What Happens When A Fortune Teller Costs You A Fortune?
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Bet you couldn't see this next story coming. It's about psychics who take advantage of the people who believe them. From member station WFUV in New York City, George Bodarky reports.
GEORGE BODARKY, BYLINE: Priti Mahalanobis was going through a rough time, so when she received an advertisement for a psychic reading, she thought, why not?
PRITI MAHALANOBIS: Was $20 for an initial reading. And so curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to give her a call.
BODARKY: The fortune teller told Mahalanobis her family was cursed. But with her help, that curse could be lifted.
MAHALANOBIS: I'll make sure that, you know, this evil has been put to rest and so this curse can no longer affect you and your family.
BODARKY: So over the course of several months, Mahalanobis gave the psychic nearly $136,000 in cash, jewelry and gift cards to perform rituals to remove the curse. But instead of life getting better, Mahalanobis says it got worse. She even lost her business, a Quiznos sandwich shop.
MAHALANOBIS: I think I hit rock bottom at that point because I lost the business, and things weren't working out the way she told me it would.
BODARKY: That's when Mahalanobis cried fraud and called Bob Nygaard for help. He's a private investigator and retired police officer who specializes in psychic scams.
BOB NYGAARD: Usually in these type of crimes, the con artist does what they call a cold reading. They initially just ask questions as to elicit what type of problem the person is experiencing. Usually it's something in love, money or a health. Once they key in on that, then they come in for the kill.
BODARKY: Nygaard points to one of his undercover investigations. In this recording, New York City psychic reader Christine Evans is promising Nygaard, posing as a guy named John, that she can reunite him with a lost love for 500 bucks.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHRISTINE EVANS: Go to the ATM. We have one right next door. John, do you want her?
NYGAARD: (As John) Yes.
EVANS: Then you got to do the work. You got to do it.
BODARKY: Many cities and states have laws that ban or restrict fortune telling. New York only allows it with a disclaimer that it's for entertainment purposes only. But Nygaard says he still finds it hard to get law enforcement to take the issue seriously.
NYGAARD: Most of the time when a victim calls me, I say, do you - have you been to the police? And they say yeah. And I say, what happened? And they said, oh, well, they told me it's not a crime.
BODARKY: Top New York City Police brass might not argue that point.
TERENCE MONAHAN: I would look at it more as a civil matter.
BODARKY: That's Terence Monahan. He's chief of department for the New York City Police Department.
MONAHAN: Of course you're freely going in there. It's your belief that what they're telling you is true. And who am I to say your beliefs are wrong?
BODARKY: The NYPD did arrest Christine Evans. The case against her is still pending. I wasn't able to reach Evans or her lawyer for comment, but I did talk with New York City defense attorney Robert Gottlieb. He's currently representing a psychic accused of swindling clients out of more than a million dollars. She's facing a slew of charges, including scheme to defraud and grand larceny, counts Gottlieb says should never apply to psychics.
ROBERT GOTTLIEB: What's the difference between what a psychic is doing for people who voluntarily pay good money for peace of mind and what a televangelist provides?
BODARKY: So then how do you protect yourself from a malicious medium? For that, I turn to Daniel Neusom, who says he's a genuine psychic, not a scammer.
DANIEL NEUSOM: If you work with anyone who gives you the impression that they have a very special power and your problems can only be solved by working with them, that should be a major red flag.
BODARKY: Neusom adds that if a spiritual adviser says you're cursed and asks for large sums of money, chances are your psychic is more interested in cash than clairvoyance. For NPR News, I'm George Bodarky in New York.
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