Psychic Fraud

New York police are going to war with “psychic” Sylvia Mitchell. The NY Times reports that Mitchell stole $28,000 from one client and managed to take $120,000 from a second. The second victim also claims that Mitchell convinced her to leave the country.

In their most benevolent form, so-called psychics provide entertainment, and the only harm is the price of admission. All too often, however, vulnerable people are duped into paying high fees in the futile hope of obtaining “spiritual” guidance or contacting departed loved ones. This is when cheap entertainment crosses the line into a con job. The main difference between Sylvia Mitchell’s alleged crimes and what happens every day in storefront medium shops nationwide is that Mitchell had wealthier “clients”.

Perhaps some of these “practitioners” believe the nonsense that they sell, but there are no documented cases of anyone having psychic powers. Anyone who thinks that they can prove otherwise should claim their million dollar prize from James Randi.

The hard question is how to protect vulnerable consumers without unduly restricting people’s right to spend their money on foolishness or restricting their right to believe whatever they wish. It seems that state consumer protection departments could require so-called psychics, mediums, and spiritual advisors to be registered. No, we don’t want to license them, because licensing connotes some level of competence or skill in a recognized trade or profession. Registered psychics could be required to give written disclosures advising clients that there is no scientific evidence that psychics possess supernatural powers and that their services are for entertainment purposes only. The disclosures could also caution against requests for additional payments for more in-depth services or advice. Departments of consumer protection could then receive complaints and refer con artists for prosecution.

Could psychics continue to make a living if they were regulated? How should I know – I don’t have a crystal ball! But, if they could not, that might not be a bad thing for consumers.

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