For entertainment purposes only

Prospects do not look good for the numerous US psychics who have recently been convicted of fraud.

It would be easy to joke that a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., psychic should have known the verdict in advance. Rose Marks, 62, however, took her chances with a jury, only to be found guilty in September 2013 of 14 charges, including mail and wire fraud, money laundering and filing false tax returns.

Marks, who had psychic locations in Manhattan and Fort Lauderdale, was described in the media as the matriarch of a family of fortune-tellers. She was accused of bilking customers out of US$25 million. (Several members of her extended family also faced various charges.)

One of Marks' clients was of particular note: bestselling historical-romance novelist Jude Deveraux. The author of 37 New York Times bestsellers, Deveraux said she paid Marks US$17 million in fees during a professional relationship that spanned 20 years.

Deveraux, 66, was depressed and suicidal when she met Marks in the 1990s. She had endured eight miscarriages and was in the midst of a difficult divorce. Her encounter with Marks took place "in midtown Manhattan where the psychic claimed to work from a 'special room' in St. Patrick's Cathedral on 5th Avenue," reported the Daily Mail. "After several meetings, Marks told the writer that she would help her achieve a 'peaceful divorce' — for a fee of US$1,200. Although the author did not believe in Marks' psychic powers, she came to trust her after several of her prophecies appeared to come true. Marks managed to accurately predict that Ms Deveraux's husband would file for divorce — down to the hour that he would do so."

Once Deveraux was convinced Marks was a psychic, the con escalated. "She said money is energy and money is evil and if I had money in my bank account I was attracting evil," Deveraux said in court. Early in their relationship Marks told Deveraux she required US$1 million to continue her meditations on the author's behalf, but that the money, which needed to be kept in drawers in the St. Patrick's Cathedral room, would eventually be returned.

When Deveraux's eight-year-old son, Sam, was killed in an ATV accident in 2005, Marks took cruel advantage of the author's grief. "Deveraux testified that Marks tormented her with claims that the child had not gone to heaven and that Marks could transfer the child's soul or spirit into the body of another person, reuniting mother and son," the Sun Sentinel reported. "Marks told her she had foreseen the tragic death and prepared for it by saving an embryo from the in-vitro-fertilization procedures Deveraux had undergone to give birth to Sam, Deveraux testified."

In a tale too bizarre to seem believable, "Marks claimed that a virgin, who looked like the late Princess Grace of Monaco, had used the embryo to give birth to a child — the full blood brother of Sam, Deveraux said. And Marks predicted Deveraux would die, assume the body of this woman and be reunited with her child, Deveraux said."

Deveraux eventually discovered that the woman was, in fact, Cynthia Miller, a daughter-in-law of Marks.

Marks also claimed to be a psychic consultant to popes, former US presidents, the FBI, former US secretary of state Colin Powell and actor Brad Pitt, among others. She convinced Deveraux, who had been unlucky in love, that she would marry Powell.

Deveraux corresponded with Powell for four years, until she stopped because he would never agree to meet her. She later learned that her letters and emails were being sent to a woman connected to Marks, who typed back responses supposedly from Powell that had, in fact, been dictated by the psychic.

In her defence, Marks claimed her clients, many of whom were wealthy, willingly paid for her spiritual advice. She cited Deanna Wolfe, 72, as one example. Wolfe paid Marks about US$1 million over a 30-year period. After Marks had been convicted, Wolfe told the Palm Beach Post that she had mixed feelings about the verdict: "I don't know if she started out meaning to do this or if the greed and the money just took over. It's a sad thing for everyone involved, including her family."

Marks' trial garnered extensive attention, especially because of the money involved and the presence of a high-profile victim. But it was by no means an isolated case of psychic fraud. It is far more common than is perhaps understood. This makes more sense when considering one of the findings of a 2009 survey for the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project: about one in seven Americans has consulted a psychic.

Some of those Americans were given a psychic reading in a Greenwich Village parlour by Manhattan seer Sylvia Mitchell. In November 2013 Supreme Court Justice Gregory Caro sentenced Mitchell to between five and 15 years in prison for having duped clients out of, in some instances, large sums of money.

"One former client testified she paid more than US$120,000 after Mitchell said she'd help rout 'negative energy,'" CBS reported. "Another said Mitchell told her she needed to break her attachment to money and persuaded her to hand over US$27,000 to hold. She said Mitchell balked at giving it back but eventually refunded some."

"She wasn't telling the future," Mitchell's former attorney, William Aronwald, said after her conviction. "They came to her for help, and she told them that she would pray for them and perform certain rituals to try to get rid of whatever negativity she sensed around them."

Justice Caro didn't buy that argument. He accepted that some patrons just dropped into the parlour to enjoy an unusual experience and no harm was done by what transpired. But another type of client was "someone who's having some dramatic stress in their life — and then you just con them out of thousands and thousands of dollars."

Last fall was a bad time all around for psychics. In September, Chris Date, a well-known UK clairvoyant who claims he can speak to the dead, was caught faking such a transmission. During his guided ghost tour of an allegedly haunted hotel in South Wales, Date took his customers into the hotel's stables. He asked a purported spirit to answer a question by knocking twice — which it did. One of the customers and a member of the hotel staff were suspicious and waited behind to see if anyone emerged from the attic, where the knocking had come from.

"Twenty minutes went by and then this guy jumped down. Our staff grabbed the guy and threw him out," hotel owner Paul Francis told the Telegraph.

While Date's deception was basically harmless, many scams involving psychics have both financial and emotional consequences, the latter caused by vulnerable customers taking advice on face value, such as Deveraux did.

Some victims connect to a supposed psychic via a telephone or web program or TV network, such as that run by the 24-hour Psychic Today in the UK. In May last year, Psychic Today was fined by the UK communications regulator the equivalent of $20,000 for failing to tell customers that its services were for "entertainment purposes only."

That pales when compared to the US$5 million penalty levied by the US Federal Trade Commission in November 2002 on Youree Dell Harris, better known as "Miss Cleo."

Miss Cleo ran a very lucrative psychic telephone hotline from 1997 until the FTC charged her with deceptive advertising, billing and collection practices. "Consumers were harassed with 'repeated, unwanted and unavoidable telemarketing calls,'" the CBC reported. "The Federal Trade Commission says Miss Cleo and her various companies have misrepresented the cost of services in their advertising and during their 'readings.' The commission says the companies bill for services that were never purchased and collect the money in a deceptive way."

As part of the settlement with the FTC, the operators of Miss Cleo's psychic hotline agreed to cancel US$500 million in customer bills and return all uncashed cheques to customers.

Forensic investigators need to be aware that some fraud victims could be visiting psychics and giving them a lot of money but might need some gentle prodding to reveal this information. "It's rare for so-called Gypsy fortune-telling fraud cases such as [the Marks case] to go to trial, law enforcement experts say, and one of the reasons is that alleged victims are embarrassed and ashamed to admit they've been tricked," reported the Sun Sentinel.

"Have you been seeing a psychic?" is not a question that likely pops into an investigator's mind, but in some cases it just might need to be asked.

Marks is awaiting sentencing. Several family members had previously pleaded guilty to a variety of related charges and received sentences ranging from house arrest to several years in prison. Her fate is unknown, and it's doubtful there's anyone she could have a reading with who could tell her what it will be.