It's only 5 bucks, right? That's how much a psychic reading might go for, so even skeptics figure it can't hurt. But for some—usually someone in a particularly vulnerable state, looking for hope—that $5 is the entry point to financial ruin. A story by Sylvia Varnham O’Regan at GQ explores the world of psychic scams and how they work. The story begins with the extreme example of woman identified only as Ruth, who ended up paying $740,000, the bulk of her life savings, to a New York City psychic over several years. Even Ruth herself is stunned she allowed it to happen. Typically, the psychic will start by telling clients they need to buy something relatively inexpensive, like a gold medallion, for protection. And, crucially, clients are promised they'll get their money back once all the "negative energies" and "curses" are lifted.
But one deadline after another passes, and the psychic says more purchases are necessary. Ever so gradually, the purchases get bigger, as happened in Ruth's case. “It is so deep, as far as the careful, managed manipulation that goes on,” says Paul Seager, a lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire's School of Psychology. “It’s like a cult leader that has people under his control and they feel that they have to stay in the cult—but it’s one-on-one.” The story also looks at a private investigator, Bob Nygaard, who specializes in psychic cons. One of his struggles is getting police and prosecutors to take the cases seriously as white-collar crimes. Some scams go on for 10 years or so, and "they can't fathom that," says Nygaard. "They just think it's completely absurd.” (Read the full story, which details how Ruth's psychic ended up in handcuffs.)