Free Speech

The First Amendment Protection of Fortune Tellers


The First Amendment Protection of Fortune Tellers

Photograph by Gretchen Ertl/The New York Times via Redux

A 65-year-old woman named Michele Zlotkin walked into a sparse, peach-colored Boca Raton, Fla., storefront that advertised psychic readings. It was just over a year ago and she had recently retired from teaching elementary school. For the first time in 40 years, she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. She wasn’t married, didn’t have children, and her elderly mother lived in New Jersey.

“I thought, well, I have to start a new life,” Zlotkin says. “So when I passed this store that said ‘Spiritual Healer’ and ‘Psychic’ on the front, I stopped in, thinking they could help.”

Zlotkin had been to see what she calls “spiritual healers” before and had always found them comforting. “I sat down and talked to this guy named Trinity and I don’t know what happened, but the next thing I knew, I was going to his place more often than I should’ve gone.” Over the next six months, she would give $130,000 in gift cards, watches, and cash to Trinity, who told her he was using them to get her recently deceased father out of purgatory.

It’s tempting to write Zlotkin’s story off as yet another misfortune of the superstitious or overly gullible. A search of newspaper records turns up similar arrests and trials dating at least as far back as the 19th century. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, over the past 20 years the percentage of Americans visiting fortune tellers and psychics has remained steady at 15 percent. Clearly not all those people would buy a $28,000 Rolex for a psychic who worked in a strip mall, as Zlotkin did. But hundreds of such incidents happen annually, and only a handful of psychics is ever prosecuted.

Recently, the number of cases seems to be climbing. In January, charges were dropped against an Orlando psychic after she returned $100,000 to a client who’d paid her to remove a curse. In September, a 62-year-old psychic named Rose Marks was found guilty in a Florida court of running a $25 million scam out of storefronts in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Manhattan; during the trial, bestselling romance novelist Jude Deveraux testified that she paid Marks $17 million over nearly 20 years. Less than a month later, a Manhattan psychic named Sylvia Mitchell was found guilty of stealing $138,000 from clients who visited her Greenwich Village shop. She faces up to 15 years in prison.

At the low end, fortune telling starts with a simple palm reading. For a few dollars, a fortune teller will trace the lines on your palms and give a vague description of your past. You’ve had troubles, the psychic tells you, something isn’t going your way. Meanwhile, the psychic is watching you for clues.

“They’re very good at cold readings, by which I mean reading the body language of a stranger who’s walked in off the street,” says Bob Nygaard, a retired police officer with the Nassau County Police Department in Long Island. N.Y., who is now a private investigator specializing in fortune-telling scams. Nygaard operates mainly out of New York and Florida, which he says are “hot spots” with lots of fortune-telling activity. Zlotkin is one of his clients.

Nygaard is quick to point out that there’s nothing inherently wrong with a palm or tarot card reading. In fact, fortune telling is protected under the First Amendment as free speech. Plenty of benign psychics will give you a glimpse into your future—however inaccurate that glimpse might be—and then send you along your way. Nygaard isn’t worried about them. “I’m talking about people who run confidence schemes,” he says.

Fraudulent psychics will endure a long succession of customers paying just the basic fee for the novelty of having their palms read, knowing that eventually someone will walk into the ofisa, or fortune-telling storefront, who’ll be psychologically pliable enough to be taken for a ride. Most victims of fortune-telling scams are emotionally vulnerable and socially isolated. They’re often struggling with a personal heartache, such as divorce or bankruptcy. They’re someone like Tiffany, a young IT contractor in Texas who’ll give only her first name because she’s embarrassed to admit that from 2007 to 2009, she gave $40,000 to a psychic she found on Craigslist.

“The day after I lost my job, my boyfriend broke up with me. Then my dad got sick. I searched out a psychic because I wanted and needed answers at a time when my life was falling apart,” she says. Tiffany is quick to point out that she is college educated (Zlotkin is, too) and not usually prone to superstitions. Her initial search for answers wasn’t much different from peoplewho trade stocks based on psychic tips—or even Nancy Reagan, who famously scheduled White House events on the advice of an astrologer. In his autobiography, John DeLorean wrote that when his car company went into receivership in 1982, he was duped into giving money to a palm reader.

According to the Boca Raton police report Zlotkin eventually filed, she paid $80 in cash for her first palm reading with Trinity, whose real name is David Miller Uwich. During the reading, she says, Uwich asked her to purchase a white rose and fill a bottle with ocean water. When she complied, he added oil to the water and told her to go home and bathe with it. She did.

Uwich may have dealt in roses, but Nygaard says the standard trick is actually a fresh white egg. The victim is told to purchase one, take it home, and either rub it on part of the body or sleep with it under the bed, sometimes both. When they bring the egg back to the ofisa, the psychic breaks it to find that inside is something hard and dark and evil. “It’s psychological manipulation,” Nygaard explains. “They want to see what they can make you do, how far you’ll go.” The egg trick is so old that Joseph Mitchell wrote about it in a 1955 New Yorker profile of what he then called “gypsies.” “Sometimes it’s a ball of tangled hair, sometimes it’s a knotted-up piece of string,” a retired police detective named Daniel Campion told Mitchell at the time. Nygaard described it to me as ” a bloody mass.”

According to Zlotkin, Urwich’s requests got weirder and more outlandish. He needed money to build a shield to fight the devil so Zlotkin’s father could get out of purgatory. He needed the Rolex watch so he could destroy it and prove that Zlotkin’s father had given up earthly needs. (Police later found the watch at a pawnshop.) “I know it sounds ridiculous,” says Zlotkin. “But he was very, very, very convincing.”

To give Uwich what he needed, Zlotkin says she ran through her savings and cashed in her retirement plan early. But no matter how much she gave him, she claims he always wanted more. “That’s when I realized, this guy is scamming me.” When she went to the police in December 2012, “they immediately showed me a picture of him and asked, ‘Is this the guy?’ They already knew about him.”

In September, the Boca Raton Police Department determined that it had enough probable cause to arrest Uwich under suspicion of organized fraud and grand theft, but so far he hasn’t been formally prosecuted. “Cases like this are tough because you have to prove that at the time they gave away money, the psychic did not intend to uphold the contract,” says Dave Aronberg, Palm Beach County State Attorney who in the early 2000s headed the state’s case against the companies that ran the Miss Cleo TV psychic hotlines. “In the Miss Cleo case, we never broached the subject of whether she was a real psychic because how do you prove something like that?,” he says. “If somebody says, ‘Pay me $100 per month and I’ll work to lift a curse,’ well, how do we know he didn’t work to lift the curse?”

While Palm Beach County seems largely stymied by its cases, New York City is actively pursuing fortune-telling fraud. The state has a law against fortune telling for anything other than entertainment, which gives the authorities extra leverage when trying to prosecute people like Sylvia Mitchell, who last month was found guilty of grand larceny and fraud.

The problem with fortune-telling bans, though, is that they’re usually overturned in court. In 2009, a Maryland court found that because “to deny compensation for certain speech will chill such speech,” banning fortune tellers is no less fair than banning newspaper horoscopes or stock market predictions. “The First Amendment prevents the government from deciding whether speech is acceptable for us to hear,” says Lee Rowland, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents fortune tellers in many of these cases. “It’s not for them to decide whether we’re too gullible to hear something.”

For its part, New York state seems to be in the unique position of having a ban and allowing fortune-tellers to operate anyway. This won’t prevent fraud, but it helps authorities shutter businesses after the frauds have been uncovered.

Michele Zlotkin doesn’t know if her case will ever be prosecuted. Even if it is, she doesn’t expect it to bring her much peace. “I’m still broke,” she says. Her credit cards are maxed-out. She’s paying taxes on the money she took out of her retirement account too early. Zlotkin would like to move to New Jersey to be with her mother, who was put into hospice care this week, but she doesn’t think her credit is good enough to buy or rent a house. The worst thing is, she still doesn’t know how she fell for such an obvious trick. “When Trinity first told me my dad was in purgatory, I didn’t even know what that was,” she says. “My family is Jewish.”

Suddath is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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