A detective paused between bites of a late lunch on Wednesday in a Midtown diner and said, “It’s not very often you see a customer in a psychic shop.”
His point was that, behind the windows of those storefronts, evenly spread in every neighborhood in Manhattan, is some variation of two chairs, a crystal ball and a menu of services and prices — but rarely any people, psychic or otherwise.
The detective, Michael McFadden, asked: “How do they make their money? How do they keep their businesses open?”
Evidence of the detective’s observation — and one answer to his question — could be found on West 43rd Street, where a neon sign reading “Psychic” was lit in one storefront this week. The room was empty, the door locked.
The woman who worked there, Priscilla Kelly Delmaro, 26, was in jail, charged with grand larceny after the police said she took $713,975 over 20 months from one man. The man paid Ms. Delmaro sums up to $100,000 at a time after she promised to reunite him with a woman he loved. The payments continued, as this column described last week, even after the man discovered that the object of his affection had died.
The elaborate deception described by the man, involving payments for a time machine and not one but two gold bridges in another realm, was surprising to many, but not to Detective McFadden. A 25-year veteran officer and member of the Police Department’s organized theft squad, he specializes in deception crimes of many varieties, including ones by psychics.
In fairness to honest psychics, he did not suggest that every psychic has criminal intent. But he knows more about the ones who do.
He said fraud schemes like the one Ms. Delmaro is accused of running are not uncommon, and probably more widespread than anyone knows — although they typically involve smaller amounts. Victims feel duped and ashamed and don’t always come forward.
There are three types of people who approach a psychic, Detective McFadden said.
“You’re curious, you’ve never done it,” he said. Or a group of friends go together, for fun. “It’s a goof,” he said.
“And then you have people who are in crisis,” he said. “They’re very vulnerable.” A disreputable psychic latches onto this customer, promising aid and urging a follow-up visit.
“If they get you to come back, the hook is set,” Detective McFadden said.
The victims are often affluent and elderly, as eager for companionship as they are for spiritual cleansing. “They’re frequently educated, more sophisticated people,” he said.
When do palm readings and tarot cards become a crime?
“When they’re saying, ‘Give me money and I’m going to help you,’” he said. “I need to hear a person be told something that is not true.”
Routinely, a crooked psychic promises the money will be returned after it is “cleansed.” These promises are not met, although some psychics, after they are arrested, pay back money as part of their plea bargains.
The psychic community is close knit, often including members of large families that trace their roots to Roma families, also known as Gypsies. They compare notes, the detective said. There are rules. For example, a “three-block rule” establishes turf boundaries, he said. Disputes are taken up by a tribunal known as a kris.
Criminal psychics implore their victims not to talk about the “work” they are doing — the crystals, the cleansing of spirits — with anyone, sealing them in a bubble of trust, Detective McFadden said. He recalled a victim he met while she was still working with the psychic in question. The victim refused to believe, at first, that she was being swindled, and told the detective, “I’m not supposed to talk about this.”
Psychics can keep raising the stakes with new threats from the beyond, suggesting the victim and even the psychic are in danger.
Most criminal cases against psychics in New York begin with a victim walking into a precinct station house and making a complaint, but this is hardly a given. “Most people don’t think it’s a crime,” Detective McFadden said. “They think it’s a civil matter.”
The challenge in prosecuting fraud by psychics often begins with the victims, whose judgment and clearheadedness can surely be called into question. Detective McFadden has a ready answer for people who criticize victims of psychics as being so misguided as to have practically asked for it to happen.
“They say, literally, ‘What are they, stupid?’” he said. He does not think so, and uses the words gullible and vulnerable. But for the sake of argument, he likes to reply: “Is it O.K. to rob stupid people?”