The Toronto Star published a story yesterday titled “US Prosecutors Say They’ve Shut Down a Psychic Mail Fraud Scheme Tied to Canada”. It states that Canadians were targeted in a psychic direct mail scheme it alleges scammed at least one million Americans out of more than $180 million. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said they all sent small sums of money for services and products, which included a “mysterious talisman with the power to attract LUCK and MONEY.”
At Investigation Counsel, we have received inquiries about frauds perpetrated by spiritualists. We have commenced civil recovery prosecutions against such people where the circumstances justify investing in a recovery. While there are a few media articles, there is virtually nothing published in Canada by way of reported legal decisions or in legal journals about frauds by spiritualists and psychics. This blog posting provides our views on this unique subset of fraud.
Spiritualism has been defined as a belief that spirits of the dead or other universes have both the ability and the inclination to communicate with the living of our universe. The afterlife, or “spirit world“, is seen by spiritualists, not as a static place, but as one in which spirits continue to evolve. These two beliefs: (1) that contact with spirits is possible, and (2) that spirits are more advanced than humans, leads spiritualists to a third belief: that spirits are capable of providing useful knowledge about moral and ethical issues.
It is this third belief system that sometimes creates an opportunity for frauds by spiritualists and psychics. While espousing a belief system is not a form of fraudulent misrepresentation (those who do cite freedom of religion in their defence), we are of the view that representing oneself as a “god” or conveying messages on behalf of a “god” or “spirit” is false and may result in liability for fraud. The other significant concern, discussed below, is that such people engage in extortive conduct.
Overview to Frauds by Spiritualists
Our modern reality is that sometimes persons with religious, spiritual, emotional or psychological vulnerabilities will turn to psychics and/or spiritualists when their issues are not resolved by traditional licensed psychologists, therapists and/or religious advisors.
Psychics and spiritualists, however, are unregulated in our society, and thus there is a greater opportunity for fraud than is present in traditional spheres of assistance with emotional or psychological issues or religious counselling. Fraud has the opportunity to occur where the victims/clients of spiritualists and psychics have vulnerabilities, and when the spiritualists’ fiduciary-type duties succumb to their own greed.
One of the difficulties with alleging fraud by psychics and spiritualists is proving that their representations are untrue. Is it possible to prove that a belief system is false? Is it possible to prove that messages (channeling) from beings, alleged to exist in other universes, are false? Citing freedom of religion as a basic human right, American Courts have been reluctant to declare a belief system to be false. However, when a spiritualist claims to communicate on behalf of a spirit, and when the communication is designed to obtain the transfer of money and property, we are of the view that Court may find that such representations are fraudulent.
Because of this difficulty in distinguishing between the communication of a belief system, and communicating (channeling) on behalf of a spirit to obtain the transfer of property, cases of fraud by psychics and spiritualists are normally only prosecuted as civil recovery and/or criminal cases when:
- The fees charged to the victim/client for such services are significantly outside of acceptable ranges charged by licensed psychologists, therapists or religious advisors;
- The psychic and spiritualist demands the transfer of money, jewelry or other personal property from their victim/client to prevent some form of harm or to obtain some form of benefit, with a promise to return the money, jewelry or other form of property which does not occur (the psychic and spiritualist converts the money, jewelry or other personal property for his or her own use); and/or
- The psychic and spiritualist demands their victim/client pay for their lifestyle, which may include providing them with a home, vehicles and necessities and/or luxuries of life under the guise that providing the lifestyle is a gift or legitimate form of contract for services.
Breach of trust is often an aspect of fraud prosecutions against psychics and spiritualists. By obtaining the trust of victims/clients, the spiritualist or psychic often obtains not only an unfettered view of the person’s vulnerabilities, but also information about their financial assets and resources. When, over time, the spiritualist or psychic obtains control of their victim’s/client’s state of well-being, the opportunity to extort and psychologically coerce the transfer of money, property and lifestyle arises.
Conscious and Unconscious Fraud
Spiritualism can be said to be a unique aspect or form of religion. Historically, however, in no other religious group have substantive charges of fraud played such a large part, and within no other group has the need to confront fraud had such an effect upon its development.
The question of fraud by spiritualists is an interesting and complicated one. Fraud is commonly thought of as simple deception practiced for money. However, with spiritualists there are occurrences of apparently deliberate trickery in which there was no reward to be obtained. Moreover, some academics allege that there exist cases in which the medium seemed entirely innocent and ignorant of the fraud they were perpetrating.
This has led to the concept of conscious versus unconscious fraud. For example, when the medium makes misrepresentations in a trance state, it could be argued that untrue statements made to induce the transfer of money were a form of unconscious fraud. Conversely, often frauds perpetrated by mediums appear in connection with physical phenomena (such as miracles or healings), and are thought to be a form of conscious fraud (the healings are disproven by science).
Whatever the reasons for fraud, those who research the representations of spiritualists have come to realize that even the most honourable spiritualist leader should not be trusted without reserve, even if his or her character in normal life seems blameless and there was no apparent objective for committing fraud.
As with frauds by purely financial sociopaths, the unconscious impulse to cheat by spiritualists sometimes seems to be beyond their control. For example, in Psychic Science (July 1925), Professor Haraldur Neilsson of Iceland referred to a case in which a perfectly senseless fraud was committed by a spiritualist who afterward confessed to instigating the fraud simply to validate his belief system.
Another way of considering unconscious frauds by spiritualists is to view the conduct as occurring in a state of dissociated consciousness. For example, in a trance a spiritualist may make representations with belief in the truth of their statements, while in the waking or conscious state they hold no subjective belief. This sort of phenomenon has been alleged in cases where a person repeatedly commits thefts in the daytime under the effect of a dream in the night before.
Based on the foregoing, the key to unravelling fraud by spiritualists is to disprove there is any objective to subjective credibility to the representations they make, and to associate these representations with unusual transfers of money or property to the spiritualist, or funding of their lifestyle.
It is our view that frauds by spiritualists most often take place in the form of extortion by way of psychological coercion. The Canadian Criminal Code provides that anyone commits extortion who:
‘Without reasonable justification or excuse and with the intent to obtain anything, induces or attempts to induce any person by threats, accusations, menaces or violence, to do anything or cause anything to be done.’
In common language, while fraud is theft by lies, extortion is theft by psychological coercion. It is our view that the tort of civil extortion is made by the same test as applies to the Criminal Code.
We are further of the view that rogue spiritualists may be liable for civil fraud, both at common law and in equity, if, by psychological coercion:
- They require the transfer of money, jewelry or other forms of personal property, or funding of their lifestyle, from their clients/victims, to prevent the occurrence of some harm or to maintain a state of perceived well-being; and
- There is a lack of objective reality to the representations they are making.
More formally, the traditional test to prove civil fraud, as set out the Supreme Court of Canada decision of Bruno Appliance and Furniture, Inc. v. Hryniak, 2014 SCC 8, requires a fraud victim to prove:
- The defendant made a false representation;
- The defendant had subjective knowledge of the falsehood (or was willfully blind or recklessness with their representations);
- The false representation was material to the plaintiff’s decision to act (induced the plaintiff to transfer money or property, or pay for the defendant’s lifestyle); and
- The plaintiff incurred a loss while the defendant or others were enriched.
We are of the view that with frauds involving spiritualists or psychics, the analysis starts with determining whether their representations are objectively reasonable. When their representations are found to be false by an objective standard, then the analysis shifts to whether the spiritualist could have subjectively believed what they were representing.
As in all fraud cases, it is essential to follow the money to test the credibility of the subjective belief being represented. As mentioned above, the dividing lines between those who are well-meaning spiritualists and those who are rogues focuses on the following questions:
- Is the amount of money being charged by the psychic or spiritualist outside of societally acceptable ranges for licensed therapists, psychologists or religious advisors?; and/or
- Are demands for the transfer of money, jewelry or other personal property being made by the psychic or spiritualist of their victim/client to prevent some form of harm, or obtain some form of benefit, with a promise to return the money, jewelry or other form of property which does not occur? (The psychic and spiritualist converts the money, jewelry or other personal property for their own use); and/or
- Is the psychic or spiritualist demanding their victim/client pay for their lifestyle, such as providing them with a home, vehicles and necessities and luxuries of life under the guise that providing the lifestyle is a gift or legitimate form of contract for services?
When these situations exist, and where the victim/client the spiritualist’s demands, the client of the spiritualist or psychic should retain a professional to conduct due diligence, with a view to obtaining an opinion on whether they are truly being assisted with their issues or are instead a dupe to a fraud or an extortion. This is also relevant when seeking a declaration of equitable fraud (fraud by a person in a position of trust).
To state our views more bluntly, if a spiritualist or psychic is truly concerned about the well-being of their client, the spiritualist would not be robbing their client blind.
Section 365 of the Canadian Criminal Code is one of five offenses which relate to the criminal offence of false pretenses. Section 365 states that anyone who;
- Fraudulently pretends to exercise or to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration; or
- undertakes, for a consideration, to tell fortunes; or
- pretends, from his skill in or knowledge of an occult or crafty science.
To discover where, or in what manner, anything that is supposed to have been stolen or lost may be found, is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction. Section 361 defines a false pretense as:
‘A representation of a matter of fact, either present or past, made by words or otherwise, that is known by the person who makes it to be false and that is made with a fraudulent intent to induce the person to whom it is made to act on it.’
While Canada’s Criminal Code prohibits fortune telling if it involves false pretenses, the offence is only punishable by summary conviction. Any serious cases are better prosecuted as a fraud and/or extortion.
Spiritualist and Psychic Fraud in the Media
As mentioned above, there are virtually no reported judicial decisions on frauds by spiritualists in legal search engines. Most examples of prosecutions of fraud or extortion by spiritualists or psychics that we have found come from a review of American media. We provide the following links to stories of some of the more interesting cases:
The Marks Family
One of the largest cases revolves around Rose Marks (65): the matriarch of a family of fraudulent psychics from Florida. In 2014, the swindler was sentenced to ten years for scamming $18,000,000 from vulnerable clients (read more at Daily Mail). Paula McMahon from the Sun-Sentinel newspaper wrote dozens of articles about the Marks family and says it is the largest Gypsy group in the United States: “Mothers train daughters to develop what they call ‘psychic’ or ‘intuitive’ powers’.” (Read more on Wikipedia Rose Marks) Sandra, or Catherine, Marks received more than $2.1 million from five victims in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Colorado (read more on The Daily Progress). Other fraudulent psychics are Rosie Marks (41), Vivian Marks (26), Michael Marks (44), Nancy Marks (47), Donnie Eli (43) and Ricky Marks (44) were all arrested (see more on ABC News).
Connected to the Marks family, the Miller name has a record in psychic fraud too. Cynthia Miller was jailed for $1,200,000 fraud. Her husband is Michael Marks. Another woman, Gina Miller (41), has been scamming over a 20-year period and deceived multiple people by convincing them that various types of harm would come to them or their families if they did not provide her with certain forms of payment. The victims gave Miller with cash, jewelry, gift cards and open lines of credit. Several victims also leased expensive vehicles for Miller (More on Fox).
In the United Kingdom Madam Meline or Sabrina Evon made several psychic fraud victims by promising them financial ruin, life in a wheelchair and the suffering of their children if they didn’t pay her to pray for them. One elderly woman was even forced to sell her house to stump up the money or she was told her son would get ill. She promised the money would return but fled to Canada. Ten years after she started the scam, she was sentenced with 15 months in prison and the judge divided £38,400 between the five victims (Read more on Get Reading).
Last year a New York psychic named Priscilla Delmaro scammed a very romantic British IT-consultant out of almost £500,000. She promised that the American girl he loved would fall for him. It later turned out the girl had died, but he kept spending thousands believing Delmaro could raise her spirit. During his consultations he paid £20,000 for a ‘time machine to cleanse his past’, £53,000 for an 80-mile gold bridge to lure spirit into another realm, £60,000 for a 90-mile bridge for Michelle’s spirit, £27,000 in Tiffany diamonds to protect his energy and £37,000 to rid him of evil spirit stalking him. (Read more on La Times)
At Investigation Counsel, we investigate and litigate fraud recovery cases. If you discover you are a victim of fraud, contact us to have your case assessed and a strategy for recovery mapped out before contacting police or alerting the fraudster. We also promote victim advocacy and academic discussion through various private and public professional associations and organizations. If you have an interest in the topics discussed herein, we welcome your inquiries.
 See also Parna v. G. & S. Properties Ltd.,  S.C.R. 306 and Snell v. Farrell,  2 S.C.R. 311.