Psychic scammers find fertile haunting ground in Internet age

Tue Oct 29, 2013 1:09pm EDT
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By Jeffrey B. Roth

GETTYSBURG, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - As pre-Halloween witches and ghouls sprout up on U.S. lawns, experts are warning people to be wary of modern occult scammers who have moved online to hawk virtual voodoo dolls, revenge spells and otherwise "haunted" items.

While the idea of spending money for a magic spell - to help with an endeavor or to inflict pain on an enemy - has been around for centuries, experts say the anonymity of online transactions can encourage people who would otherwise never think of visiting a storefront psychic to fall for a con.

"It's a new twist on an old idea," said Nicholas Little, legal director of the Center for Inquiry, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes secular and rational thinking. "It's easy to hide your identity on the Internet, so people are willing to try scams online that they would never be willing to try in person."

While most scammers offer items in the small-dollar range - selling allegedly haunted items on auction sites for under $10 - some go for large sums of money. A Manhattan woman running a fortune-telling business earlier this month was found guilty of conning two women out of $138,000, claiming that the funds would be used to solve problems related to their past lives.

Alexandra Holzer Gargiulo, daughter of paranormal researcher and author, Hans Holzer, is publishing a 50th anniversary edition of her father's book "Ghost Hunter." She said paranormal scams prey on people who are "desperate for answers."

Television shows that depict investigators using gadgets such as electro-magnetic field detectors to document evidence of paranormal activity have driven up demand for those items, Gargiulo said. She added that the shows have also sparked growth in the number of self-proclaimed paranormal investigators, who charge homeowners as much as $1,500 to rid their homes of spirits.

The law relating to such activities is not always definitive, Little said, noting that fortune-tellers and others who offer occult services often use a "for entertainment purposes only" disclaimer to prevent legal problems.

Even as people who sell occult services move online, some continue to run storefronts, offering psychic readings for a small fee and trying to talk customers into paying more to resolve problems.   Continued...