After losing her job and breaking up with her boyfriend in the same day, a distraught Debra pays a visit to a psychic shop. 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 her 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 she 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 Nygard, 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.
[00:00:01] Will: Coming up on AARP - The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:03] Bob Nygaard: I mean these people really prey upon vulnerable people who are going through a difficult time in their life.
[00:00:11] Will: Welcome back to AARP - The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Will Johnson, and I'm here with AARP's Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale and Frank, we are back this week with part two of our story about a psychic scam and a woman who is the victim of a psychic scam. She's told that she needs to give her a check for thousands of dollars and just let go of that money for an overnight, and that her issues have to do with holding onto money and so on and so forth. What's interesting about all this, and as we get into part 2, we'll find out exactly what happens, but that people can become convinced of something that they've never even thought about. It's part of human nature almost that you could be told something, and all of a sudden it seems like, oh, that might be the answer. Maybe this is what I need to do.
[00:00:51] Frank Abagnale: Oh sure. Especially if you're looking for that type of guidance, or you're looking for that type of answer, and you start to believe in the person that you're talking to, uh people convince people every day to do things that they probably normally wouldn't do, but people have the power over a lot of people because they're very uh, influential or they have, they have, they're able to gain their confidence, and as, you know, we always say the whole concept of con man or con woman is confidence, and that they're able to get your confidence for you to trust them and then the things they say you believe and soon you part with your, your money.
[00:01:25] Will: It's common enough, this psychic scam is common enough, and it's still amazing to think about the fact that you could have a location, an office, and get somebody's money in a deceitful manner and then just sort of disappear and what happens to that office, so a lot of it's not clear to me, but it is clear to Bob Nygaard in this story, and what's interesting, another quirky, interesting fact is that, is that he has sort of this specialty in psychic scams. He's found a, a niche for himself that feels good to go out there and, and let people know that they can get duped.
[00:01:55] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely, and I think that's great, and going back a little bit to what you first said, you know, when it comes to greed, people put aside uh, well I could easily get caught, it's my real name, it's my real address. I have deposited it in my real bank account, but it's much more important that they get the money than they're worried about getting caught. So it comes down to greed, 'cause obviously commonsense says they're going to know who you are, they may come looking for you, but they're willing to take that gamble over the greed of getting that much money.
[00:02:26] Will: Okay, well let's get into part two of our two-part story about this psychic scam and what happens next.
[00:02:32] Will: Last week we told you about Deborah, 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 Deborah 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.
[00:02:59] Deborah: 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.
[00:03:13] Will: Bob Nygaard is a retired New York cop and a private investigator. His specialty is busting psychic scams.
[00:03:19] 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.
[00:03:24] Deborah: 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.
[00:03:34] 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?
[00:03:40] 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.
[00:03:50] 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?
[00:04:39] Will: And in the case of Deborah, 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?
[00:04:49] Bob Nygaard: No that, that's a common tactic, and what happened with Deborah 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.
[00:05:02] Will: Yeah.
[00:05:03] 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."
[00:06:01] Will: Deborah agreed to pay Bob $500 to look into her case, and he went right to work following the money.
[00:06:06] 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.
[00:06:35] Will: As it turns out, Deborah's 500 bucks went a long way.
[00:06:38] Deborah: 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.
[00:07:00] 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 people's 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.
[00:07:52] Will: But when Bob is on the job, he doesn't give up easily. So for Deborah, he spends five years chipping away at the scam, following the money, and he finally gets enough evidence to convince prosecutors to file charges.
[00:08:03] 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?
[00:08:10] Bob Nygaard: Well in that case, there was a second victim, and uh, that victim had been ripped off for over a hundred. I think between Deborah and the other victim, the total was somewhere in the vicinity of $138,000.
[00:08:21] Will: Deborah 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.
[00:08:30] Deborah: 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."
[00:09:06] Will: And how did it go?
[00:09:07] Deborah: 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.
[00:09:56] Will: Eventually, before a verdict is returned, Deborah's victim impact letter is read in court. Deborah recalls what she read.
[00:10:03] Deborah: 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.
[00:10:26] Will: Ultimately, Deborah believes the letter made a big difference.
[00:10:29] Deborah: 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.
[00:10:52] 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.
[00:11:09] 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.
[00:11:19] 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. And that you know, when people are vulnerable, um, it, it, they are easy to take advantage of, and you know, it's not like if your IQ is 140, uh you're immune. 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.
[00:12:15] Will: Deborah 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.
[00:12:26] Deborah: 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.
[00:13:05] Will: Yeah, so on a day when you should have been feeling relieved, it, it turned into something different yet again.
[00:13:12] Deborah: 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.
[00:13:27] Will: What finally made it all worth it were the letters and phone calls Deborah starts getting, at home and at work.
[00:13:34] Deborah: 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.
[00:14:04] Will: And as you might imagine, Bob Nygaard is still fighting the good fight.
[00:14:07] 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.
[00:14:13] 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."
[00:15:06] 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 Deborah, desperate and looking for answers, scammers will keep on stealing our money. It's people like Bob Nygaard who are making a difference.
[00:15:20] Deborah: 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.
[00:15:50] Will: Frank, it's so tough to hear her talking about the fact that when she should be celebrating, the fact that this psychic is arrested, is going to see jail time, all of a sudden, it's revealed to the public. The news is covering this story and her family starts to find out that the next year of her life is even tougher than before because all of a sudden she's dealing with the embarrassment, the shame, all that goes along with that of giving so much money to somebody that she didn't know, a stranger, and that she was a victim of a scam, and we've talked about this, you know, at the beginning of the story.
[00:16:21] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, and that's the real downside. That's why I, I hate to see that in all these scams, because uh an, an innocent person has been victimized and then what happens is after everything's settled, they're still victimized by people who say, well how could you have fell for that? Their own family members, again, wanting to take away their privileges or independence; those are all things that even make it worse for the victim. Instead of saying, you know, I'm sorry that happened to you, I'm glad you were able to recover your money, uh, we, we shouldn't, we shouldn't take people and make them feel ashamed that they've been victimized, because anybody can be victimized.
[00:16:57] Will: And I think what I've seen with this show and working with you and talking to listeners and talking to people who have been victims or have heard about scams or know family members, is that as soon as you open the door and you start talking about one, 10 more people walk in and say, oh yeah, this happened to me, and this happened to me, and this happened to me.
[00:17:14] Frank Abagnale: They feel much more free to talk about it, and say it happened to me, as long as they know it's happened to other people as well, and that's not a bad thing at all, so that people get out and just talk about it between themselves and so they learn from everybody else's experience what happened, and what happened afterwards when it was all over and done with, and what happened to the person who victimized them. Did they catch them or not catch them? Did they get their money back or not get their money back? All that's good to talk about.
[00:17:38] Will: Keep talking people, share the word.
[00:17:39] Frank Abagnale: Right.
[00:17:40] Will: As we're doing right here on The Perfect Scam. Frank, thanks for being here with me. We'll be back next week.
[00:17:43] Frank Abagnale: Thanks, Will.
[00:17:45] Will: If you or someone you know has been the victim of a fraud or scam, call AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline, at 877-908-3360. Many thanks to our producers, Julie the Queen Getz and Brook Her Excellency Ellis, audio engineer Julio Ear Canal Gonzales, and of course, my cohost Frank Catch 'Em If You Can Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. For The Perfect Scam, I'm Will Johnson.
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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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