If a marijuana dispensary or brothel opened up anywhere in Pennsylvania, complete with a tacky neon sign, the place would be shut down within hours, and the owners and employees would all face criminal charges. Yet for some reason, law enforcement looks the other way when it comes to the criminal bullshit-artists known as psychics, astrologers and fortunetellers. Fortunetelling, which is defined under Pennsylvania law as engaging in the likes of astrology, soothsaying or predicting the future for compensation, is a third degree misdemeanor punishable by up to one year incarceration and a $2,500 fine. Psychics and astrologers who con people out of substantial amounts of money could face more serious theft by deception charges, which could even be graded as a felony, if the gullible victim is bilked out of more than $2,000.
The obvious question is why law enforcement allows self-proclaimed psychics to prey upon desperate people, while not tolerating victimless, consensual transactions like prostitution, book making and marijuana sales. Strangely enough, most Pennsylvania police officers do not even know that fortunetelling is a crime! Thus, they ignore the psychic businesses who operate in an open and notorious manner. When they receive complaints from the family members of elderly people who have been scammed out of their life savings, the police are apt to call it a “civil matter” and not file any charges.
Some people may take the cynical approach that if someone is stupid enough to give money to a psychic, then they deserve to be victims. I disagree. First of all, as a recent episode of “20/20” revealed, not everyone who gets taken in by a psychic is stupid; gullibility and stupidity are completely different things. These con-artists are highly skilled, and can trick even successful people with advanced degrees into continually shelling out more and more money. Secondly, psychics can harm friends and family members of victims, when the victims make up excuses to borrow money from relatives to feed to psychics. Psychics are not harmless fun, nor do they have any magical powers. They are just as bad and just as skilled as the various Nigerian internet scammers. These charlatans so far have been under the radar of law enforcement, but that should change in the future.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University.