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Psychic Scams Are on the Rise

AARP's Fraud Watch Network, US Postal Inspection Service talk about the recent uptick

Sign that says psychic

Getty Images/AARP



Mike Ellison: These days, it’s hard to know what the future holds. And people are searching for answers.


Today we’ll learn all about psychic scams and how to keep financial ruin out of your future.


That’s coming up next.


Hi, I’m Mike Ellison with An AARP Take on Today.


A Segment




Mike Ellison: It’s the Halloween season, which means people are carving pumpkins, decorating their houses with skeletons and celebrating all things spooky. But there’s another frightening thing lurking around the corner, and it’s taking millions of dollars away from people.


<Amy Nofziger: During the pandemic, when people have been more vulnerable and honestly desperate for answers on what's happening in their life, we have seen a pretty big uptick in people calling that the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline to report their perception of being scammed by a psychic.>


Mike Ellison: That’s AARP’s Amy Nofziger (NAWF-zig-er -- rhymes with “scoff Tigger”).


The Fraud Watch Network helpline she mentioned is a free resource that anyone can use. If you want to report fraud, get tips on how to avoid scams or receive emotional support from peers who have also experienced fraud, you can call their toll free number: 877-908-3360.




<Amy Nofziger: Some of the things that we've heard from our callers are that they are cursed, that the psychic tells them that they are cursed or have bad karma and that is why their life is not going the way they want it to. They then say, "Well, to remove this bad karma, we need upwards of $10,000 to perform our rituals, to bless these rocks and these stones." Things like that.”>


Mike Ellison: Amy and the Fraud Watch Network team receive calls from people of all ages who have lost thousands of dollars to these sorts of scams.


<Amy Nofziger: One of the victims that I talked to was actually an older couple, had lost a job during the pandemic could not find employment and was really vulnerable and desperate to find out why they weren't having success in their life. So they did seek out the guidance of a psychic and they lost $9,500. Now I say they lost $9,500 because there were a lot of the red flags. They informed the gentleman that he had a curse on him and had carried bad karma in his family for the last, I believe it was, 40 years. The psychics are really using fear, fear to get these people who are already vulnerable, even under their ether even more and then requesting this money.>


Mike Ellison: So how do people find these psychics to begin with? For many, it starts with a solicitation through the mail from the scammer.


< Clayton Gerber: A psychic mail order scam is not significantly different in its approach to a storefront psychic. You have an initial pitch in the mail from, theoretically, some world-renowned psychic>


Mike Ellison: That’s Clayton Gerber from the US Postal Inspection Service. The USPIS is the law enforcement arm of the postal services. He leads a team focusing on mail fraud against seniors.


<Clayton Gerber: The letter that would come to you would appear to be highly personalized. It would be a mail merge letter, would have your name throughout. It would implore you to consider their services they can help you out. >


Mike Ellison: And at the end of the letter, without fail, the sender asks for payment. They might ask you to pay for their psychic services, or they might try to sell you an object that promises good fortune.


We’ve learned over and over that fraudsters take advantage of people who are down on their luck. AARP’s Kathy Stokes explained it best.


<Kathy Stokes:

Because we're all in a heightened emotional state, that's where scammers want us and they typically have to work pretty hard to get you there but we're all there.


Kathy Stokes:

Job number one for them has already been done. We're all in a position where, because we're sort of not ... I don't want to say we're not at our game but we're kind of not on our game because we're focused on being worried about our family and our friends and ourselves and trying to figure out how we're going to get through this whole pandemic and the economic impacts that it's going to be easier for a scammer to find a target and victimize them than before.>


Mike Ellison: That was back in April, by the way, episode eighty-eight of this podcast -- just a few weeks after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. Scammers’ tactics have hardly changed.


<Clayton Gerber: Faith is a very, very strong emotion and I don't question people's faith. So if you put your faith in this letter, you send your money off, you are going to get whatever that amulet is, you are going to get whatever that is the customer service aspect of these schemes. And you are going to get another letter that is going to ask you for more money. And you are going to be in a never ending cycle of payment, letter, request, payment, letter, request, that will go on for years.>


Mike Ellison: So how much money do these fraudsters make? With a large enough operation, they can make millions.


<Clayton Gerber: So we investigated a single mass mailing fraud that was a psychic solicitation, a world renowned, psychic. And over the span of 10 years, that scheme had defrauded 1.4 million unique Americans. 1.4 million different American victims to a total of $225-230 million over the span of 10 years. And that is one mass mailing scheme. We have now, through the work of my team, shut down dozens and dozens of these schemes. The losses we've calculated are greater than $2 billion from these schemes, easily.>


Mike Ellison: Unfortunately, the victims of these scams usually don’t get their money back. Authorities have a hard enough time finding the source of the scheme, much less tracking where the money went. Some people don’t realize that they’ve been a part of a scam operation.


Clayton Gerber:

We communicate with victims of these schemes all the time. They often don't believe us when we tell them that it's a fraudulent scheme. But assuming that you come around to this realization, or you run out of money and you can't keep paying any money in response to these teams, you are not getting your money back.


Clayton Gerber:

The fraudsters spend this money as fast as they get it in. There is no pot of money sitting there to reimburse you. There is no effective form of restitution. These are high volume, very small dollar losses that get co-mingled with millions of others who are sending in money for these types of schemes. And it is virtually impossible for law enforcement, for the Justice Department, for victim services groups, to try to decipher who's $20 is who's to try to get that back to you. And in reality, if we're lucky, we seize one penny on the dollar based on the amount of money that is lost.


Amy Nofziger:

I always recommend people to file a police report, regardless if they think they're going to get their money back or not. There are a lot of law enforcement agencies who will actually look into these scams as theft by deception. However, oftentimes you will not get your money back because some of the stories that we've heard from people attempting to retrieve their funds is that the psychic, as the professional role, did provide the services, they just didn't get the result that they wanted. And they'll say, "Well, I tried to remove the curse, but I can't." And so it's oftentimes very difficult. But with these scams, we always recommend people to report it and report it to law enforcement, if nothing else just so they know it's happening in their community.


Mike Ellison: After the break, we’ll hear about some other tactics fraudsters are using these days, and what you can do about it.


<Ad: Fraud Watch Network>


B Segment


Mike Ellison: While psychic scams are common, they’re not the only mail order schemes circulating right now.


<Clayton Gerber: The next we see are lottery or sweepstakes related mail order schemes. "You have won a lottery. You have won a sweepstakes. You have won a cash prize. You have won a car. All you need to do is pay some processing fee or some handling fee." These are illegal on their face. In the United States, you do not have to pay to enter a sweepstakes. Any lotteries in the United States are run by state sanctioned lotteries.>


Clayton Gerber:

I think the biggest increase in COVID-19 related scams that we have seen were failure to deliver schemes. When this first started, everyone wanted something to protect themselves; they wanted a mask, they wanted hand sanitizer, they wanted antibacterial wipes, they wanted these things. And the number of fraudulent vendors who cropped up to offer these for sale and would take your payment, knowing full well that they had none of these in stock and had no ability to deliver them and never intended to deliver them, those scams have skyrocketed. We call those a failure to deliver scheme.


Clayton Gerber:

Failure to deliver schemes are not unusual. They occur all the time. The problem is they're normally not getting sales in huge volumes because there isn't some impetus to cause a tremendous amount of traffic to any one particular website or any one particular catalog sales. But the pandemic did that. It was very acute and we saw an extraordinary increase in those and people lost lots and lots of money. That coupled with the acute time of price gouging, "We have Clorox or antibacterial wipes. You can get them now. They're triple the price." And people were paying only to receive nothing. So not only were you paying triple the price, you were getting nothing in return.>


Mike Ellison: The Fraud Watch Helpline has also noticed an uptick in scams since the pandemic started, and they’re likely to get worse as we head into the holiday season. Helpline volunteers receive hundreds of calls per day, so they’re savvy to new scam trends.


<Amy Nofziger:

I would definitely say one of the scams that has increased during the pandemic is a business imposter. And I say business imposter because it takes all sorts of business names. But the big one we hear about now is Amazon. So people will get text messages, emails, or phone calls saying that there's a problem with their Amazon account and they need to log into this website to verify that the charges are not theirs. The victim ultimately gives them money to make these charges go away. It's such a huge problem. We've seen it with Amazon, we've seen it with Netflix, we've seen it with PayPal.


Amy Nofziger:

And people will often ask me, "Well, how did they know that I'm an Amazon customer? How do they know that I have a Netflix account?" Well, I also want to say like, "Well, who's not ordering online? Or who's not watching movies right now in the middle of a pandemic?" Think about the couple of months when everyone was trying to order toilet paper off of Amazon. So the scammers are certainly just casting a wide net and hoping that they catch someone with Amazon account. But just know this is not how Amazon works. Any of these large companies, if you get an email from someone saying that there's a problem with any of your accounts, you take the initiative and go directly to that account's website, your account website that you know and have verified and check your account, to see if there is any problems there.


Amy Nofziger:

Another one that has drastically increased during the stay at home orders in the pandemic have been pet scams, puppy scams, cat scams. People will often say, "Well, what's that cat scam? You buy a black cat and you get a white cat?" No. It's where people are looking to bring a new pet into their life, so they're either doing a search engine for Siamese kittens or pit bulls or whatever kind of animal they want, and they're coming up on these websites. Well, it was the Better Business Bureau actually a couple of years ago that said about 80% of pet websites are fraudulent. So you get into a fraudulent website, you fall in love with this cat, dog, we had a bird last week. Someone was a victim of a bird buying scam. And you'll get in communication with the breeder or the person who says they have a pet. They'll say they need you to send them money for the deposit. And then because of coronavirus, they have to have special shipping crates and has to be hermetically sealed, whatever their excuse is, they need more money.


Amy Nofziger:

They'll often request the payment via a P2P app. And a P2P app, common names are Venmo, Zelle Cash App. A lot of those apps are virtually untraceable as well. And so once you send the money, the money is gone. And the reason is is because those apps were designed to be a money transfer system between friends and family only. And you're basically sending the money to a stranger. Last week, I actually had a couple that was very isolated and lonely and they were living alone and they wanted to get a cat and they looked online. They fell in love with this cat and ultimately it was a pet scam and they lost $300 in that.>


Mike Ellison: Once again, scammers take advantage of people whose defenses are down.


< Amy Nofziger: We're having a lot of romance scams. Romance scams have been around for a very long time, but honestly, people are isolated during the pandemic and so they might go online looking for a connection, a new friend. We've actually heard a lot of these romance scams starting on social games, such as Words with Friends or even on social media with Facebook or Instagram. So my best advice is if you are looking for love online, make sure you know the red flags. So if you're going to a legitimate dating site, make sure to not give any personal information out right away, turn off your location settings. If they fall in love hard and fast, as much as we want to think it's because we're that awesome, it's really a red flag. If they say that they're an American and they're living outside of the country, whether they're doing mission work, they're on a business trip, or even a lot of times, they say they're working on an oil rig, that's a huge red flag. They will quickly ask you for money for an emergency, or they'll even ask you for an iPhone. Big red flag. But, also a lot of people say that, "I wasn't even looking for love." And they'll get a friend request from someone they don't know. Do not accept friend requests from people you do not know on Facebook or Instagram or any of those social media sites. They are looking for people to target. And once you accept that friend request, they will then befriend you and they will try to steal your money.>


Mike Ellison: A key take-away from learning about all of these scams, it’s that it’s important to stay vigilant. One strategy you can use to protect yourself against fraud is to be aware of the red flags and read up on the different kinds of scams and how they work.


If you spot a scam, you can stop a scam.


And, if you’re unsure, Gerber says to ask someone you trust to help out.


Clayton Gerber:

I think it's difficult to determine when you're presented with a scam what type of a scam it is, and it looks a little different than what you might have heard of before, so maybe it's not a scam. So ask your friends, ask your neighbors, ask a family member. If you have any concerns, talk to someone about it. It is not embarrassing to ask. It is not at all embarrassing to ask. And your friends and relatives and family would love to talk to you about it.


Amy Nofziger:

We are always hoping that people report their frauds and scams, even if you haven't lost money or given out personal information, if you think you've been approached by a scam, please call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline. That number is (877) 908-3360. Our trained fraud specialists are looking forward to talking with you.



Mike Ellison: Thanks to Postal Inspector Clayton Gerber and Amy Nofziger with the AARP Fraud Watch Network team. For more information and the latest news, visit AARP dot org slash Fraud Watch Network.


If you liked this episode, please let us know by emailing us at


Thanks to our news team.


Producers Colby Nelson and Danny Alarcon

Production Assistant Brigid Lowney

Engineer Julio Gonzales

Executive Producer Jason Young


And, of course, my co-hosts Bob Edwards and Wilma Consul.


Become a subscriber on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher and other apps. Be sure to rate our show as well.


For An AARP Take on Today, I’m Mike Ellison.

Fraud Update: This week, we'll hear from AARP's Fraud Watch Network and the US Postal Inspection Service about the recent uptick in psychic scams and discuss how to spot red flags and keep financial ruin out of your future.

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