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New York Psychic Drains One Woman's Bank Account

Sylvia Mitchell preyed on victim’s misfortunes for profit

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spinner image Quote graphic that reads: "She asked me to get a thousand dollars in cash from the ATM across the street in order to do a deep reading. She stood and watched me as I went, to make sure that I was going to get the cash."
Full Transcript


[00:00:02] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I’m your host Bob Sullivan. Before we get to this week's episode, just a quick exciting announcement. The Perfect Scam now has its own email address and we want to hear from you. If you've been the victim of a scam, or you know someone who has, and you'd like us to tell the story, write to us! Or, just send us some feedback. That email address again is

[00:00:35] Bob: Now this week we’re digging into the archives and replaying one of our favorite episodes for you The Hidden World of Psychic Scams. Sometimes in life, things go sideways and you go looking for help. We’ve all been there. Today’s guest, Debra finds her life suddenly turned upside down. She ends a long-term relationship and loses her job all in one day, which sends her into a downward spiral looking for answers. She thinks she might find some by visiting a psychic in Greenwich Village, but instead of finding answers, Debra finds herself in a five-year odyssey, desperately trying to find justice and trying to get back $28,000 that was stolen from her. But she also finds a powerful ally in her quest, a retired police investigator who is willing to go on this odyssey with her. Here’s host Will Johnson with the story.


[00:01:33] Will: Debra was having a really bad day. The divorced mother and ballroom dancer was spending her time between Florida and New York where she was training with a dance partner and working two part-time jobs. She had a new boyfriend and life had been looking pretty good. But then, that day.

[00:01:50] Debra: I lost both of my part-time jobs this, within 24 hours. And broke up with the boyfriend who was not so great, and um, realized that with those three things happening, 'cause the boyfriend allowed me to stay in New York for free in a really nice apartment, and all in 24 hours; the breakup, the two jobs, and realizing that I wouldn't be able to come back to New York to work with my professional dance partner, wherein we were probably close to top 10 in the ProAm circuit, and that was devastating to me.

[00:02:26] Will: It was the kind of day that no one would want to have. The kind of day where you might look for help or answers.

[00:02:32] Debra: Down the street from where the boyfriend lived in the village, there was a beautiful salon, I'm going to call it a salon because it was beautiful. It was not your typical down in the gutter psychic neon sign flashing, it was designed um, like it was high end, and I would pass it every day going to train with my partner and going to these two temporary jobs.

[00:02:59] Will: So on that particularly bad day, Debra decided, why not?

[00:03:03] Debra: Someone's got to know something about something that can help me because this is just, this just doesn't happen in 24 hours. So I decided to take my sorry self in the front door, but you have to press a button. That's how it's, you know, it's very exclusive. So you press a button. And that's when my life turned into a nightmare, um, making a very bad decision.

[00:03:28] Will: The bad decision, as Debra calls it, wasn't pressing the buzzer and going in. That comes later. But you could say that's where it all began; standing on the street in Greenwich Village, jobless, brokenhearted, trying to figure out what to do next with her life.

[00:03:42] Debra: I should have calmed down and spoken to loved ones or seen a mental health therapist, anything but doing that was, would have been a better choice.

[00:03:50] Will: Easy to say now, but at the time, what did you have to lose, right? I mean it couldn't hurt, so you probably paid, what, 20 bucks or something and then you got your fortune? Is that more or less what happened?

[00:04:00] Debra: Oh no. They charge, the least service they charged was $75 for 45 minutes.

[00:04:06] Will: Debra describes the inside as luxurious and classy; red velvet chairs and a chandelier, even credentials on the walls.

[00:04:15] Debra: It seemed like it was safe because they had other home offices in Cannes, Cannes, France, um, all over the world, and they had them on gold um, little plaques; our other offices are in Paris, Milan.

[00:04:30] Will: Then she appears, the psychic, the woman who would lead Debra down a path she wishes she'd never gone down.

[00:04:36] Debra: And she was, she was dressed to the nines. She was wearing um, a very expensive houndstooth suit, perfect makeup, perfect hair. She was very attractive. She looked like she was going to work for a wealth management company, that's how she was dressed. She wasn't dressed as if she was going to work.

[00:04:57] Will: Did she make you feel comfortable and that you could trust her?

[00:05:00] Debra: Yes, she did. And she kept saying my name over and over and over.

[00:05:03] Will: During that first meeting, the psychic who says her name is Sylvia uses tarot cards to read Debra's fortune.

[00:05:09] Will: How long did the reading last? It lasted, did you do 45 minutes and go through the whole thing?

[00:05:14] Debra: Yes, we did.

[00:05:16] Will: Yeah.

[00:05:16] Debra: And she told me that she knew that she could help me, and this, this was um, going to take a couple readings, but she knew that she could help me and that the next reading she would have to go into one of her quote deep readings. And I said, well I'm headed back to Florida, and I will be coming back, but I don't know when. So that was the first initial contact I had with her.

[00:05:42] Will: Debra left Sylvia that day, but the experience stayed with her. A few weeks later, back in New York she decides to see Sylvia again. On that second visit, the plot thickens.

[00:05:52] Debra: She asked me to go get a thousand dollars in cash from an ATM across the street in order to do this deep reading, and so uh, by golly, I went to the bank and she stood and watched me as I went across the street to make sure that I was going to get the cash out of the account.

[00:06:09] Will: Debra says that was the first time she felt a little bit uncomfortable.

[00:06:12] Debra: But I, at that point she'd earned my trust, and I wanted to get it done. I wanted the answer, I wanted it now. Um, I'm a New Yorker myself, so you know how New Yorkers are. I want it now, and I want it yesterday.

[00:06:25] Will: She paid $1000 for a two-hour deep reading.

[00:06:28] Debra: She spent a lot of time figuring out what my difficulty was, and what I was going to have to do and my problem was, I didn't know how to let go of money. It's, it's, I have to laugh now, because it's, it's just ridiculous.

[00:06:44] Will: Can you put yourself into that time and remember that how it felt listening to her and, I mean certainly you said that you, you trusted her at the time. Did you like hearing what you were hearing, or did you agree with it at the time?

[00:06:56] Debra: I became let's say 20% skeptical, 80% believing her, because I wanted an answer so bad to what had happened, and I wanted some closure, and I wanted to fix it. Some of the things she said were completely ridiculous, and the other things that she said started to weave into a, a pattern of, well that kind of makes sense.

[00:07:22] Will: It may or not have made sense right away when Sylvia told a story that placed Debra as an Egyptian princess long ago in a land where she was in charge and the money problems all started there. But the story grabbed Debra. It seemed to fit. Somehow it was the beginning of a pattern that seemed clear. Sylvia's spell was working. Debra went back for a third time. It would be her last visit.

[00:07:45] Debra: She told me that I needed to learn how to give up my attachment to money, and the way that I was going to learn that was that I needed to write her a check for $28,000 and she would hold it overnight and give it back to me the next day.

[00:08:05] Will: Silvia had no doubt used the same story or a similar one time and again. Debra, as we say here at AARP, was under the ether, and Debra knows that now. But it’s almost like she can't believe her own story.

[00:08:18] Debra: Well, I didn't have $28,000 in a checking account or a savings account. So I had to go back to Naples and take money out of my home equity loan; it's a lot of money to hand over to a stranger.

[00:08:33] Will: Back in New York with a check, she hands it over to Sylvia.

[00:08:36] Debra: After I gave her the check and came back to Florida, on the plane my intelligence side kicked in, my rational side kicked in and I went, I can't believe I just did that. I need to cancel this check tomorrow. So I went into the bank to cancel the check the next day 'cause it was an evening flight, and the check had already gone through.

[00:08:59] Will: Right away Debra calls Sylvia. She asks for her money back.

[00:09:03] Debra: She goes, "Well I'm, I'm sorry, but I can't give that to you right now." And I said, "What do you mean you can't give it to me right now? I, I want the check back. That was our agreement." And um, that's when it all went downhill and she became um, invisible. She no longer took my calls. I went down to her, her salon, buzzed on the door about 50 times and stayed there for about two hours and realized that this, this was, this was the con. Here, here we go.

[00:09:35] Will: Oh, so I'm guessing, I can only imagine how you must have felt. Did you tell anyone what was going on?

[00:09:41] Debra: I did not tell a soul. I was too humiliated.

[00:09:47] Will: Desperate, Debra went to the police in Florida and filled out a report. She realized not only was her story tough to tell, it didn't even seem believable when she told it.

[00:09:57] Debra: I did a lot of very serious internal thinking, and tried to stay calm, started doing research on the internet.

[00:10:05] Will: As she typed in Sylvia's name and anything to do with arrests or police or scams, she got a hit.

[00:10:11] Debra: Someone online said that she's a scam artist, she'll take your money, she, she's trouble, um, so I saw one little thing, and that made me feel 100% better that I wasn't the only one that was getting scammed by this woman. 'Cause I felt that I would actually, made an incredibly stupid decision and who's going to believe all this?

[00:10:33] Will: She needed someone else who would believe her story, that she'd willingly written a check to a stranger for $28,000. That someone is Bob Nygaard.

(phone ring)

[00:10:45] Bob Nygaard: This is Bob.

[00:10:46] Will: Hey, Bob, it's Will Johnson at AARP.

[00:10:47] Bob Nygaard: How are you doing, Will?

[00:10:48] Will: I am great, thanks so much for making time for us.

[00:10:50] Bob Nygaard: Not a problem.

[00:10:51] Will: Bob's a guy you want on your side if you've been ripped off by a psychic. He might know as much about psychic scams as anyone, even the psychics know about Bob.

[00:11:00] Bob Nygaard: These self-proclaimed psychics, they know me all over the country. They know me by name, and, and they know this is what I do.

[00:11:05] Will: Here comes Bob.

[00:11:06] Bob Nygaard: Yeah, here comes Bob. In fact, I had a client out in California one day, he was out $900,000, and I was able to get him back the whole $900,000 and get the psychic convicted, um, and what happened was when he, he said to me during the story, he says, "You know, Bob, when I was seeing the psychic, there came a time when the psychic said, 'you know, you can't listen to anybody. If anybody comes up to you and tries to uh, you know, talk to you, you know, you've got to understand that there's a lot of people in this world who are out there trying to prevent us from achieving our mission.'" She goes, "'And there's one person especially,'" she goes, "'if anybody comes up to you and his name is Bob, don't trust him'" to them. And he said, "Bob, I didn't even know you then," he says, "He was already warning about me, about you before I even looked you up."


[00:11:55] Will: After 21 years with the Nassau County Police in New York, Bob's pretty much seen it all; murders, robberies, drug rings, you name it. That's also when he had his first run-in with fraudsters and saw firsthand the impact scams have on the victims.

[00:12:08] Bob Nygaard: It wasn't until uh 1991 when I had six years on the job, um, I had made an arrest of some travelers, they were doing a home improvement scam, uh, they were known as the Parks Brothers, and it was in Long Island, and I uh, caused five of them to be arrested, and it was a family affair basically. And uh it was all over the news and um, and people started calling in from the Tri-State area saying, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, saying, you know, hey listen, we were victims, and all of my grandparents were victims. And there was a big case, and um, I received a call after that arrest from a man named Jon Grow, and John had started up an organization called The National Association of Bunco Investigators, and he was a sergeant, an old-time sergeant in the Baltimore Police Department, and he said, "Hey, Bob, you don't realize, you know, what a great arrest this was." He says, "We're getting hit hard by these transient type criminals." He said, "You know they, they hit an area, and then they move around, and they move all over the country, and we have these open cases that we never close out, 'cause there's a lack of sharing of information from one jurisdiction to the next."

[00:13:14] Will: That was the first time Bob Nygaard would hear about a scam ring around the country; a criminal enterprise that went beyond anything he could imagine.

[00:13:21] Bob Nygaard: He said, "You know, you have, the men are doing home improvement scams, you have the women are doing fortune telling, you have other women that are doing sweetheart swindles of the elderly, you have other people that are doing autobody repair scams, you have other people who are doing life insurance fraud, you have other people who are doing seal coating, you know, seal--, sealing driveways and then it rains and the oil runs right off the driveway and, and doing those." So you have these criminal enterprises with these transient criminals where they have various family members all bringing in money for the family through these different types of operations, illegal operations.

[00:13:58] Will: It all made an impact on Bob, but it wasn't until he retired, and found himself in Boca Raton, a little bored by the beach life and with a private investigator's license that scambusting would become a fulltime job.

[00:14:10] Bob Nygaard: I was just looking to land a date, and I was out, and I met a doctor and a nurse, and uh the doctor, uh, I was regaling them with war stories from when I was a cop, and they were really interested and I gave them my business card and about 10 minutes after leaving the uh, the bar, I got a call from the doctor and she said, "Hey Bob, could you meet me down at the gas station on the Spanish River and Federal Highway?" So, I met her down there, and uh not knowing what I was going to expect, and, and the next thing you know, she says, "Bob, I'm a medical doctor and I didn't want to say anything in front of the nurse because I work with her, but I'm very embarrassed, I fell for a psychic.” “She told me there was a curse on me and my family," she goes, "and, and I was having problems, marital difficulties with my husband.” And uh she was out $12,500.

[00:14:55] Will: Bob took the case and ended up getting a psychic scammer in Florida busted. It was the start of a new career for Bob. He knew that a lot of cops didn't really know how to respond to scam victims. Stories can be murky and like Debra, it's tough to believe. They require reports, investigation, sometimes years of it.

[00:15:13] Bob Nygaard: When people call me, they're often, you know, sometimes they're suicidal. Uh, I had a woman call me one day and she says, "Bob," she says, "I gave $90,000 to a psychic." She says, "and, and I don't know what to do." And I said, "Well," you know, she, she was from Queens in New York, and she says, "My husband and I, we don't come from much. We don't have much money, and this is money that we saved up our whole life to put our daughter through college. It was money we had set aside for her, and I don't know how I'm going to tell my husband and my daughter that we can't send her to college now. And she goes, I don't know what to do." And I said, "Okay, listen, I'll do the best I can. I've recovered millions of dollars for people, for victims. I'll put a case together, I've had success in New York, we'll see what we can do, and I'll try to help you out." She says, "Bob, you don't understand." And I said, "Well, no, I do. You know, I've, I've had a lot of clients." And she says, "Bob, you don't get it." I said, "What don't I get?" And she says, "Bob, I'm on my lunchbreak right now, and I'm standing on the 8th floor." She says, "And right now I'm standing on the ledge and I think it would be easier to just take that one step than to go home and face my family." And that's a rough ledge.

[00:16:22] Will: Talking to scam victims when they're at the end of their rope is something Bob Nygaard brings to the job. He also brings a working knowledge of all the ways psychic scammers go about their work. The tactics range from pretty basic to downright bizarre.

[00:16:35] Bob Nygaard: 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? And then they, you know how was the person dressed? And then they say, "Hey, listen, you know what, uh I think there's a negativity or a blockage or a curse that's caused this, and I need to do deeper research to get to the root cause of the problem, so although this reading was $50, I need you to give me a couple of hundred dollars because I need to buy crystals and candles to work with to try to find out what the root cause of this is; why did your husband leave you? Why did you have cancer? You know, God never meant for you to have cancer. There's something that's causing this, and I need to find out what it is." And people are looking for hope, and the psychic you know really uh, is, is a professional when it comes to um, you know getting to know this person, acting like a confidant or a best friend, and they're able to quickly size the person up, quickly make the person feel comfortable with them, and then get the person to give them more money to find out what is this problem? And a lot of times they'll use religious terminology which bothers me a lot. They'll say, "I'm doing God's work. And this is only between you, me, and God. You can't tell anybody else about the work." So they tell the person, "Listen, you can't talk about the work we're doing with anybody, because if you do, somebody from your family will die. It'll be worse than if we never started."

[00:18:05] Will: And as Debra experienced firsthand, the scam has a progression; first an initial reading.

[00:18:10] Bob Nygaard: And then they'll say, they need a couple hundred dollars more to buy crystals and candles to find out what the root cause of the problem is. And then, they'll go for the big amounts, and they'll say, "You know something, back when your father was dating your mother, he was also seeing another woman. And he decided to marry your mother instead. And when he did that, that other woman felt scorned, and because she felt scorned, she placed a curse on your father and your mother, and when you were in your mother's womb, that curse moved onto you, and now unless we get rid of it and work together, it's going to go to your children and your children's children, or you might not even get married. You might grow up to become an old woman and live alone and have eight cats in the house. Because, unless we remove this negativity or this blockage, uh, things are never going to get better, they're just going to get worse."

[00:18:55] Will: So, and this is a story that you've heard more than a few times.

[00:18:59] Bob Nygaard: Many, many times. The victims call me and it's the same story; in fact, they start to tell me, and I say, "Hold on a second." Sometimes I'll say, "Were, were you, a curse put on you..." And then they're like, "Oh no." And then I say, "Oh, and it was because your father was dating someone else, so then you're mother..." They say, "Bob, you're repeating the story. It's exact word for word what I was told."

[00:19:19] Will: And then when the psychic thinks they've got their victim in just the right frame of mind, the stories and the tactics get even stranger.

[00:19:26] Bob Nygaard: Okay, well you're 30 years old. I need you to get $30,000. And I need you to get an egg, and I need you to take the egg and the $30,000 and put it under the bed at night, and the reason we're going to use the money is because money is the root of all evil. They'll use that, they'll say that's a quote in the Bible which the quote is, "For the love of money is the root of all evil." But in any event, they say, "Money is the root of all evil, so in order to remove the evil away from you, get it away from you and what's causing it, is we need to use the money and the evil will want to go to the money. The evil will be drawn to the money. So at night you put it under your bed, but when, when it's drawn to the money, we need to trap the evil in something. So I need you to get an egg. An egg represents the soul. So you need to go to the store and buy a carton of eggs. Take one egg out, put it under the mattress with the $30,000. And then, what I need you to do is call me, we'll say some prayers together." And then the next thing you know, you go to bed, they call in the middle of the night and say, "Oh, the evil has gone to the money. You need to bring it to me right away," and they'll get the person to get up in the middle of the night and come see them and "bring the egg, bring the money." And the person will go there, and they'll have, the room will be dark and there'll be candles lit, and they'll spin the person around, and they'll get them all disoriented, and then they'll say, "Oh, give me, give it to me, give it to me." And they'll put it in a bag and then they'll hit the bag and say, "Oh, it won't break. It won't break." And like that freaks the person out because they're thinking, well it's an egg, it should break, you know, and then they'll pull the egg out and they'll hit it, and it'll, all of a sudden, it'll open up and there'll be, blood will come out. Or a black snake will be there, like a rubber snake, a fake snake, but the person doesn't know it's a fake snake. And what they've done is they've doctored an egg, they've already put it in the bag, they take the egg the person gave them, they put it in there, they pull the other egg out, and then they hit it and they say, "Oh my God, look. That's just a curse. This is what was going on. You know, I need to take the egg and the money and get rid of it. We're both in danger right now. My family's in danger, my children are in danger, your family's in danger. You need to get out of here right away. But don't worry, I'll take care of everything. I'm going to take the egg and bury it, and I'm going to go to the church and take the money and cleanse it of the evil, and when I'm done cleansing it, then I'll give it back to you tomorrow or next week or in a month or," so they're promising that the money is going to be returned and then they never return the money. And therein lies the theft. The person isn't paying $30,000 for a curse to be removed, the person is giving the self-proclaimed psychic the money temporarily to be used in furtherance of removing the curse and then the money is supposed to be returned and it never is. And then what happens is once they get the person believing in the existence of the curse, then they're home free, and they've got the person where they've said, "Don't talk to anybody about the work," and there's something called undue influence, and it's something that is used in sweetheart swindles, it's used in confidence schemes, it's used when cult leaders get people to join their cult, and some of the common hallmarks of the scam are: isolate the victim from friends and family, tell the person you can't talk about what we're doing with anybody else. Create a sense of dependency. You have to listen to me and only me, okay? Don't listen to anybody else. Uh, one of the things that's create a seize mentality. They want it so that if someone else does approach the victim or sees that the victim's acting funny and tries to talk sense into the victim, they say, "Oh, that's because the devil's working through them. See, everybody else is out trying to stop us from getting our work, from accomplishing our mission." So isolate the victim from friends and family, create a seize mentality, create a sense of dependency, exacerbate the victim's existing fears; what did the person come in that had cancer that was worried about dying of cancer. They're worried their husband's not coming back to them. A child just died but exacerbate the victim's existing fears. "Oh, the child is never going to get to heaven. I see the little boy and he's in the flames of purgatory and unless you work with me, uh the child is never going to get to heaven."

[00:23:23] Will: So maybe Bob was the only person who could help Debra, the only one who knows exactly how these scammers work, how they get inside someone's head, how they convince them to ignore reason and borrow money and hand it over to a stranger. But Sylvia the psychic was clearly skilled at what she did, and as far as Debra could tell, she had disappeared along with her $28,000.

[00:23:46] Bob: Can Bob help Debra get back her $28,000? Will Sylvia ever face justice? That’s next week on The Perfect Scam. 


[00:23:59] 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 ­–  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 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.



Debra is a divorced mother and ballroom dancer who travels between her home in Florida and her boyfriend’s home in New York City, where she trains with her dance partner. When Debra loses her part-time job in New York and breaks up with her boyfriend on the same day, she’s distraught. Without the extra income from her job and a place to stay with her boyfriend, Debra knows she’ll have to quit ballroom dancing — even though she and her partner have been climbing the ranks on the Pro-Am circuit.

During a walk in Greenwich Village, Debra sees a psychic shop she’s often passed by before and decides to stop in, hoping to find answers. The shop is well-appointed with lavish decor and plaques that show additional locations in glamorous cities around the world. Sylvia, the psychic who comes to give Debra a reading, is dressed to the nines — like many professionals you would see in New York. After the initial reading, Sylvia says she can help Debra but that she’ll need to come back for a deep reading. When Debra returns for the two-hour deep reading, Sylvia determines that Debra has trust issues, particularly when it involves money. Seeking closure and desperate for a solution to her problems, Debra starts to believe and trust Sylvia. The psychic tells Debra to write her a check for $28,000 and promises she will hold on to it for one day. When she returns the check, Sylvia tells Debra that her money and trust issues will be solved. Debra follows Sylvia’s instructions and gets the money for the check from a home equity loan. However, as soon as she hands the check over, Debra realizes she has made a terrible mistake.

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 877-908-3360Anyone 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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