Fortune Telling in the Shadows

By: Darren Castro and Julian Klus

Lee Choong was going through a breakup and a job change. Eager for good news, she was willing to pay any price. She walked into a Greenwich Village parlor where she was told by fortune teller Sylvia Mitchell that she had very important information for Choong that could change her life. This first session would cost her only $70. The next session would cost her $1000.

Over the next two years she was conned out of furniture, clothing and $120,000. Choong’s problem, Mitchell explained, was her attachment to money.

Choong’s story is emblematic of the dangers posed by the world of fortune tellers. Hidden behind the dingy back alleys and dimly lit second floor neon signs advertising their craft, this shadowed fortune telling alcove of society operates unabated and largely unnoticed. Many problems exist for the clients, lawmakers, and psychics themselves. Because of the lack of regulation, the responsibility lies with the customers to report any misconduct and fraud they experience. There is also an overlooked issue with protecting and passing laws for the fortune tellers themselves.

People of Fortune

There are approximately one million Romani immigrants living in the United States, many of whom commonly tell fortunes. The Romani, also known as Gypsies, are of Indian origin. They faced discrimination and prejudice throughout their history and were one of the groups targeted for genocide during the Holocaust.

Because of this, there is a strong sense of family, community and culture entrenched in Romani society, and fortune telling is a way of life for many Romani.

The BBC spoke with Blackpool, England, fortune teller Sarah Petulengros who has been telling fortunes for over 20 years. Petulengros says that she follows a strong family tradition after her mother, grandmother and great grandmother before her. “I inherited the gift of clairvoyancy, it’s been passed down 100 years,” said Petulengros. “When it’s been born and bred into you it’s something you are used to. It’s a very simple way of life.”

The Big Apple’s Crystal Ball

On May 10, The New York Times reported that fortune teller Janet Miller had pleaded guilty to a grand larceny count and will serve one year in jail for swindling over $600,000 from a client. Miller was arrested last December and was charged with the misdemeanor of fortune telling and a larger felony grand larceny charge than the one she ultimately confessed to. Miller also paid $300,000 in restitution and returned two Rolex watches the client had given her.

Miller had claimed to have visions of her client’s dead relatives weeping from beyond. She also promised to a cure her client’s father (who suffered from cancer) and cleanse evil spirits. The method, as it turns out, was to give Miller over half a million dollars in cash to help rid the client of otherworldly threats.

The Times also reported that Miller is facing similar charges in Houston, Texas, where she is charged with taking at least $200,000 in 2009 from another female client.

Houston police investigator, Officer Gilbert Brillon, said that Gypsy fortune tellers would often approach patrons of an expensive Houston mall, telling them “I can see you’re troubled. I can help you out with this.”

New York senior citizen Robert Cambria claimed that he had a similar encounter with a fortune teller this past April. As he walked up Third Avenue, Cambria said he was approached by a woman “who was dressed like a Roma,” with a long skirt and no headscarf. “She came up to me and she hugs me, unprovoked,” said Cambria. She claimed to be an old friend but Cambria did not recognize her. The woman said she lived in Delaware, and wanted Cambria’s phone number to keep in touch with him. After he refused, Cambria said, “she hugged me again and the next thing I know her hand is feeling me up. She was looking for a wallet.” At this point another woman came up to the two and said, “Leave him alone. Let’s go elsewhere.”

In New York, practitioners of psychic readings are not required to apply for a permit. No such regulatory body in the city exists. As the Janet Miller case exemplified, New York State has criminalized the practice as a Class B Misdemeanor. The law in New York State says that if fortune tellers practice readings outside of the state parameters it is a misdemeanor punishable by 90 days in jail or a $500 fine (as described in penal code No. 165.35).

The law was designed to alert consumers that this activity is potentially harmful and the service they are requesting does not derive from occult powers. The law states that you are guilty if you receive compensation, you are solicited for money, you claim to tell fortunes or you use occult powers to answer questions or affect evil. The exception to the regulation is when you perform for a show or exhibition solely for the purpose of entertainment or amusement.

Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, said in a statement for Janet Miller’s case, “Fraud by a spiritual adviser is no different than fraud committed by an attorney, an accountant or any other person who gain an individual’s trust in order to steal from him or her.”

It’s in the Cards

Mark Edwards in his book Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium reveals how he spoke in vague generalizations about common hardships as a way to convey psychic ability. “I sense that you have relationship issues,” he told one caller to a psychic hotline, “which sometimes leave you fearful of the outcome.” A good psychic knows that different social classes have different worries and different dreams. Edwards told one rich man that “what seems to be missing for you is a free space where you won’t be judged by your peers or have to succeed.” Edwards stresses how these methods dupe people out of their money using techniques for mind reading and speaking with the dead.

Policing the Occult

Psychic Mary Amil has practiced readings in the San Francisco area for over 30 years. When her permit expired, she was unable to apply for a new one, as she had no birth certificate. Amil suspects she was born at home (she claims to be born in New York City) and her mother, an Italian immigrant, lived off the grid. Amil represents a common problem, which is a lack of proper documentation. Ian Hancock, professor of linguistics at the University of Texas-Austin, says that Romani culture and tradition makes it difficult to fit in mainstream society particularly the legal system. “This is an extremely common situation for Romani Americans,” says Hancock.

Different jurisdictions from California to New York have varying requirements; from having zero regulation to requiring a license or permit to operate.

Los Angeles requires posting fees along with posting complaint procedures, which represents the most lax requirements that exist. A bill was sent to the city council for licensing the industry but it failed to pass, according to police commissioner Rick Caruso who said, “Licenses would mislead the people and the patrons to think that these people are somehow or in any way qualified to do what they do.” Different regions of California like San Francisco have more strict regulations and require a license.

Other parts of the country like Salem, Massachusetts, require residency in the city for at least a year prior to opening up a business. The strictest regulation exists in Las Vegas where you must obtain a Psychic Arts license to perform individual readings. In order to obtain such a license, you must go through a criminal background check, provide 3 years of tax returns, submit fingerprints, and retain a health card and sheriff’s card. On the other hand if you are performing as an entertainer at special events you are not required to obtain a license. Some fortune tellers choose to classify themselves as entertainers to avoid regulation.

The irony of strict regulation in Las Vegas is that it brings a degree of legitimacy to the practice as officials in San Francisco feared.

Licensing is an issue because the credentials for being a psychic are impossible to check. How does one truly prove that he or she can predict the future? There is also a lack of evidence that the strict regulation licensing brings as a barrier of entry to new fortune tellers is effective in protecting consumers.

So far only a handful of cities around the country have some kind of legislation or law to protect consumers. However, the fortune telling community is aware that problems in the industry do exist. During last November’s International Astrological Conference in Bangalore, India, the Karnataka Astrologers Association adopted a resolution to ban dishonest astrologers in the public sphere. Astrology is a specialized form of fortune telling. The motivation behind passing this resolution, according to the Karnataka Astrologers Association, was to protect the industry from fake astrologers out to make money peddling “mindless prophecies which damage the reputation of astrology.”

Speaking with Tellers

Local New York fortune teller Bella runs a quaint psychic reading shop on 25th Street and Third Avenue. When questioned about fortune tellers and how they deal with their alleged gifts, she said, “You have to know when to turn it on and turn it off.” She said that the most common request from clients was a card reading as, “they want to know past, present and future.” Bella even boasted that she has the ability to tell if a significant other is cheating on a client by interpreting the tarot cards. Interestingly, Bella phrased her words to get around New York State law by claiming that the cards tell the future. In essence, her ability to merely interpret the cards clears her of breaking the law. When asked directly if she could tell the future, Bella timidly responded, “That’s right,” but was quick to change the subject. She declined to comment further on her alleged psychic abilities.

Another fortune teller located on 23rd Street between Lexington and 3rd Avenue elaborated on her trade and the rules she upholds to protect people’s privacy. She advises her clients to come visit “once every six weeks” to enhance their spiritual link and to help the accuracy of future readings.

She claimed to be able to tell a person’s lucky day or number, but said that specific sequences like lottery numbers were impossible and that, “if it was lottery numbers the whole world would come get readings and everybody would get rich.” When asked if a client could receive other’s fortunes, the psychic was hesitant to answer. Even for close relatives such as a client’s mother, the psychic said, “we’re not permitted to tell you somebody else’s life, even though it’s your mom.”

Futures cost an extra $15

Though states have taken notice of the vast amount of fraudulent acts committed against its citizens, spotty regulation of the fortune telling industry remains a problem. There is no unifying body of standards, and policies vary from zero regulation to a degree of regulation that brings an element of credibility to the practice. It is up to each individual state to identify fraudulent practices in the psychic industry and enact legislation to curb the problem. Romani fortune tellers themselves practice their trade mostly unwatched as the unique nature of their work makes it difficult for lawmakers to balance regulating and protecting the fortune tellers. With some Romani people led to the psychic line of work because of family tradition, these fortune tellers are left with little security and even less sympathy. Clients are also at risk as they leave their futures, and their money, up to the will of the psychics. As the responsibility of reporting the fraud that occurs in the shops still rests solely on a client, fortune tellers remain free to continue their business in the shadows.