When clarity is in short supply, some people seek out advice from tea leaves, tarot cards, or crystal balls. this is usually harmless. When does that change?

PAST A STREET SIGN full of promises, up a narrow set of stairs, the customer usually comes into a room with a small table and two chairs. Sometimes there is a crystal ball, or a deck of cards, or an astrological chart. Sometimes the room has the neutral look of a counselor’s office.

Psychic practices come in all varieties. Many are innocuous and small-scale, charging minimal fees for a brief, entertaining consultation, but more sinister cases have made headlines with increasing frequency. Just two years ago, an L.A.-based psychic was arrested and sentenced to jail time for scamming a customer out of $900,000 over an extended period of time. The same year, a psychic who called herself Tammy disappeared from her Midtown working space in New York after draining more than $50,000 from a repeat customer. Even in such highly-publicized and high-stakes cases, police are often unwilling to investigate. Can you arrest someone for taking money from a consenting customer?

In tarotology, the practitioner asks a question of a tarot deck before drawing a number of cards. In theory, spiritual forces guide the right cards to the top of the deck, providing predictions about the drawer’s future.

The answer to that question is anything but clear. Over a decade ago, California courts rejected a proposal to tighten legal regulations on fortune-tellers, and other states have ruled similarly, arguing that such regulations would be a violation of freedom of speech and/or religion. But in New York, fortune-telling has technically been against the law since 1967, when it was ruled a misdemeanor to take money for “claimed or pretended use of occult powers” to give advice or claim to “exorcise, influence, or affect evil spirits or curses.” Depending on how much money ends up being spent, psychics can also be charged with larceny. The moniker “Operation Crystal Ball” has been applied to a number of investigations and prosecutions from Florida to New York, as far back as 1999 and as recently as 2011, when one high-profile case charged 10 members of the fortune-telling Marks family with conspiracy and money laundering. This and other recent police crackdowns on psychic practices, however, have left many other psychics untouched, many of them still apparently unaware that they might be breaking the law. Neon signs advertising everything from birth-chart readings to aura-cleansings still line Manhattan streets and L.A. strip malls. At night, they cast a quiet, flickering light in the darkness.

A fortune-teller stands outside her kiosk in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, in 1938. Fortune-telling served as a practical livelihood as far back as the 19th century. Photo: Library of Congress FSA/OWI photograph collection

The History

Hundreds of years ago, when inexplicable things happened, say a flood or a plague, people pointed fingers at everything from witches’ spells to the stars. Beliefs in the paranormal and mystical powers are deeply entrenched in our culture. In the late 19th century, the psychic community of today began solidifying in urban centers across the country, as waves of immigration introduced distinctly new national forms of psychic practice into the mix.

As Natalie Zarrelli points out in Atlas Obscura, immigrants practiced fortune-telling and palm-reading for social as well as financial reasons. “Immigrant workers, who often faced language barriers along with social stigmas from old American xenophobia, did what they could to survive in their new home,” she writes. “With scant support from former networks in their native countries, immigrants sought emotional well-being along with financial security in whichever ways were available to them at the time.” For some of these early fortune-tellers, psychic readings were a way to “meet new people and function almost as therapists, in a pre-talk-therapy time.”

Clients of the psychic scene today are no less anxious than 19th century immigrants, even if they have less reason to be. There are robust networks of psychics in both Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, where a culture of spirituality meets a demographic worried about volatile job markets and industries. According to a piece in The Hollywood Reporter, pricey psychics and mediums act as consultants, “providing business advice to clientele.” The psychics surveyed in the article claimed that their customer base consisted of mostly “moguls, executives, producers, directors and, of course, celebrities who face waxing and waning popularity and career insecurities.”

Today, depending on what state (and even what county) in which a psychic practices, they face different levels of criminalization. Highly publicized cases of psychic fraud involving huge sums of money have made some psychics wary of mischaracterization and some customers wary of being duped. Ultimately, though, efforts along the lines of Operation Crystal Ball don’t diminish the appeal of possible mystic forces that could have all the answers.

The key word here is “possible.”

for some, doing psychic readings was a way to “meet new people and function almost as therapists, in a pre-talk-therapy time.”

Professor Chris French, who was once an avid believer in the paranormal, now spends his days running experiments that could prove or disprove the existence of psychic powers. Photo: Tim Cole

The Intellectual

Professor Chris French approaches psychic power in the way a researcher in any academic field would, as a subject for testing and exploration. An experienced psychologist, writer, and teacher, he asserts only what can be proven as a matter of science, which is why he runs various experiments with proclaimed psychics in search of a concrete answer. But that presents a problem with the paranormal: “I could never actually prove that psychic powers do not exist,” French says, because there is always the possibility “that I haven’t tested the right psychics yet, or I haven’t tested them the right way.” It also requires the always-tricky problem of proving a negative.

The easier part of his task is investigating the psychological reasons that so many people believe in the paranormal, psychic powers, ghosts, telepathy, and prophecy in the absence of definitive proof. Among his conclusions: The belief of others gives us permission to believe, and we would rather have dubious explanations of life’s inexplicable facts—death, dreams, and other mysteries—than no answers at all.

French knows all about the strategies that psychics use to get information about their customers. With the customer’s real name, the psychic can glean a lot from a simple Google search. That’s called a “hot reading.” In “cold readings” for walk-in clients, the psychic makes general statements about “unused potential” or “relationship troubles from the past” until the customer begins reacting positively or negatively, allowing the psychic to zero in. “There are myths about cold readings, that it’s all about observing people’s unconscious reactions, like twitches and blinks. There is some of that,” French says. “But a lot of it is about the clever use of language.” He gives an example: Say a psychic tells you that they’re getting something about an unfinished book. An aspiring writer would be astonished, and anyone else is highly likely to have a book they haven’t finished reading at home.

But what if the psychic genuinely believes everything he or she says, regardless of how the customer reacts? French outlines the difference between “shut-eye” and “open-eye” psychics—between those who truly think they have mystical powers and those who are knowingly deceptive. Of course, the shut-eyes may be deceiving themselves, and in any case, the customer has no way to tell one kind of psychic from the other.

Bob Nygaard specializes in the private investigation of cases of psychic fraud. After years of seeing vulnerable people fall prey to opportunists, he has little faith in anyone claiming to have supernatural abilities. Photo: Cait Oppermann

The Prosecutor

When customers can’t make the distinction between shut-eye and open-eye psychics, Bob Nygaard might step in. As a private investigator specializing in cases of psychic fraud and scams, he fields calls all day long from people all over the world who have been the victims of elaborate cons that robbed them of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. He has helped identify, capture, and prosecute self-proclaimed psychics since 2007, when he retired from the Long Island Police Department after 21 years of service. He says he’s currently working on 35 separate cases.

His clients, he says, are highly educated, sensible, often embarrassed about being conned, and tired of being turned away by the police. “Any one of us won’t make the best decisions when we’re at a vulnerable point in our life,” Nygaard says. “My clients generally had reached out to a psychic seeking comfort or assurance at the lowest point in their lives.” Psychics latch onto that grief and spin it to their advantage, says Nygaard, creating an unhealthy dependency and control over their victims. In a typical case, he says, a cheap palm or aura reading leads to the discovery of a “curse,” which takes costly ingredients and a prolonged series of equally expensive rituals to dispel. “They create a sense of dependency, isolate the victim from their friends and family, create a pseudo-world of spirits and fortune-telling, and charge a progression of fees.”

The cases that Nygaard has worked over the years read like movie scripts. His clients come to him still traumatized by the con, having not only lost an enormous amount of money but also still recovering from the stories that made them part with it: that their families were threatened by hexes or spirits, for example, or that only a major psychic intervention could avert an imminent, unforeseen threat to an intimate relationship.

It gets darker. Nygaard pauses when he remembers one case in which a distraught woman forked over huge sums of money to a psychic who claimed that a child she miscarried would be trapped in purgatory unless an expensive ritual cleansing was carried out.

“I can’t think of something more evil,” he says after clearing his throat. And to make things worse, police departments remain reluctant to pursue and prosecute cases of psychic fraud, generally preferring to tell victims that it’s a civil case. But Nygaard’s job is to build ironclad cases against psychic con artists, and decades of that work have inured him to the claim of mystic powers. “Nobody has ever been able to prove that they have true psychic abilities,” he says. “No one. As an investigator, I do a thorough job of showing the lies that help prove [criminal] intent.”

Whether it’s a street-corner psychic advertising 10-dollar palm readings or a high-end “consultant” bilking a client of millions, Nygaard advises avoiding them, though he insists that he has kept an open mind over the decades and acknowledges that he can’t concretely disprove the existence of psychic powers. “Psychics often have the perfect product,” he says. “That product is false hope.”

Even though Claire Bidwell Smith, a writer and grief therapist, started off as a skeptic, she's come to realize that the concrete existence of psychic powers might not matter. What matters is how psychic readings make someone feel. Photo: Carla Coffing

The Counselor

False hope might be the most effective sell for those in mourning. A number of psychics claim the ability to communicate with the deceased and pass on messages between loved ones. Nygaard would probably shake his head at the promise, pointing out the various ways that self-proclaimed mediums can glean information from the people seeking them out, whether it’s by rifling through pocketbooks surreptitiously or probing for clues under the guise of “fine-tuning the connection.”

But some students of psychic effects, despite being skeptical of mystical powers, say time with a medium can be as useful as sessions with a grief counselor or therapist. Claire Bidwell Smith, a grief therapist, author, and educator, attended psychic medium sessions while she researched After This: When Life Is Over, Where Do We Go?, a non-fiction work that explores various beliefs about the afterlife. To Smith, the search for proof that the dead go on living, whether the afterlife exists or not, is a useful coping mechanism. The more psychics she spoke to, the more she felt that psychics’ benefit for such clients did not depend on whether their powers were real or not.

“I started to find a new sense of healing and peace,” she says. As for whether that connection was genuine, “I realized it didn’t matter.”

Having lost her parents, Smith was a bereaved client herself, but she started her research determined to undermine the psychic experience. To shield her identity, “I used blocked phone numbers and fake email addresses,” she says. She softened, however, when she had “several experiences with psychic mediums that were uncanny, far beyond what I could put into my understanding. The psychics knew things about myself and my late parents that seemed impossible for them to have known.” Because they gave her an authentic sense of connection, “I started to find a new sense of healing and peace,” she says. As for whether that connection was genuine, “I realized it didn’t matter.”

Smith does have one caveat: To get the benefit of a medium, prospective clients need to have accepted their loss and have passed through the emotionally frail or desperate stage. That said, she admitted that psychics could inspire what she tried the feeling she wanted to impart to her patients—a sense of clarity and peace that gives them the freedom to “start moving forward in their lives again.”

Palmistry is the practice of divining insights about someone’s past, present, and future from the lines, coloring, and shape of their palm. Palmists believe that even the width of someone's wrist or the length of their thumb reveals something about their character.

The Psychics

“Psychic” is a term that encompasses everything from palm-reading and talking to the dead to reading tarot cards and analyzing astrological charts. Psychics range from young women in flowing skirts to grandfatherly figures in sweater vests. Some of their stock claims are laughable (“I’m seeing that you’ll be married within the year” or “Las Vegas is in your future travel plans”). Others are coldly generic (“You have many dreams but shouldn’t share them with anyone”). Other old standards are meant to carry great weight (“Your circle of friends is very small, but very close” and “You don’t allow yourself to process your pain”). To the skeptic, psychic sessions prove mainly that if you throw a handful of darts at the board and only one of them sticks, that’s the one you remember.

One self-consciously savvy customer, an inquiring reporter, tried testing the psychic’s cold-reading techniques by keeping an absolutely straight face, giving up no reaction to any suggestion the psychic made. In this experiment, the flustered young psychic—surrounded, oddly, by a clutter of travel trunks and fake skeletons—sent for her mother, explaining that she “is better at reading complicated energies.”

Maybe this beginner psychic was just confused and looking for help, not buying time. Who knows if she was the shut-eye or the open-eye type? The prosecutor may think he knows, but the professor doesn’t, and neither does Smith, the counselor. As she observes from her experience with psychics and her own patients, what you get from a medium depends on what you need.

After a while, the reporter’s straight face softened, and they started talking. Finally, as the session ended, the psychic said, “When you see a shooting star tonight, it’ll be a good omen.” Walking home, something seemed to flit across the sky. But that could have been anything.