After losing her job and breaking up with her boyfriend in the same day, a distraught Debra pays a visit to a psychic. Little does Debra know that the shop is part of a larger criminal organization, and Sylvia, the psychic who gives her a reading, is a scammer. After a series of readings of increasing cost, Sylvia tells Debra that all of Debra’s troubles stem from her trust issues surrounding money. To solve these problems, Sylvia prompts Debra to hand over a $28,000 check — to prove that Debra trusts others with her money. Sylvia promises to hold on to the check and return it the next day. However, Sylvia immediately cashes the check and cuts off all communication with Debra.
Debra tries a number of ways to get her money back — including contacting the police — to no avail. Eventually, Debra is referred to Bob Nygaard, a private investigator and retired police officer who specializes in helping victims of psychic scams. Debra tells Bob about her case, and he agrees to take it on. Bob works to chase down the facts, trying to get Debra justice. He finds that Sylvia has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from victims. It takes five years, but Bob finally gathers enough evidence to take down Sylvia.
[00:00:02] Welcome back to The Perfect Scam, I’m your host., Bob Sullivan. Once again this week, we’re digging into the archives and replaying one of our favorite episodes for you. It’s part 2 of The Hidden World of Psychic Scams. Last week, we met Debra who was at a low point in life and visited a psychic. But instead of finding answers, she found herself in the middle of a crime scene. The psychic stole $28,000 from Debra and similar amounts from other victims. When we left the story, Debra had enlisted the help of Bob Nygaard, a retired police officer who has spent years chasing psychics and their scams. Nygaard knows every psychic’s tactics and he’ll share them with you in this episode, but does he help Debra get her money back and get justice? Here’s host Will Johnson with the conclusion of the story.
[00:00:57] Will: Last week we told you about Debra, newly single and out of work, she went to see a psychic, and on her third visit ended up giving her $28,000. The psychic told Debra that all her issues had to do with money, or at least her attachment to money. If she could just hand over the check for one night, she'd get it back the next day. That didn't happen. Desperate to get her money back, she reaches out to police, didn't get much help until she got a recommendation.
[00:01:25] Debra: I need, I need help from the police, and do you have anyone that you can recommend that I talk to about this? And said, this gentleman in the police department said, "Actually I do." And he referred me to Bob Nygaard.
[00:01:38] Will: Bob Nygaard is a retired New York cop and a private investigator. His specialty is busting psychic scams.
[00:01:44] Bob Nygaard: Yeah, she called me up one day out of the blue and I went, and I met with her on the west coast of Florida, and we sat down.
[00:01:50] Debra: We had a very long meeting. We talked about what financial obligations I would have towards him because now I was going down the rabbit hole financially.
[00:01:59] Bob Nygaard: And I went over, you know, what was going on in your life when, when you first decided to walk into the, the psychic shop?
[00:02:07] Will: That's how Bob starts all of his investigations. He asks a lot of questions. He wants to know what was going on before, during, and after someone becomes a victim of a scam.
[00:02:16] Bob Nygaard: Usually it's something involving love, money, or health. And what happens is when someone's grieving the loss of a loved one, someone was diagnosed with cancer, someone's boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife left them, or they found out they were cheating on them, someone lost their job, you know, all of these; love, money, and health are the three big issues that people have, and what happens is when someone is dealing with a certain situation like that, they suspend their critical thinking, uh and they become vulnerable. And what the self-proclaimed psychic does is when the person walks in, they do what's known as a cold greeting. Someone walks in cold off the street, they size them up, they do ask various questions and they look for verbal and nonverbal clues and responses, and they find out what is the sore spot. What is bothering this person?
[00:03:05] Will: And in the case of Debra, she said well you have trust issues with money and asked for this, you know, twenty something thousand dollar check, is that a common tactic or is, or is that like a special grab?
[00:03:16] Bob Nygaard: No that, that's a common tactic, and what happened with Debra is she had two things working against her; one, she uh, her boyfriend broke up with her, and two, she lost her job, and it was both within hours in the same day.
[00:03:28] Will: Yeah.
[00:03:29] Bob Nygaard: And went into the parlor at uh, in Greenwich, in Greenwich Village, and she walked into the fortune telling parlor with a nice opulent looking parlor, very upscale looking. The woman was very nicely dressed, the self-proclaimed psychic who defrauded her, um, and was convicted, Sylvia Mitchell, and uh, Sylvia quickly sized her up and found out that she had lost her job, found out that her boyfriend had broken up with her, and she told her that the root cause of her problem was that she had too strong an attachment to money and she told her that back in Egyptian times she was an Egyptian ruler of some type, and that she didn't treat people right, and that she had this strong attachment to money, and what she needed to do was she needed to just let the psychics, she said, "I need you to let me hold the money temporarily just to show, as an exercise, that you don't have this strong attachment to money. We need to work on that, and don't worry, the money's not for me, I'm doing God's work, you know, you're going to get the money back."
[00:04:27] Will: Debra agreed to pay Bob $500 to look into her case, and he went right to work following the money.
[00:04:32] Bob Nygaard: I do it like any other financial investigation. I look for whatever evidence there is, such as text messages and emails, and uh the bank transfers, or you know, showing that the victim actually withdrew the money from the bank, uh showing that the two of them were conversing on the phone, you know, the phone records showing that on the day that the money was given, they were conversing. So basically, you're just, you're just really like almost forensically putting it all together with every interaction you can uh show.
[00:05:01] Will: As it turns out, Debra's 500 bucks went a long way.
[00:05:05] Debra: For $500, what ended up being um, him investigating and going and staying on this case, it turned into a five year battle with the City of New York trying to bring this case to the court. And he stayed on it for five years, and I paid him $500.
[00:05:26] Bob Nygaard: You know, if you go around Manhattan, for example, you'll see a spot, you know, you'll see shops. You'll see the psychic sign with a neon sign, you'll see them every three blocks. They're all over the place. I was just out today, and I went by two places that I had the cause to be, where the psychics, I had cause to be arrested, and the places are still in operation just with different people now, different psychics. And the thing is, is that fortune telling is a crime in New York State. In New York State, not only do you have the theft law, but you have an actual fortune telling statute, it's a B misdemeanor that you cannot report to have psychic ability and say that you can influence evil spirits or, you know, or influence curses, or give personal advice saying that you have psychic abilities or occult powers or supernatural powers. And yet people will walk into a station house, a police station, and they'll say, "Hey, I'm a victim." And they'll say, "Oh, it's a civil matter." And they'll turn them away.
[00:06:18] Will: But when Bob is on the job, he doesn't give up easily. So for Debra, he spends five years chipping away at the scam, following the money, and he finally gets enough evidence to convince prosecutors to file charges.
[00:06:29] Will: How much money had Sylvia stolen? Were you able to prove other cases or do you have any idea how many people or how much money she had scammed?
[00:06:37] Bob Nygaard: Well in that case, there was a second victim. I think between Debra and the other victim, the total was somewhere in the vicinity of $138,000.
[00:06:45] Will: Debra never told her family about the scam and losing all that money. Even as the trial starts and she prepares to testify, she's still keeping it a secret.
[00:06:54] Debra: I was briefed by the prosecuting attorney prior to going into that courtroom, which was really important because I had absolutely no idea how um, important this case would be. So I had no idea there would be press with cameras. I had no idea there'd be news stations, so he needed to make sure that when I went into the courtroom I was prepared. And he told me that there is going to be photographers, there is going to be press, you just need to focus and do not look at her. Don't look at her. I said, Okay, I can do that."
[00:07:29] Will: And how did it go?
[00:07:30] Debra: That was one of the most um, dramatic events that has ever occurred in my life. Um, it was extremely difficult because the um, her attorney went after me, went after my character, went after everything he could possibly find, and I knew that was going to happen because my, my defense attorney had said that um, her defense attorney had been the attorney for some huge case with the mafia. He said, "I don't want to scare you, but this guy is a big deal, and what you need to do is tell the truth and don't let him break you down." And that is what he tried to do for a very long time while I was on the stand.
[00:08:20] Will: Eventually, before a verdict is returned, Debra's victim impact letter is read in court. Debra recalls what she read.
[00:08:27] Debra: It impacted me where my children were affected because of my finances. My medical problems erupted one right after the other, you know, breast cancer scare, all sorts of health scares. Uh, paranoia, um, paranoia became my friend because I was scared to death they were going to take me out.
[00:08:49] Will: Ultimately, Debra believes the letter made a big difference.
[00:08:52] Debra: So my im--, my letter went and was read by um, the defense attorney, and I think because of the uh, enormous impact in writing, the judge sentenced her to five years in jail which has never been done. That was a, an amazing victory for the, the good guys.
[00:09:16] Bob Nygaard: I feel people need to understand that when they say, when they see that quaint little shop with that neon sign, that they need to know that sometimes there's a sinister side to that place, and sometimes that what you're dealing with is a criminal enterprise, and, and a lot of people don't see that.
[00:09:33] Will: Bob Nygaard sees that though, and perhaps what makes him so good at his job isn't just a long career as a policeman and a restless mind, it's how he thinks about the people's he's helping.
[00:09:43] Bob Nygaard: It's very important not to blame the victim but to credit the con, and I don't mean credit the con in a good way. I mean realize that you're dealing with a vulnerable person who ran into a professional con artist. Anybody can fall victim if they're at a vulnerable point in their life. And if you think that that's not you, you, you don't know, because you don't know how you would react if you were diagnosed with cancer. You don't know how you would react if you looked on your wife's phone and found out she was cheating on you one day. You don't know how you would react if you had a, you know, a, a child that dies, you know, and you were seeking answers, and while everybody might not fall victim, these self-proclaimed psychics, they prey upon the vulnerable, and they only need a few to make hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars.
[00:10:28] Will: Debra had the satisfaction of seeing Sylvia led off to prison and getting most of her money back, but in some ways, the struggle was just beginning for her as soon as the news got out and she had to face her family.
[00:10:40] Debra: And so all of the sudden it was in the New York Post, the New York Times, it was on ABC TV in New York, so all this stuff started happening where I, I was not prepared for that. I was not prepared at all, so I had to get on the phone immediately and contact my children, relatives, uh close friends, so that I didn't want them to hear this, see this on the media. And of course it got picked up by my local paper which, which was really fabulous. Um, "North Naples Woman, Ballroom Dancer, um, Gives Away $28,000 to a Psychic." That's the title.
[00:11:19] Will: Yeah, so on a day when you should have been feeling relieved, it, it turned into something different yet again.
[00:11:26] Debra: I just didn't anticipate all this negativity after something really great happened. Being vindicated, um, was great, but the aftermath was a whole different ballgame.
[00:11:41] Will: What finally made it all worth it were the letters and phone calls Debra starts getting, at home and at work.
[00:11:47] Debra: Thanking me for coming forward, and this was a constant stream of people that wanted to remain anonymous, that said I will, I will never talk about what happened to me, 'cause it would destroy my life. Um, people from all over the country started sending little messages. And even tracked me down at work, which was very odd, but so I know that there's so many people out there that have been through this in their own way and they weren't able to come forward.
[00:12:17] Will: And as you might imagine, Bob Nygaard is still fighting the good fight.
[00:12:21] Will: Bob, it sounds like you're staying busy and you're not just sitting on the beach, uh like you were thinking you might, you might have ended up doing.
[00:12:26] Bob Nygaard: No, no, I'm not resting on my laurels. I had a guy, an elderly man who lives out in Idaho, and he called me, and he found a psychic online. His wife had died a few years earlier, and he found a woman that he was uh, interested in, and things weren't working out, and whether you're 17 or you're 70, you know, everybody wants to be loved, you know, so he reached out to a psychic online and, and, and the next thing you know, she had him believing that there was a curse, and that she could, he could send her the money, but don't worry, she'd use it temporarily, and she'd send it back to him, and she would work with the church and do the work, and he sent her $30,000 over the internet. And uh, unfortunately, he went to the police. They turned him away. He called me. He was crying on the phone. He said, "Bob, I'm, I'm in my 70s and this is my life savings, and I'm not going to have money for rent." He says, "I don't know what I'm going to do."
[00:13:19] Will: Bob took the case and he'll take more, but as long as people are vulnerable, looking for a connection or looking for love, or like Debra, desperate and looking for answers, scammers will keep on stealing our money. It's people like Bob Nygaard who are making a difference.
[00:13:34] Debra: There's no one else that knew anything about it, and he was relentless. He decided that this, this is, this is going to end, and we're going to bring your case to trial, and it was all a matter of him being relentless. He's an American hero. He's saving, he's saving people all the time because, you know, a lot of people won't come forward and tell their stories. Uh, he's, he's an amazing human.
[00:14:09] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Our email address at The Perfect Scam is – firstname.lastname@example.org. And we want to hear from you. If you have been the victim of a scam, or you know someone who has, and you'd like us to tell their story, write to us! Or, just send us some feedback. That address again is email@example.com. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; Researcher, Sarah Binney; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; and our Audio Engineer and Sound Designer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.
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TIPS: If you think you’ve been a victim of a scam or would like to report fraud call The Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Anyone can become the victim of a scam, it’s important to be vigilant and know your vulnerabilities. For instance, if you are looking for a job you are more vulnerable to a work-at-home scam.
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