Psychic Scams

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Nestled away in the shaded alleyway of San Francisco’s upscale Maiden Lane, in a space that now houses an art gallery, once stood as a place of mystery and clairvoyance. For $20, Mrs. Sonia promised any person who set afoot in her quaint store the possibility of love and romance, health and happiness. But it was all in the cards.

Mrs. Sonia was not a matchmaker, therapist or doctor. She was a fortuneteller. Ten years ago, she operated her business out of this modest store. Now long gone without a trace, she has left behind heartache and a criminal investigation.

Lisa* is a victim of Mrs. Sonia, and it was only after a decade of keeping her silence that she came forward to authorities. In a period of three months, she was swindled out of more than $15,000. Now, she is working with the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) to track down Mrs. Sonia, and teaming up with the Board of Supervisors and the District Attorney’s Office to propose a law that would require the city’s fortunetellers to hold permits.

One day back in 1991, as Lisa was window-shopping around Maiden Lane, a little boy jumped out and handed her a flier advertising Mrs. Sonia’s services.

The slip of paper, with the word “fortuneteller” scribbled in Chinese, caught the attention of Lisa, who at the time was a recent graduate of UC Berkeley and like all her single friends, trying to find a decent date in the city.

“My friends and I always talked about having someone tall, dark and handsome enter our lives, so I thought that I’d go in for a reading on my love life just for fun and see if a good boyfriend was in my future,” says Lisa, 37, who is Chinese American. “I never intended it to be anything serious or true. I saw it as just entertainment.”

With the flier in her hand, Lisa slipped into the dim room where Mrs. Sonia sat, tucked away amongst the curls of incense smoke, flickering candles and dark, velvet curtains. She went in with a smile and curiosity on her face, reminding herself to be skeptical but at the same time, open-minded.

Mrs. Sonia looked Lisa up and down, and invited her to have a seat at the small, round table. The soothsayer immediately took out a deck of tarot cards and shuffled them, all the while darting glances at Lisa.

“I’d never had a tarot card reading done on me before, this was the first time,” Lisa says. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

After a few minutes, Mrs. Sonia cradled the cards in her hand and pulled out the first card. Trying to piece together the meaning of the card, Lisa knew it wasn’t a card that symbolized fortuity. She could tell by the illustration on the card that it was something bad.

Mrs. Sonia pulled out the death card, and proceeded to inform Lisa that someone in her family was very ill and was going to die. The news struck a chord with Lisa because her sister was diagnosed with leukemia and was undergoing chemotherapy treatments; moreover, her 17-year-old cousin had died recently.

“I was like, ‘Omigod.’ I was shocked,” recalls Lisa. “She then told me that I had a lot of darkness in my life caused by a curse.”

Gauging the concern rising in Lisa, Mrs. Sonia knew that she had found an opening into Lisa. Mrs. Sonia told Lisa if she returned for more readings and healings, she could help her sister.

“She said I could assure the health of my sister if I came back consistently to see her,” Lisa says. “I was at a very vulnerable state at the time, and once she brought in my sister, she got me. All I wanted was for my sister to get better.”

In the meantime, Lisa was instructed to buy candles and rosary beads from Mrs. Sonia, purportedly from Jerusalem and Rome, and holy water so Mrs. Sonia could perform spiritual work in healing her sister and expunging the curse in her family.

The following week, Lisa returned to Mrs. Sonia. This time, she told Lisa that the curse was even worse than she had thought and more work needed to be done. More work translated to more money; Mrs. Sonia saw dollar signs in her future, rather than a foreboding curse in Lisa’s.

At the end of this session, Mrs. Sonia ordered Lisa to bring in an egg for their next meeting. Confused and somewhat dubious, Lisa agreed to it. She figured she had invested hundreds of dollars on “healing items” already, and she wanted to see where Mrs. Sonia would take her next.

“She cracked open the egg I brought from home and blood just came gushing out,” says Lisa. “I was frightened. It was disgusting and scary and the image stayed with me for years. This was how she proved my curse.”

At the time, Lisa did not know that Mrs. Sonia had used a slight-of-hand trick and switched a prepared, bloody egg with the egg Lisa had brought from home.

Lisa said it was a very effective illusion. Before the bloody egg, she wasn’t really frightened by Mrs. Sonia, but seeing crimson, viscous blood oozing out of the egg rattled her.

“She started bringing in these scary, religious undertones and after a short time, I was scared to death,” Lisa says. “First it was the bloody egg and then it was the snake-in-the-jar-of-water trick. Somehow, using magic tricks, she got a snake into a jar of water right before my eyes. I believed her at the time.”

As her meetings with Mrs. Sonia progressed, Lisa grew more scared and isolated. She felt that she couldn’t tell anyone because Mrs. Sonia told her in order for the healing to work, she wasn’t allowed to speak to anyone about their encounters. Lisa also felt embarrassed and ashamed.

“Here I am, a college-educated, working professional getting duped by a fortuneteller?” says Lisa. “Yes, it was embarrassing and I didn’t know how to tell people.”

Mrs. Sonia then told Lisa that the source of her curse came from her money, and it was tainted. She insisted that Lisa’s money be cleansed by burning it or burying it in a graveyard.

Preying on her vulnerabilities, Mrs. Sonia told Lisa that she needed to transfer all the money in her bank account over to her. At this point, Lisa avoided and ignored Mrs. Sonia. But constant phone calls to her work and home together with reminders about the bloody egg stirred Lisa’s already frayed emotions. Lisa says she opened up another bank account, deposited a small sum of money in it and turned it over to Mrs. Sonia, in hopes of repelling the psychic.

“But she knew that I had more money in another account, and she got upset with me,” says Lisa. “I hesitated in giving her my bank account information because my life savings were in there.”

The badgering for Lisa’s money continued, and she was constantly reminded of her curse and the imminent death of her sister.

In retrospect Lisa says, “She just wanted more money from me and I had nowhere else to turn. I had recurring visions and images of the bloody eggs and I just wanted her to leave me alone. So I gave her all the money in my bank account, which was $15,000.”

After amassing a large amount of money from Lisa, Mrs. Sonia never contacted Lisa again. But that didn’t mean that Lisa didn’t live in fear every day.

“I didn’t tell anyone for 10 years,” she says. “I was afraid if I reported this, first no one would care and second, she would come after me and my family. I just wanted to forget about her. It was very difficult though, because I’d lost my life savings, everything.”

FIGHTING BACK

Living in silence and shame, it wasn’t until she saw a program on television in July 1999 that Lisa realized that she had been a victim of fraud and extortion. Dateline NBC featured a sting operation by New York police on fortunetellers.

The program also showed the egg trick that was carried out on Lisa, and uncovered how the psychics in New York City encouraged customers to buy candles, rosary beads and prayer cards.

“I sat there, watching the show, thinking, ‘the same thing happened to me,’ ” Lisa says. “I was relieved, but saddened that this was happening to other people all over the country.”

She did some research and found out that sting operations in other cities like Boston, Baton Rouge and Los Angeles had busted psychics who swindled hundreds of thousands of dollars out of unsuspecting victims.

But it was 2002 before Lisa finally called the SFPD and told her story. A December 2002 newspaper article about a proposed ordinance to regulate the city’s fortunetellers after several victims lost upwards of $200,000, prompted Lisa to talk.

“It took something like this to come forward. I couldn’t keep silent any longer because I wanted people to know about this,” Lisa says. “The fear tactics these psychics use are so powerful that it keeps you from talking.”

Lisa’s case landed on the desk of Inspector Greg Ovanessian, who has worked in the fraud detail unit at the SFPD for 13 years. Ovanessian heard Lisa’s story and started an investigation into Mrs. Sonia.

“This is the only complaint against Mrs. Sonia, but this psychic left San Francisco long ago,” says Ovanessian. “However, our victim was able to articulate clearly her experience and she kept all the evidence associated with the psychic.”

All of these are key elements in prosecuting Mrs. Sonia, he said, but it is up to the District Attorney’s Office to decide whether or not the evidence and statements are enough to substantiate a prosecution. He added that if prosecutors decline to take the case, then unfortunately, it’s the end of the road for Lisa’s case.

In order for psychics or fortune tellers to be prosecuted for criminal activities, there needs to have been false representation.

“If I’m sitting across from you and I tell you that you’ll have great things coming your way, then that’s okay,” says Ovanessian. “But when I tell you that you need to give me money, to buy candles or this will happen, but it never does, or that you will die, then there’s fraud and a crime here.”

This investigation is working against time. There is a statute of limitations of four years from the time the victim discovered that he or she was a victim of fraud, according to Ovanessian.

“The television program Lisa saw was aired in July of 1999, and we’re coming up on July 2003,” he said. “The clock is ticking, and we’re hoping to issue a warrant for Mrs. Sonia, or whatever her real name is, by July.”

SCAMS A-PLENTY

Since 1990, Ovanessian has received 53 reports on fortuneteller frauds from all areas of the city. There are currently 70 psychic shops in San Francisco, not including astrology readers. Ovanessian says he has not received any complaints about those 70 or the astrology readers, but adds that there may be more fortunetellers who operate from their homes or in rented rooms in stores.

He said Asian Pacific Americans, particularly women, are prime targets for fortuneteller scams and make easy victims.

“It doesn’t take a lot of convincing on the part of the psychic to persuade them about the concept of good and bad spirits, or the fact that there are evil forces lingering,” said Ovanessian. “Also, APAs tend to keep large amounts of cash at home. And language isn’t a barrier. Many of the APAs who go to fortunetellers are highly educated or are born here.”

Laurel Pallock, an investigator for the Consumer Mediation Program of the District Attorney’s Office, said that after receiving numerous complaints about fortuneteller scams, it was obvious that the city needed a better mechanism to regulate the psychics.

“I decided to see if we could regulate this industry, as in others like taxi drivers and masseuses,” she says. “This would require fortunetellers to get a permit. They would get their backgrounds checked, have their photos taken and get fingerprinted.”

This way, Pallock said, the city would have some kind of record. If a complaint were made, the police would have a name and an address with which to work. Currently, psychics are not required to hold permits.

“I proposed this legislation to the supervisor’s office last year, and presently it’s still being drafted and we’re waiting on getting a hearing date,” she says. “We should have the final draft by next month, but with the city’s budget and the war, this wasn’t that important in the scheme of things.”

Last December, District Attorney Terence Hallinan and Supervisor Aaron Peskin held a joint conference announcing the proposed ordinance. At the conference, a Chinese American woman spoke about how she was conned out of $17,000 by her psychic. There was another Japanese American woman who was told by her psychic that if she didn’t turn over money, her young daughter would bleed to death.

“I was a little reluctant to move it forward in the beginning,” Peskin says. “But Laurel did a good job in telling me the stories about the fraud victims and how they were targeted at vulnerable stages in their lives.”

Peskin said he was wary of getting involved with this legislation because it might have been seen as discriminatory toward gypsies. But he said this issue affects every community and every ethnicity.

“I have absolutely no problem with the age-old craft of fortunetelling,” Peskin says. “But we need to regulate this business so that we protect where there’s exploitation of people. We want to create an ordinance to let consumers have public oversight. This isn’t a way for the city to make money.”

Ovanessian said many who go to fortunetellers are fun-seekers looking for entertainment, but also there are those who may have emotional or relationship problems who haven’t been able to get answers by any other means.

Lisa said she still has lasting psychological effects from her painful experience, and it has left a lasting impression on her. She still gets anxious when she sees psychic stores or ads, or when she writes a check or withdraws money from the bank.

But for now, Lisa is trying to move on with her life. She’s relieved to see that the wheels are in motion for the criminal investigation and the proposed city ordinance.

“What started out as a $20 love reading ended up costing me $15,000,” Lisa says. “And she didn’t even tell me about my love life.”


*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.

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