How ‘Psychics’ Scam the Desperate

When I wrote a few months ago about an article by James Randi that exposed Theresa Caputo, the “Long Island Medium,” as another likely con artist, a couple people showed up several months later to give the usual arguments: Who was I to question this woman when she just makes people feel better, etc. You’ve heard them all. Dodai Stewart from Jezebel got the same things sent to her in email, along with a bunch of other emails from desperate people who had lost loved ones. For some reason, these people thought they were contacting Caputo:

I would like to make an appointment to see Theresa Caputo, I lost my brother recently and would like to see her personally…

Hi my name is Pamela, I lost my 8 year old daughter 6 months ago to a brain tumor and would like to be placed on the waiting list….

I have watched your show since it came on, I have the need to hear from my son, it has been 10 years and I cannot say his name without crying.

You can almost feel the heartbreak. These are the people who fall victim to psychic frauds and it’s not hard to understand why. As Stewart notes, Caputo tells them the things anyone would want to hear:

The things Caputo usually tells people — don’t be sad, embrace life, know that the person who has passed is with you — are the kind of things anyone might say to a grieving person. When Caputo was on Anderson Cooper’s show, she claimed she felt the soul of a sister who had passed away. After a woman in the audience volunteered the information that her sister had died, Caputo asked the woman if she and her sister looked a lot alike. The woman nodded, but it felt like an educated guess: There’s a very very good chance that sisters look alike, no? Caputo went on to talk about the sister playing with the woman’s hair — again, something many sisters do, and the woman in the audience had long, straight hair, the kind you would braid and play with. But you know, I get it. People believe because they want to believe, because that’s what faith is all about.

And all this for the low price of $400 per half hour. I don’t know how she sleeps at night. This stuff isn’t just harmless fun. Whether it’s some faith-healing con man like Peter Popoff or fake psychics like this, real people are hurt by it. They prey on people at their most weak and desperate and get rich doing it.

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  • Captain Mike

    Psychics who prey on the vulnerable make my fists itch.

  • some bastard on the net


    $400 per half hour.

    They can do that?

  • Cuttlefish

    There’s a missing person case near here; a former student, claiming inside info, has told me that there is a psychic advising police. Everyone involved is desperate, and will clutch at any straws whatsoever, and the psychic is exploiting this opportunity.

    It’s like they feed off of the pain of others. Well, that and money.


  • Reginald Selkirk

    Caputo asked the woman if she and her sister looked a lot alike. The woman nodded, but it felt like an educated guess: There’s a very very good chance that sisters look alike, no?

    Yes. And if it turns out the sister was actually adopted from China; well then, she was just asking a question.

  • spamamander, internet amphibian


    My sister-in-law lost a child, her only girl, many years ago. She wants so much to believe in this kind of bullshit so she can feel like there’s a way to connect to her daughter. I agree, “itchy fists” is a good way to describe the feeling I get reading about these kind of people preying on those who have lost loved ones.

  • rmsc

    I’d like to sentence her to the pain that those who come to her feel and the emptiness she leaves in their wallets. But, by this point I’m sure she is past the point of feeling.

  • RickR

    Copying over a post I left on the earlier thread-

    I’m watching her TLC show right now. She’s got her cold reading technique down, I’ll give her that. Slick as shit. “Do you understand that?”

    She’s “reading” a young woman whose father died in 9/11. The poor girl is in tears.

    At this moment I want to run Caputo over with my car.

  • DaveL

    I’d like to have a medium contact my father, and then explain he was an electrical engineer and ask him to explain how a growler works. At that point I’m sure they would disclaim they’re only capable of conveying impressions, not detailed specific information. I would then proceed to point out that as long as she can distinguish between any two impressions, any two impressions at all, then my father would be able to communicate anything through her in binary code. She doesn’t have to understand any of it; we’ll handle all the coding and decoding, clock recovery and frame synchronization, all of it. Because that’s the way real communication systems work.

  • Isn’t this fraud? Even if the victims clients believe it – heck, even if the frauds psychics believe it – there are still material losses involved (lost $$ at the very least).

  • John Hinkle

    Psychics are utterly full of bunk. I know because my astrologer told me.

  • Ellie

    People will believe what they want to believe. Decades ago, I used to “read palms” at parties. I always let people know it was a party trick, I had no special powers, and they shouldn’t take anything I said, seriously. I wasn’t “reading palms,” anyway, I was doing cold readings which is really pretty easy. Anyway, even with the disclaimer, too many people took it as dead serious, which bothered me so much, I stopped doing it. Still, some of those people insisted I had something “special,” I just didn’t know it.

  • outeast

    Indirectly related to this topic is a fascinating piece in the (UK) Guardian here about a man who falsely claimed to have committed 30 murders and was convicted of eight. It is related because the convictions rested almost exclusively on his knowledge of information that was only known to the killer(s) and police (ie stuff that had been kept out of the public domain) and which he evidently extracted from police interviewers using the classic cold reading techniques used by ‘psychics’.

    It’s not often we come across such clear examples of the phenomenon of cold reading outside frauds, debunkers, and stage magicians. And this case is a powerful example of how utterly persuasive cold reading can be in the hands of a good manipulator. Seriously, if you haven’t read about this, do so!

    (PS I don’t necessarily buy his present account of himself or his claims about his motivations – he could well be playing his new audience as he played the police. But the evidence that he was not guilty of the killings for which he was convicted is pretty strong.)

  • Yes. And if it turns out the sister was actually adopted from China; well then, she was just asking a question.

    And follows it up with, “Ah, I sensed there was a difference”. Confirmation bias works wonders.

  • Dan

    Saturday Night Live actually had a funny sketch a few weeks ago about this woman. They’ve got her number.

  • As I like to say, isn’t it interesting that no one ever seems to be able to communicate with their own dead family members but somehow a few select strangers can?

    How does it work anyway? Do the souls of dead people follow these mediums around like a cloud of gnats constantly buzzing in their ears?

    I’ll take these mediums seriously when they are able to reveal the identity of serial killers. After all, if they can supposedly communicate with my dead grandparents, then serial killer victims should be easy.

  • I used to make pocket money at the renfaires doing tarot card readings. At first it was all in good fun. Mostly I was just guiding people towards admitting they’d really already made whatever decision they were asking about, or telling a group of giggling kids who knew it was a show that they were descendents of Princess Gobbltigook of Nonsensia.

    Then a mother who’d just lost her three year old came and wanted me to tell her why.

    I threw away the cards.

  • Absolutely sickening.

  • chip

    I recall the day after the 9/11 attack, switching on the TV and seeing a new ad for John Edward’s “Crossing Over,” asking pointedly if viewers had perhaps lost someone suddenly and if they would like to have a chance to say goodbye. I was struck by how amazingly ghoulish it was, and how cold-blooded somebody would have to be to look at tragedy and think, “marketing opportunity.”

    And like Ellie and WithinThisMind, I used to do tarot readings at Halloween parties, with the up-front disclaimer that it was just for fun. I also stopped because occasionally someone would be convinced that I was in touch with The Other Side, and it bothered me. People really, *really* want to believe.

  • elleb15

    So is Einstein and his Theory of Relativity are a scam and proof that he’s a fake?

    I mean, for more than 200 years physics and the laws of gravity & motion were defined by Newton’s laws so Einstein is probably a scammer too.

    Is there no such thing as a paradigm shift? Paradigms are determined by the current evidence-so does that mean there will never be any further evidence or even the possibility of any alternative?

    Should we not be open anything other than what other’s have already created? I dunno, I like being open to seeing beyond my current thinking.

  • dingojack

    elleb15 – Well then the answer is really simple –

    provide actual evidence. A double-blinded statistical study using a properly constructed scientific tests should do it.

    Have at it!

    @@ Dingo

  • dingojack

    And because I can use my ‘psychic powers’ to read your innermost thoughts:

    No – I don’t have to prove, or even provide evidence, of anything.

    YOU made the EXTRA-ORDINARY CLAIM; YOU have to provide EVIDENCE to strengthen your hypothesis.

    You’ve got all the tools of scientific method at your disposal. Go for it, show the scientific world your amazing results!



    And no, I won’t be holding my breath.

  • dingojack

    Oooh ooh – No, anecdote IS NOT evidence.


  • elleb15

    Like I said, apparently I am not so convinced that there is no alternative possibility.

    What extraordinary claim did I make? Did you want a refresher in the theory of relativity?

    Did I miss the evidence you provided to strengthen your perspective?

    Psychotropic medications approved for patient use provide the double blind, placebo controlled, multi-center, statistically significant, clinically relevant blah blah studies you mentioned. Does that mean they work? The package inserts associated with these and the majority of approved medications for thousands of diagnoses point to “theory” regarding their efficacy and that the mechanism of action is “not fully understood”. Should docs stop prescribing them? Should docs be lemmings and say “if it’s good enough for the FDA it’s good for my patients”? -merely because the studies you describe have been done?

    How many medications and treatments have been pulled from the market or are no longer used that initially had the (ah heck I’ll use caps too) EVIDENCE resulting from the scientific methods at the disposal of the scientists and docs who developed and studied them?

    Do you have the handle Dingo and related picture because you like it or it amuses you or because you are a dog lover? If you are a dog lover-can your relationships with your dogs and the physiological response and emotion you feel from them be fully explained? Are dogs scammers too?

  • elleb15

    Multiple choice ? for ya Dingo-

    Am I a/an-

    A. MD

    B. Pharmacist

    C. PHD

    D. Clinical Research Manager


  • dingojack

    #24 – Irrelevant appeals to authority cut no ice*

    #23 – You are making the claim; you have to provide the evidence to strengthen your claim.

    You got the tools. Have at it!

    Dazzle me with your ‘science’.

    Rinse. Repeat. Until you get it.



    * See Dunning & Krueger

  • elleb15

    Low level of consciousness dumbass.., curious how a superior being like you would define conscioussness. Like I said, I’m open to other’s perspective. Don’t be shy Dingo.

    Hey Mr. Sassy…Can you Google a few things & enlighten me and possibly others? Since I’m such a good sport I did one for ya you genius….



    Superiority complex is the type of complex that develops when a person who suffers from inferiority complex decides to act superior in order to mask his inferiority.

    The person who has superiority complex usually claims that his opinion is always better than others and that he’s more important than his peers.

    Causes of superiority complex

    Superiority complex is usually a direct result of an underlying inferiority complex. Because the person suffers from feelings of inferiority he compensates by moving in the opposite direction which is acting superior.


    2. EGO

    3. Narcissism

    4. Douchebag

    5. Superiority Complex