilate into American society. They should go back to where they came from. They truly are disgusting people. If you have not experienced it, DONT knock it!

gypsyhunter
gypsyhunter

sometimes people are in dire need of answers to the problems in their life. When someone is already in a vulnerable place, seeing a psychic for direction may seem like the last resort. Nobody goes to a psychic already knowing that they are cursed. Perhaps they should change their con to something different bc it seems like everyone that goes to them is somehow cursed. While some psychics are not fraudulent and may offer words of wisdom, others are in for the kill. The difference is that these fraudulent fortune tellers are selling false hope to vulnerable people, they are stealing money by false pretense. If what they are doing was not criminal, they would not be arrested and prosecuted. More and more people are stepping up to the plate and going after them. The majority of them chose to remain illiterate and not assimilate into American society. They should go back to where they came from. They truly are disgusting people. If you have not experienced it, DONT knock it!

gypsyhunter
gypsyhunter

sometimes people are in dire need of answers to the problems in their life. When someone is already in a vulnerable place, seeing a psychic for direction may seem like the last resort. Nobody goes to a psychic already knowing that they are cursed. Perhaps they should change their con to something different bc it seems like everyone that goes to them is somehow cursed. While some psychics are not fraudulent and may offer words of wisdom, others are in for the kill. The difference is that these fraudulent fortune tellers are selling false hope to vulnerable people, they are stealing money by false pretense. If what they are doing was not criminal, they would not be arrested and prosecuted. More and more people are stepping up to the plate and going after them. The majority of them chose to remain illiterate and not assimilate into American society. They should go back to where they came from. They truly are disgusting people. If you have not experienced it, DONT knock it!

smdrpepper
smdrpepper topcommenter

People need to stop being gullible.  What these people did was truly horrific, but there are no laws that can prevent gullible people from giving money to these people.  Psychics do not exist.  If they did, do you think they would be working out of a crappy storefront or house?  

Apply logic.  If it does not make sense, dont take part.

smdrpepper
smdrpepper topcommenter

@dontbefooled Just for the hell of it, 42!  And I havent an ounce of psychic anything.

dontbefooled
dontbefooled

@NayaAerodiode These fortune tellers are cleaning out the entire bank accounts of their gullible victims in short order. 

Religious organizations usually take a small portion of your money over time, not all at once. For that reason, I would say that the fortune tells are worse. 

It's a little harder to avoid the government completely, so I'll ignore that point.

I will agree that belief in nonsense, like you get from religion, could lead you to belief systems that will allow you to get fleeced by gypsies. 

Your best defense is to have a world view that comports as closely to reality as possible. 

gypsyhunter
gypsyhunter

@smdrpepper sometimes people are in dire need of answers to the problems in their life. When someone is already in a vulnerable place, seeing a psychic for direction may seem like the last resort. Nobody goes to a psychic already knowing that they are cursed. Perhaps they should change their con to something different bc it seems like everyone that goes to them is somehow cursed. While some psychics are not fraudulent and may offer words of wisdom, others are in for the kill. The difference is that these fraudulent fortune tellers are selling false hope to vulnerable people, they are stealing money by false pretense. If what they are doing was not criminal, they would not be arrested and prosecuted. More and more people are stepping up to the plate and going after them. The majority of them chose to remain illiterate and not assimilate into American society. They should go back to where they came from. They truly are disgusting people. If you have not experienced it, DONT knock it!

smdrpepper
smdrpepper topcommenter

@gypsyhunter @smdrpepper Its still fake.  There are no psychics and never have been.  All of them are out to take advantage of those people who are gullible and seeking answers for things when they just cannot blame themselves.

Sorry, but ALL psychics are fake and con artists.

dontbefooled
dontbefooled

@wingedwolfpsion @dontbefooled 

Wrong again. You're just talking out your ass again. That's not the scientific method at all. You don't try to prove a negative. 

Psychic phenominon has not been PROVEN. It fails every time they attempt to demonstrate it in controlled scientific tests. That's why rational people discount it. If we believed in every wild assertion because it could not be disproven, we would believe a bunch of crazy stuff, as you appear to. And we would be in the right frame of mind to be ripped off like the poor souls in the stories above.

I'll be happy to change my belief system when new scientific evidence is presented. As for the rest of your screed, it's just more wild-ass conspiracy stuff to be discounted out of hand by rational people. 

wingedwolfpsion
wingedwolfpsion

@dontbefooled @wingedwolfpsion It's never been proven not to, either.  You confuse lack of proof with proof of lack - a common mistake among those who do not understand the scientific method, but are overly fond of their own belief system.  Any scientist would laugh at your statement (that things which are not proven can be discounted).  How incurious of you!  The reality is more complicated than you imagine it to be.  People with ability have far more to lose when proof comes, than they would have to gain.  The reaction of those who do not have ability would not be something any of us wants to see.  As a result, you will find few people with high level ability are willing to put themselves into a lab.  I would point out that our government is still using remote viewing, however.  They seem quite attached to top secret programs utilizing this ability which you discount...  Your confidence makes you the same as any other religious fanatic; make no mistake about that.

dontbefooled
dontbefooled

@wingedwolfpsion @dontbefooled 

Wrong! Psychic phenomenon has never been proven to exist. Until it is, it can be discounted entirely just like any other absurd claim that you want to pull out of your ass.


dontbefooled
dontbefooled

@wingedwolfpsion @smdrpepper @gypsyhunter 

THEY may believe in what they do. That does not change the fact that what they believe in is untrue. If you believe in things that are untrue, then you are a sucker. A sheep ready to be fleeced. 


TBPlayer
TBPlayer

@wingedwolfpsion @smdrpepper @gypsyhunter There may be some people who honestly believe they are "psychic," but if so, they are deluded.  They may not be as morally culpable as the knowing frauds (the vast majority of "psychics," IMHO), but they probably do as much damage.

smdrpepper
smdrpepper topcommenter

@wingedwolfpsion @smdrpepper @gypsyhunter I agree, they believe in fleecing the gullible from their money.  Show me one bit of evidence that "psychic powers" exist and I will reconsider.  However, since there is no proof of any of these so called "psychics" have done anything but harm, any benefit they may have is purely a placebo.

 
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