How Modern Fortunetellers Pull Off Their Scams

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.

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Kyle Swenson
Contact: Kyle Swenson