Mediums Exposed: Fake Psychics and Fortune Tellers

For decades, psychics, mentalists, and mediums have been claiming to communicate with the dead, but this type of black magic has been popular for hundreds of years. Many people believe in their supernatural abilities, while others think it’s all psychological and attribute their gifts to a process called Cold Reading.

A Spiritual meeting / Uri Geller / The Psychic Twins / Miss Cleo.
Source: Getty Images

According to Denis Dutton’s paper, “The Cold Reading Technique,” is a “process in which a reader makes calculated guesses about a client’s background and problems and, depending on the reaction, elaborates a reading which seems to the client as so uniquely appropriate that it carries with it the illusion of having been produced by paranormal means.”

Praying on the Vulnerable

Some psychics use their abilities to solve crimes and find missing persons; grieving families credit mediums for helping them reconnect with their lost loved ones. However, scientific skeptic Susan Gerbic calls these psychics “grief vampires.” Gerbic believes claiming to communicate with the dead or locate missing children involves targeting desperate families who suffered a recent loss.

A circle of people at a spirited meeting joining hands around a table.
Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

As explained in “Psychic Sleuths,” studies have tried to verify the existence of these psychics’ abilities. One study performed double-blind tests to see if psychics would be better at solving crimes than detectives or average college students relying on just their intuition. It turned out that the psychics “generated lengthy discourses with dramatic and confident-sounding statements,” yet didn’t manage to come up with anything more useful than the detectives or the students.

Whether or not you believe that people can have supernatural abilities, there are always those liars out there trying to squeeze money out of you. As someone who wants to believe in mystical powers, we’re going to get into the most controversial claims made by psychics or mediums.

The Fox Sisters’ Ghostly Lies

Back in 1848, the Fox family started hearing strange and mysterious knocking sounds in their home. Mrs. Fox believed in the supernatural and immediately assumed the house was haunted by ghosts. On the night before April Fool’s Day, her daughters Maggie and Katie began asking questions and getting responses for unexplainable sounds using a “once for yes, twice for no” type of tactic, according to the Fox Sisters.

A portrait of the Fox sisters.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

However, in 1888, the truth came out. Maggie confessed that they had made the entire thing up. They used an apple to make the knocking noises and then used the sound of them cracking their toes and knuckles.

The Fox Sisters’ Ghostly Lies

Their goal was to trick and scare their family, but it ultimately caused an enormous spike in the popularity of Spiritualism. The sisters went on the road to discuss and monetize their strategy of connecting with the dead. They ended up at Barnum’s Hotel in Manhattan, where they charged people for “séances.”

An illustration of a table rapping with the Fox Sisters.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

When Maggie admitted that they were faking the entire thing, it was dubbed “a death blow” to Spiritualism and caused massive outrage from believers. The following year, Maggie took back her confession claiming she always spoke with spirits, but it was too late. Although they helped bring the Spiritualist community to prominence, they, in turn, completely rejected the Fox sisters.

The Crazy Psychic: O’Delia Diss Debar

Around the time the Fox sisters were tricking the world, another spiritual scammer was working her magic: Ann O’Delia Diss Debar. Before claiming she could communicate with the dead, she pretended to be an acclaimed dancer and posed as the Princess of Bavaria. Clearly, she has a bit of a lying streak.

A portrait of O’Delia Diss Debar.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to Harry Houdini, a famed magician who spent much of his time on an unrelenting quest to expose psychics as frauds, Debar was once committed to Bellevue (a mental institution), where she attempted to murder her doctors.

The Crazy Psychic: O’Delia Diss Debar

She wasn’t 100% there, but she did manage to find success as a medium. She contacted a wealthy, elderly widow, claiming she had received messages from his dead wife and child. She convinced him that they wanted him to give up his house. When he did, she turned the building into a “Spiritualistic Temple.”

A table moves of its own accord during a séance.
Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

But Diss Debar was put on trial in 1888. The trial proceedings were reported on extensively as the public was fascinated by this case and watched the trial live.

The Crazy Psychic: O’Delia Diss Debar

Diss Debar tried to convince the jury that she could speak to the dead and even testified that the spirits told her to return the house. Magician Carl Hertz was called to replicate Debar’s “proof” of communicating with ghosts.

A dated mugshot of Diss Debar.
Source: Pinterest

As Houdini put it, “people crowded around so close that the magician scarcely had room to move.” Hertz was able to create the same results using simple magic tricks, and Diss Debar was found guilty. The American public was shocked and Debar served six months on Blackwell’s Island. She would later move to England, where she would start “an exceptionally immoral cult.”

Debunked on TV: Uri Geller

Famed mystic Uri Geller gave an interview to Reuters in 2019, advising his fans in Britain to use “mass-telepathy” against Prime Minister Theresa May. In 2021, he gave another controversial interview.

A photo of Uri Geller bending a spoon.
Photo by Homer Sykes/Corbis/Getty Images

This time, he claimed that his “intuitive feelings” showed him that the COVID-19 virus was released by human beings on purpose. As you could imagine, this led to widespread “angry backlash” from the public, who were infuriated that the “TV magician” was using his platform to spread misinformation. But this was the first time Geller was involved in a “scandal.”

Debunked on TV: Uri Geller

Back in the 1970s, Geller was the most famous psychic on the planet. Charming skeptic and magician James “The Amazing” Randi began an extremely controversial investigation into many of his claims. In addition to psychic abilities, Geller also claimed he could bend spoons with his mind.

Uri Geller poses with his custom-built Cadillac encrusted with bend spoons.
Photo by Homer Sykes/Corbis/Getty Images

Randi established the totally non-magical methods that Geller was using to make it look like he had powers, from hidden mirrors to bending spoons in advance. Before having Geller on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson took Randi’s advice and removed everything the mentalist could use to trick the audience. Geller stalled and stunned the live audience when he was unable to perform any magic on the show.

Miss Cleo’s Infomercial Predictions

You may remember a mysterious figure who appeared in late-night infomercials back in the 1990s. She spoke in a Jamaican accent, called herself “Miss Cleo,” and told viewers to call her for a free tarot card reading. As it turned out, the “psychic” was just the face of the money-hungry organization.

A screengrab of Miss Cleo during an infomercial prediction.
Source: NBC News

When viewers called Miss Cleo, they were connected to random workers all over the world who were hired as “phone actors,” according to The New York Times. And in case you were wondering, none of these employees ever claimed to be psychics. They didn’t even receive training, just a script and digital tarot cards.

Miss Cleo’s Infomercial Predictions

As it turned out, Miss Cleo’s real name was Youree Dell Harris, and no, she didn’t have an accent, according to an interview with Vice. The pretend psychic was only making 24 cents per minute on the phone lines while the company was making $24 million a month.

Miss Cleo speaks on television.
Source: CBS News

But the uproar toward the Psychic Reading Network had nothing to do with the fact that that the company was exploiting desperate callers or that none of the operators could actually see the future. It was because the “free tarot card” reading wasn’t actually free!

Miss Cleo’s Infomercial Predictions

We don’t see Miss Cleo on our screens anymore. They put an end to that scam real fast. In 2002, the Federal Trade Commission stated that the infomercials didn’t notify viewers about the real costs of calling the hotline.

A portrait of Miss Cleo.
Source: Pinterest

They even threatened innocent callers that they would report them to credit bureaus if they failed to pay for these readings. Even though she was just an actor in this multi-million-dollar scam, Miss Cleo faced tons of public backlash and was terrified of being recognized in public. People had very strong opinions about her.

Dorthey Allison Steals the Credit

Like a television mystery detective, Dorothy Allison says she could feel the identities of murderers while taunting them on TV. She gained the trust of numerous families of murdered children, who gave her full access to their homes, lives, and memories.

A portrait of Dorothy Allison.
Source: YouTube

She really played on people’s emotions and made it seem like she could be their coping mechanism during these difficult times. According to The Washington Post, the police consulted Allison on over 100 cases. But while she tells her success stories on promotional tours for her book, the detectives working those cases tell a much different story.

Dorthey Allison Steals the Credit

Despite her book sales, Dorothy Allison’s legacy has been tainted forever, with outrage coming from those she claimed to have helped. Her obituary in The Los Angeles Times states that she gave the police over forty names of potential killers, but none of them were guilty. One detective described her as “that wacko broad… [who] rode around in a big limousine, ate real well for three days and went home.”

A photo of Dorothy Allison.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Detective George Brejack worked with Allison on one of her most popular cases, but he recalls it differently. She took the police to an abandoned building saying the missing child’s body would be there. When it wasn’t, she gave up. Several days later, Brejack spoke with an eyewitness who led him to the site of the body. Allison took credit for it anyway.

Rose Marks: Million-Dollar Fortune Teller

As we’ve learned from Miss Cleo’s infomercials, no matter how affordable psychics may seem at first, there is always that chance that they will cause irreparable damage, especially when you put all your faith in them. This is what happened to author Deveraux, who lost millions in a fortune-telling scheme.

A photo of Rose Marks.
Source: Pinterest

Deveraux was walking around New York City when she casually stopped at a psychic parlor: that’s when he met Rose Marks. For seventeen years, Marks and her family played on Deveraux’s feelings and grief surrounding the death of her eight-year-old son. Manipulating someone with their dead child is pure evil.

Rose Marks: Million-Dollar Fortune Teller

Marks told Deveraux that her son’s soul was trapped but not to worry – she could help him as long she kept working with the psychic and her family, doing spiritual readings. Eventually, Deveraux lost her home, $20 million, and may have even signed a will leaving her wealth with the Marks family.

A dated portrait of Deveraux.
Source: Pinterest

According to The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Marks also lost her home and will serve ten years behind bars. But in the wake of the trial and press coverage in 2012, more damage was done by the public outroar. Marks said that she had been painted “as some kind of monster,” asking, “How do I start over again? It’s impossible.”

Lauri McQuary: Not-So-Psychic Detective

Dorothy Allison is just one of the many people claiming to use her psychic abilities to solve crimes. Another one of these “heroes” is Lauri McQuary, a self-proclaimed “true crime psychic” who calls herself “a big contributor in the law enforcement community.”

A still from Lauri McQuary on television.
Source: YouTube

Her specialty was telling the families of missing persons if their loved one is dead or alive by simply looking at a photograph. These days, she is best known for her extremely embarrassing appearance on Inside Edition. She was given a photograph and began working her magic.

Lauri McQuary: Not-So-Psychic Detective

McQuary told a producer that the child in the photograph had been brutally assaulted and murdered. She even went as far as to show him where the body might be found on a map. When she was interviewed by reporter Lisa Guerrero shortly afterward, she exposed the psychic by telling her it was a photo of Guerrero as a kid.

A still from McQuary and a journalist during an interview.
Source: YouTube

Obviously, Guerrero was sitting in front of her, very much alive. Although this was all filmed in 2011, it didn’t go viral until 2016. Cult News 101 labeled McQuary a “phony,” and skepticism advocate Susan Gerbic mentioned that “everyone seems to be talking about” the piece.

Sylvia Browne: Caught in a Big Lie

Sylvia Browne is not only the most famous psychic detective but also the most controversial. Back in 2004, the alleged spiritual psychic and guide went on television to talk about a missing child. It certainly wasn’t her first time discussing cases on television, but this appearance caused a ton of public backlash.

A portrait of Sylvia Browne.
Photo by Steve Snowden/Getty Images

With massive outrage from skeptics and her own fans, she was dubbed a “fraud” and a “parasite.” Brown appeared as a guest on The Montel Williams show quite frequently. In 2004, she came on an episode with Louwana Miller, who was distraught and heartbroken about her missing daughter, Amanda Berry.

Sylvia Browne: Caught in a Big Lie

The crime-solving psychic told Miller that her daughter was already dead, and her last words were “Goodbye, mom, I love you,” as quoted by The Guardian. Not only was Berry still alive, but she watched the episode on television.

Sylvia Browne speaks to an audience.
Photo by Steve Snowden/Getty Images

In 2013, almost a decade after she was kidnapped, Berry finally escaped. Tragically, her mother died before she found out that Browne lied to her, and her daughter had been alive this entire time. People really get angry when psychics scam the desperate and vulnerable. Why put a grieving mother through even more pain? Is the money really worth it?

Sylvia Browne’s Other False Predictions

Unsurprisingly, Louwana Miller wasn’t the only grieving person Sylvia Browne gave false information to. Although the Amanda Berry case may be Browne’s most famous failure, many of her other “predictions” sparked outrage. John Ronson of The Guardian dubbed her “America’s most controversial psychic.”

A photo of a missing person sign.
Source: YouTube

The grandmother of Opal Jo Jennings consulted Browne in 1999 about her missing granddaughter. Browne explained to her that she had been abducted for “some kind of slavery thing” and was currently in Japan. In reality, the missing girl was murdered in Texas on the night she was kidnapped.

Sylvia Browne’s Other False Predictions

Browne also spoke to the parents of missing 11-year-old Shawn Hornbeck in 2002, telling them their child was dead. However, Shawn was found alive in 2006. His parents, of course, were overjoyed that Shawn was alive and said that Browne telling them he was dead was “one of the hardest things we ever had to hear.”

A portrait of Shawn Hornbeck / A photo of Sylvia Browne.
Source: Pinterest

Once Shawn Hornbeck was found alive, Browne stopped giving interviews, even rejecting Larry King and Anderson Cooper. Many people thought the scandal ended her psychic career. However, she went on to perform on cruises and claimed to have supernatural abilities for the rest of her life.

Maria Duval: $200 Million Sucker List

Psychic Maria made a name for herself in France as a psychic detective. Apparently, she found a missing person using a pendulum and returned Brigitte Bardot’s lost dog (although Bardot denied this). These days, she is internationally famous for being at the center of a Ponzi scheme – it was fifty times more profitable than Bernie Madoff’s.

A portrait of Maria Duval.
Source: The NY Post

At least 1.4 million people were scammed in the United States alone, according to CNN. It is said to be one of the longest-running mail scams in history.

Maria Duval: $200 Million Sucker List

Potential victims would receive a letter, supposedly from Maria Duval, promising to help them gain fortune, overcome disease, or change their luck. In order to begin their spiritual journey with Duval, they had to pay $40 and continue to pay whenever they wanted another letter.

Maria Duval speaks during an interview.
Source: CNN

Details in the letter, which arrived randomly, seemed to contain details that a stranger would never know. But in truth, the addresses were from “sucker lists” created by data brokers. They knew exactly who to target. Needless to say, no one was actually trying to help people.

Maria Duval: $200 Million Sucker List

The international scam was operated by many different individuals. These entities were from regions ranging from Switzerland to Monaco. During an interview with CNN, Duval’s son claimed that his mom was not involved with the scam and had not mailed a single letter, despite being the face of the scheme.

A portrait of Maria Duval.
Source: YouTube

He went on to express regret and sadness that “her legacy, this picture she will leave” is an international scandal and exploitation. It is still unknown how involved Duval actually was in the scam, but her reputation never recovered.

Thomas John: Facebook Stalker

While many psychics have been accused of cold reading, others give personal details to their clients that seem entirely too specific to be fake. One explanation is a technique called “hot reading.” In this case, the reader does actual research on the person ahead of time.

Thomas John attends an event.
Photo by Shahar Azran/WireImage/Getty Images

They repeat the information as if it’s coming to them at the moment, but really, the “psychic” just looked up the client before meeting them. As The New York Times noted, in recent years, it has become much easier to “hot read” thanks to the internet and social media.

Thomas John: Facebook Stalker

Susan Gerbic, magician Mark Edward, and their team of skeptics used hot readings to their advantage in attempting to debunk Thomas John – a psychic who specializes in accurately guessing the names of audience members’ dead pets and family members.

A close-up on Thomas John during a spirited meeting.
Photo by Benjamin Hager

In the hopes of catching John’s hot reading, the skeptics created fake Facebook accounts for Gerbic and Edward. During his live show, John started making extremely specific statements about Gerbic and Edward – with details that were posted on their fake Facebook profiles.

Thomas John: Facebook Stalker

John maintains that he does not use social media; all the false information he stated could not be found anywhere other than in those fake Facebook profiles. John went on to have his own television show and continues to use his alleged psychic abilities.

A photo of Thomas John during a spiritual meeting.
Photo by Benjamin Hager

However, the backlash against him has only grown stronger since Gerbic and Edward’s sting operation. In 2019, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that skeptic criticism was having a strong effect on John’s reputation and his producers had to constantly defend him and his new Vegas show months before opening.

Theresa Caputo: The Long Island Medium

Theresa Caputo made a name for herself as “the Long Island Medium,” as depicted on her television show with TLC. She was also accused of charging grieving families for cold readings on multiple occasions. During these readings, she claims to be able to talk to people’s deceased loved ones.

A still of Theresa Caputo during an interview.
Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images

In a 2017 Philadelphia Magazine article, Victor Fiorillo reported that Theresa Caputo used a technique that involved making vague statements and waiting for them to resonate with the audience. Fiorillo also revealed that she makes so many mistakes during these readings but moves on from them quickly, hoping nobody will notice.

Theresa Caputo’s 9/11 Special

Despite her vague statements and unclear abilities, Caputo continues to have fans who truly believe she has psychic abilities. But when Caputo announced her new special in the summer of 2021, it sparked national outrage.

A still from the 9/11 special.
Source: TLC

The idea for the television special was to channel the spirits of those who perished in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The New York Times described the upcoming special as “utterly shameful” and a “blatant exploitation” of the victims and their families. Even her believers were appalled that she would do this. Honestly, she should have expected the negative reactions.

This Is How Psychics Trick You Into Believing Them

Although it’s one of the oldest scams in the book, people still fall for fake psychics’ fake predictions all the time. Whether you believe in black magic and mystical abilities, most of the fortune tellers out there just want your money. Whether they want to read your palms or give you a tarot card reading, you should take all their advice with a grain of salt.

A still of Theresa Caputo speaking on television.
Source: YouTube

There are plenty of people out there claiming to predict your future, communicate with the dead, or even remove a curse. The spiritual world is a wonder, and many curious people want to believe in a deeper meaning. Pretending to be mystical has been a great way to manipulate curious, vulnerable, and desperate minds since the dawn of time.

Telling You What You Want To Hear

Back in the 1990s, it was late-night TV ads urging viewers to call up a hotline to get your special reading and predictions. Whatever you wanted to hear, the psychic would tell you – and the longer you poured out your soul, the more money the “psychic” on the other end made. Not only were they playing with your emotions, but with your hard-earned money.

A photo of a spiritual meeting.
Source: Pinterest

As we mentioned, the Federal Trade Commission shut down one of these operations (Miss Cleo Infomercial Predictions) back in 2002 for “unfair trading practices.” Although many of these scammers are getting caught, there are gullible, vulnerable people out there still being fooled by these fake psychics.

Here is how they suck you in.

The More You Talk, The More It Costs

As The Guardian puts it, “Surely any trip to a psychic involves a large leap of faith and no guarantees?” Unfortunately, this leap becomes a head-first dive into a rabbit hole of fraud way too often. It starts off very simple.

A photo of a fortune-teller during a session in an event.
Photo by David M. Benett/Getty Images

The fortune-teller begins asking general questions suggesting “facts” that in retrospect are also pretty general and then zeroing in on specific details that a stranger could never know – unless they really do have psychic energy and mystical powers. Is it possible?

The Old Carnival Con

We mentioned “cold reading.” It’s a classical carnival con designed for the gullible and targeting the hopeful. According to Psychology Today, “Audiences are receptive to these tricks because they are there to believe.”

A fortune teller is reading a palm.
Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Basically, the psychic makes a claim and then watches your reaction very carefully. They tend to be good at body language and reading their potential clients. Unfortunately, that might trick you and give them an edge. They will use it to tell you what you want to hear and convince you of things – like who you were in a past life or that the spirit of your dead family member wants to communicate.

I’m Sensing I’m Going to Make Some Money

Interestingly, when fake psychics try to convince clients that they were a famous historical figure in a past life, they tend to use Cleopatra or Abraham Lincoln. We couldn’t have all been Cleopatra. If you are tempted by a con or even fell victim to one of these scams, you’re not alone.

A dated picture of a fortune teller.
Photo by Jaro von Tucholka/ullstein bild/Getty Images

Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the popular Sherlock Holmes stories and certified medical doctor, turned to devout spiritualism in his later years. His good friend Harry Houdini tried to convince Doyle otherwise, even performing a psychic reading on him and then explaining how he faked it all.

Houdini Was Psychic

But Doyle wasn’t convinced. Instead, he believes that Houdini did, in fact, have psychic abilities and just didn’t know about them yet. “It is a game of hits and misses,” according to Psychology Today. “Although the ‘hits’ aren’t indicative of accuracy, they are merely perceived as correct.” Desperate people desperately want to believe, to understand, to know.

A portrait of Houdini.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Unfortunately, turning to psychics can be a dangerous coping mechanism. It’s almost like an addiction. When you feel like you’re getting answers, you want more of them. Unfortunately, it comes at a huge cost. As someone who believes in the supernatural world and is interested in psychic abilities, I’m definitely not trusting a fortune teller! I’ll teach myself how to read tarot cards if I have to!

The Psychic Twins

The Psychic Twins are best-known for their 1999 prediction that there would be terrorist attacks on federal buildings and the World Trade Center by the year 2002. Unfortunately, they were correct. In fact, they were the only psychics who predicted the events of 9/11 with recorded proof after discussing the prediction on a radio station.

The Psychic Twins attend an event.
Photo by John Heller/WireImage/Getty Images

Identical twin sisters Terry and Linda Jamison have worked as painters and performance artists, but their mystical gifts of predicting the future and channeling spirits made them household names in the spiritual scene. As someone who is fascinated by both twins and psychics, I was intrigued when I found out about the psychic twins.

Over 1,000 Predictions Since 1999

Ever since 1999, the sisters have more than 1,500 documented world predictions, including the most dramatic events of the new millennium: 9/11, the Paris terror attacks, the San Bernardino Massacre, the Boston Marathon bombings, as well as various health and medical breakthroughs.

A portrait of the Psychic Twins.
Source: ABC News

However, with all the skepticism surrounding psychics and fortune-telling scams, do the Psychic Twins have supernatural powers…. Or are they just really good guessers? I guess if you’re a skeptic, you believe this is all bulls*it. But here is what the sisters have to say about the haters.

Haters Gonna Hate

During an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, the twins said that skeptics aren’t even open to the idea: “People send us hate mail and death threats without looking at our proven predictions. We always say skeptics are like atheists, who refuse to look at proof, no matter how specific.”

A psychic lays out some oracle cards.
Photo by Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post/Getty Images

“It’s impossible to ignore over 1,500 predictions on tape. People often tell us that our gift is like a superpower, and they wish they could do it.” With over 1,000 accurate predictions, they seem legit, but the haters are going to continue hating.

Skeptics Will Never Believe

They went on to say: “There are some who continue to claim that what we do is impossible, but we have put some significant cracks in the glass ceiling. We are shattering the paradigms of what is possible, and this is threatening to many. It’s a little like Columbus, who proved that the world wasn’t flat. People don’t like it when we explode their long-held, deeply entrenched beliefs.”

A still from the Psychic Twins during an interview.
Source: ABC News

I don’t think anyone necessarily feels threatened. I just think that if someone is a skeptic, they probably won’t change their mind. Plus, we’ve seen all these psychic scams, so how could we really know for sure?

Are They Really Psychics?

Because fortune tellers are so stereotypically fake and are scamming you more often than not, people have a really tough time believing psychics could be real. However, the Psychic Twins seem to be different. Their tactics involve them holding a pen and paper, closing their eyes, and their intuition does the drawing. These drawings are their predictions.

A photo of Houdini’s widow's spiritual meeting.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

The twins used their ability to help the LAPD and they claim to communicate with the dead. And they don’t just connect with dead relatives. They claimed to speak to dead superstars like Michael Jackson, Lady Diana, Robin Williams, and Natalie Wood.

Could there be any truth to this? Do people really have intuitive powers? Or is it all just psychological tricks and coincidental statements?