If only this weren't news

By Phil Plait | December 10, 2008 2:00 pm

What’s the difference between this woman and Sylvia Browne, John Edward, James van Praagh, and all the other so-called "psychics"?

I can think of one thing: she got caught, was sentenced, and will sit in jail for what she did.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Piece of mind, Skepticism

Comments (37)

  1. Mchl

    So it’s that easy to get myself a Corvette? I think I’m going to post some ads in local paper tomorrow.

  2. drksky

    It makes me a sad panda that there are really people this stupid walking the planet (not the psychics, the victims).

  3. Wes

    The woman finally figured out something was wrong when she read media accounts that Miller’s mother-in-law, 56-year-old Lola Miller of San Jose, had been arrested for taking $450,000 in cash and services from a San Jose woman. Lola Miller, who went by the name “Miss Donna,” read the victim’s fortune, told her that she and family members were cursed and that she would cleanse them of evil for money. She also threatened the victim.

    What’s incredibly sad is that it took her that long to realize this psychic was a fraud.

  4. Cairnos

    The worst thing about people like this is that they discredit the real psychics…..

    Dammit! I couldn’t even type that with a straight face! :-)

  5. Look like another entry for “What’s the Harm?”.

  6. IVAN3MAN

    As I stated previously on another post, it’s mostly women who believe in and, in this case, fall victim to so-called psychics/astrologers/tarot-card readers/palmists/etc.

  7. Any lawyers here today?

    Wouldn’t this set a precedent for future cases against psychics? If they make claims, and receive funds for them, then in a court of law they should be forced to prove the claims. Does anyone know someone who was bilked by Sylvia Brown? Perhaps, as much as I hate to say it, putting her on trial would be the best way to shut her down.

  8. Davidlpf

    I would say the only difference between the one found guilty and the others is that the others have better lawyers.

  9. Cheyenne

    That’s an interesting thought Bart.

    These psychic people are scum, no doubt, but I’m vague on the “theft by false pretense”. That would seem applicable to, well, a really, really, really long list of things.

    I feel bad the lady was bilked out of the dough, but she did hand it over voluntarily. I don’t know how comfortable I feel about this prosecution and where thinking like this could lead to (but yeah, I feel no sympathy whatsoever for these frauds that prey on weak people).

  10. TheProbe

    Those women were lousy psychics. Good ones would have seen this coming and got out of town.

  11. For it to be false pretenses wouldn’t that require proof that the woman still had evil spirits after she was “purified.” =)

  12. Paul Judd

    [i]I feel bad the lady was bilked out of the dough, but she did hand it over voluntarily. I don’t know how comfortable I feel about this prosecution and where thinking like this could lead to (but yeah, I feel no sympathy whatsoever for these frauds that prey on weak people).[/i]

    Expect that the money was handed on false pretenses – the fact that she was deceived doesn’t make it really voluntary. It was a scam and those are illegal. This fraud was offering false services that she could not provide and lied about that to a customer. Its fraus off the bat.

  13. I don’t know how this woman is different than the “psychics” you cited. How are those “psychics” different from priests and preachers who pass a plate around? This group is clearly protected by the first amendment. A lawyer weighing in on this would be appreciated.

    I suspect it might have something to do with the amount of money obtained per person. Sylvia makes millions from many thousands of people rather than getting all her money from one or a few.

    I am sad that the woman in the story only got 2 months in jail. However, I am of the mind that punishment should stop the behavior. If 2 months gets her to stop bilking people, then so be it. If it doesn’t, she should go back to jail for longer and longer periods of time until she doesn’t do it any more. Maybe it needs to be something other than jail. The point is, I’d like to get her to stop.

  14. The FARK headline was classic:

    ‘Psychic cons woman out of $100K, forgets to add “Jesus” as part of her act, goes to jail’

    It’s sad because it’s true.

  15. Cheyenne

    Damon- You’re right, that is true. It wouldn’t have to just be “Jesus” though. Church of Scientology? How many have they bilked out of their life savings?

    I don’t get where the line is. It’s all snarky and bad, no doubt, but “theft by false pretense” here is something that exists in somebody’s head (like religion). It’s not like she said “give me $100K and in 3 days I’ll give you a car” and then bolts from the arrangement.

    How does the court know she didn’t “take the demons away”? Obviously, she didn’t (painful thought exercise that is). But then how would the court draw the line on anything else like this? Could I go to a psychic, be told what my winning lotto numbers are for $20, and then sue them when I don’t win?

    I don’t know, this just seems a little slippery to me legal wise.

  16. tdhowe

    PsyberDave, the difference is that most priests and preachers make no promises in return for the money. Nor is there a consequence for not giving. There are those who preach the “prosperity gospel” but they represent a very, very small portion of christians and are not by any means mainstream (although they are very vocal and visible).

  17. The family that bilks together gets incarcerated together?

    What a family of charlatans. Fantastic that they got caught. Maybe this is a turning point for truth.

  18. Frac

    Pro: $108K + car, Con: Small chance of 2 months in jail

    Great precedent.

  19. Adrian Lopez

    What a shame it’s only 60 days. At least she was also ordered to pay full restitution, though I think people like her should be forced to pay interest on top of whatever amount they take from their marks.

  20. Adrian Lopez

    PS – I wonder whether the money she’s been ordered to pay will ultimately come from new victims.

  21. Bonus: The mugshot is Fark-worthy :)

  22. What’s amazing to me is that the woman who was bilked actually put two and two together.

  23. Gary Ansorge

    What I wonder is how they(psychics) even find these money bearing twits(I guess that must be some kind of fruit tree).

    Too bad the “victim” wasn’t able to understand psychic power is BS. I guess it just goes to show: you don’t have to be smart to be rich,,,

    GAry 7

  24. Phil, I would love it if you would also take on TV Evangelists that use the same tactics as these so-called “Psychics”

  25. Gary Ansorge

    Michael:
    Televangilists are using the placebo effect to implement their “cures”. What makes them frauds is that they KNOW that’s what they’re really doing however, the placebo effect only works if the recipient BELIEVES in the (religiously mandated) “cure” so I guess they’re caught between a rock and,,,since they can’t admit that’s what they’re doing ’cause it would eliminate the “cure”.

    GAry 7

  26. Bart Mitchell

    The ‘slippery slope’ is exactly what im interested in. This case ended in a conviction. It was based on the basic idea that the ‘spirits’ were a fraud. A clever prosecutor might be able to use this as a stepping stone to bigger fish. Silvia next, then Popov like televangelists. Played right, over the course of many years, this could end up as a Supreme Court case against the Pope.

    I don’t see any slippery slope twards prosecuting honest people. This kind of litigious action could only serve to put a chilling effect on the use of the supernatural as a business .

  27. Matt

    I see no problem with a slippery slope which slides to reality. But I don’t know that a) the case was won/lost on the basis that the woman didn’t have her spirits cleansed and b) what the “theft by false pretense” law actually states – without this knowledge I find it absurd to jump to any conclusion that this will set precedent and lead to such a slippery slope. Moreover, any politician that noticed that such a precedent was leading to an “unfavourable” result, they would fight to change the law.

  28. Law Mom

    Disclaimer–I’m not a criminal lawyer, nor do I practice in California (although I did go to law school there). I practice primarily in real estate litigation, which often involves civil fraud. There are some similarities. A quick search leads us to California Penal Code sec. 484. Subsection (a) provides, in part:

    Every person who shall feloniously steal, take, carry,
    lead, or drive away the personal property of another, or who shall
    fraudulently appropriate property which has been entrusted to him or
    her, or who shall knowingly and designedly, by any false or
    fraudulent representation or pretense, defraud any other person of
    money, labor or real or personal property, or who causes or procures
    others to report falsely of his or her wealth or mercantile character
    and by thus imposing upon any person, obtains credit and thereby
    fraudulently gets or obtains possession of money, or property or
    obtains the labor or service of another, is guilty of theft.

    In other words, you can’t take someone’s stuff by lying to them. I assume the elements are similar to civil fraud, in which you have to prove that the defendant made a misrepresentation of material fact with the intent to induce reliance, and that the victim did in fact rely on the representation. There is a whole body of law on what is considered “material.” Advertising, for example, can be fraudulent or just harmless “puffery.”

    I can see a so-called psychic successfully arguing that she did not knowingly commit fraud because she sincerely believed what she said. Again, I am not a criminal lawyer, so I could be wrong. I use this defense in my civil cases to avoid punitive damages and other statutory penalties, but then I still have negligent misrepresentation to deal with.

  29. TheWalruss

    What a wacky family!

    Imagine what the sons are like – maybe they’re wizards?

  30. Nigel Depledge

    I have a dream, that one day people will be adequately educated. That one day, when people leave school to join society, they will possess at least a rudimentary critical faculty. I have a dream that one day people will value education…

    I also recently found out that a creationist cousin of mine just got a job teaching science. Go figure.

  31. Spiv

    Sorry fellas, this case was one because the girl plead no contest. If she had fought the case by saying that no, she honestly believed she had spirits in her and that she was helping the woman, but that this was an arduous task that required significant compensation for her talents, bla bla bla, then she likely would be cruising the streets in her fraudulent little corvette.

    The burden is on the prosecution to prove that she did /not/ have the ability to complete the service she was selling.

    Furthermore, people like Brown and Edward get even more leeway because their venues define them as a “show,” IE an act, like a magician, for entertainment purposes. Unfortunately most people are dumb enough to assume that’s just legal-mumbo jumbo and that these criminals are still legit.

    $5 to the first person to film themselves going to Brown’s show and demanding she make a balloon animal for them. Then again, don’t support that crook by going to her show.

  32. Cheyenne

    I like the result of what occurred (fraudster doing time, some restitution to the victim), but I’m truly a bit worried about the way we got there.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_pretenses

    You can apply this to anything. I’ve never heard of another case like this and I have no idea of how this doesn’t set a precedent for suing and locking up every other psychic in our country (which might not be so bad but come on…). Or how this doesn’t open the floodgates to anybody that wants to make a claim of “false pretense” over virtually anything.

  33. Spiv gets it exactly right. The court hasn’t passed judgment on the truth or falsity of her predictions. She pleaded no contest for a lighter sentence, and so the court didn’t have to determine whether she was “really” psychic or not. One suspects that she also plead out because she knew that couldn’t convince a court that she had any actual predictive power, but that’s just my speculation.

    And to answer the first question, the difference is probably better lawyers, and also better client management. Browne and her ilk are famous enough that they can make a very comfortable living scamming a relatively small amount of money from lots and lots of suckers. If a few folks get wise to her chicanery, their individual losses won’t be significant enough to warrant the expense of suing her. (I’d love – LOVE – to see one of these creeps in the crosshairs of a class action suit, but that’s a skeptical law student wet dream.)

    By contrast, this cretin milked a single cow hard enough to put a significant hurt on her. Once the mark suspected fraud, her losses were large enough that it made economic sense to sue. If Ms. Miller had known when to stop working the pump, she might have gotten away with it.

  34. Sorry, PsyberDave, I missed your comment. You nailed it.

  35. Keerax

    I don’t see what the big deal is.

    We all know money is the root of all evil and she was helping her remove it!
    ;)

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