The Fraud Examiner

Psychic Fraud: Do I See a Con Scheme in Your Future?

July 2014

By Laura Hymes, CFE


If you met Theresa Caputo, the first thing you’d probably notice is her gravity-defying blonde hair, her distinctive voice or maybe her long nails if you shook hands. Whether you would notice a psychic energy surrounding her is a more subjective observation. The self-styled Long Island Medium has a TV show by the same name on TLC, on which she speaks to deceased loved ones of paying clients and unsuspecting passersby alike. The show has earned her an earnest base of supportive fans along with vocal critics who claim that she is a charlatan.


Psychic Fraud

I’m not making any assertions regarding the authenticity of Caputo’s psychic gifts, but she is certainly not the first (nor will she be the last) to be accused of preying on people’s emotions for personal benefit. John Edward, Sylvia Browne, Miss Cleo — there have been many well-known psychics, mediums and mind readers who have been accused of perpetrating con schemes, both in court and in the media:


John Edward never faced criminal charges, but his career as a psychic has been shadowed by skepticism and claims of deceptive practices.

Miss Cleo’s parent company, Psychic Readers Network, was sued by multiple states in 2001 and faced FTC charges of deceptive advertising, billing, and collections in 2002. The owners settled and Miss Cleo was never indicted.

In 1992, Sylvia Browne was convicted of multiple charges of securities fraud and grand theft for bilking customers in a gold-mining venture. She was never convicted of crimes related to her psychic pursuits.


One of the more common accusations levied against purported psychics is the use of cold reading — a method of asking questions based on the client’s age, gender, race, clothing, speech patterns and other readily observable details, and then refining the “reading” based on verbal and nonverbal responses. Shotgunning is a related technique in which the reader rapidly asks a series of general questions, often to a large audience, and then focuses on positive respondents.

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