Fortune telling fraud
Fortune telling fraud, also called the bujo or egg curse scam, is a type of confidence trick, based on a claim of secret or occult information. The basic feature of the scam involves diagnosing the victim (the "mark") with some sort of secret problem that only the grifter can detect or diagnose, and then charging the mark for ineffectual treatments. The archetypical grifter working the scam is a fortune teller who announces that the mark is suffering from a curse that her magic can relieve, while threatening dire consequences if the curse is not lifted.
In this scam, a fortune teller uses her cold reading skill to detect that a client is genuinely troubled rather than merely seeking entertainment; or is a gambler complaining of bad luck. The fortune teller informs the mark that they are the victim of a curse, but that for a fee a spell can be cast to remove the curse. In Romany, this trick is called bujo, originally meaning simply "bag", but now meaning "a swindle involving a large amount of money from a gullible fortune-telling customer."
This name comes from a traditional form: the mark is told that the curse is in their money; they bring money in a bag to have the spell cast over it, and leave with a bag of worthless paper; or money or property are given to the fortune teller to be destroyed as bearing the curse, and an item of lesser value is swapped and conspicuously destroyed instead. In some cases the curse is "verified" by a sleight of hand trick, often involving an egg, The grifter tells the mark to bring an egg to a reading, which when cracked open reveals disgusting matter or symbols of evil. This discovery confirms the curse.
These scams continue into the present day. A 1996 reported decision out of Hawaii described the scam as "a centuries old confidence game that victimized the elderly or those with emotional problems", describing its operation in this manner:
In the Bujo, one of the female members of the Merino clan would tell the client that the future holds evil. Sleight of hand tricks, such as removing a clump of hair from a newly broken egg, were used as evidence that a client was either possessed by an evil spirit or under the influence of a curse.
The female member of the Merino clan devised methods of extracting the victim's money. The victim may have been told that the money was the root of all evil, that it had to be tossed into the ocean or buried near a fresh grave in a graveyard, and credit cards were used on extravagant shopping sprees to purchase food, clothing, jewelry, and other merchandise for members of the Merino family's use and enjoyment.
A Texas woman was sentenced to 21⁄2 years on Federal charges for wire fraud and money laundering after she operated a scam involving a psychic telephone line. Not only did she receive fees of several hundred dollars for her psychic counselling, but she also convinced her clients to send her money and property to be cleansed of "evil". In 2002, two self-described California based psychics were indicted on Federal mail fraud charges after persuading people to pay them to be cleared of bad karma. In 2006, two Connecticut women told another woman that God was going to kill her unless she paid them to perform various rituals, including chicken sacrifices, on her behalf. In Palmdale, California, a psychic reader was accused of inducing a 12-year-old girl to steal $10,000 worth of jewelry from her parents by threats of a curse. In 2013, con artists running a classic bujo scam were reportedly targeting Asian immigrants in New York City, tailoring their tales of curses to fit the Chinese folk religion. In Florida, a tarot card reader is facing trial for allegedly fleecing romance writer Jude Deveraux out of more than 25 million dollars.
In December of 2018 Janet Lee, also known as the Greenwich psychic, was ordered by a judge in a civil lawsuit to pay one of her clients back $30,000. In 2015 Lee had convinced the client to hand over her entire life savings to Lee in cash for cleansing as there were "dark forces" surrounding the money. She told the client that she would put the money in a safety box in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Manhattan for 6 months until the money was cleansed. At the end of the 6 months Lee refused to give the money back forcing the client to file the lawsuit.
A desire to protect people from this scam has been one argument made to justify legislation that makes fortune telling a crime. A New York State statute condemns a person who "claims or pretends" to "influence or affect evil spirits or curses" in its prohibition of fortune telling, while letting a person "who engages in the aforedescribed conduct as part of a show or exhibition solely for the purpose of entertainment or amusement" off the hook. Most current judicial opinions have held that fortune telling in itself is protected speech under the First Amendment, though some judges have noted that "such devices are routinely, if not uniformly used to bilk or fleece gullible patrons."
High tech variantsEdit
In the Datalink Computer Services incident, a mark was fleeced of several million dollars by a firm that claimed that his computer was infected with viruses, and that the infection indicated an elaborate conspiracy against him on the Internet, involving the Central Intelligence Agency and Opus Dei. The victim was charged for elaborate and unnecessary computer security services, including the claim that a member of the Indian military had been sent to Honduras to investigate the source of the virus. The alleged scam lasted from August 2004 through October 2010 and is estimated to have cost the victim between 6 and US$20 million. The victim later stated that he had been defrauded by "grifters of the highest order".
See Telemarketing fraud for information about a common scam in which fraud artists install malware on victims' computers.
In popular cultureEdit
The US television series Shut Eye features a number of fictional examples of fortune telling fraud in the first six minutes of the first episode (S01E01, Death). The egg curse scam is shown being perpetrated by a fraudulent fortune teller. At the end of the ritual, as the client's money is supposedly being burned, the client strikes the fortune teller from her chair. The client searches the fortune teller's garments and finds the client's original egg and money. He then warns the fortune teller: “You don’t work bujo. Ever. Bujo is ours.” Later in the episode, it is revealed that the client represents Romani fortune tellers.
- Advance fee fraud
- Ann O'Delia Diss Debar ("One of the most extraordinary fake mediums... the world has ever known" -Houdini)
- Bob Nygaard (Psychic fraud investigator)
- Chain letter
- Confidence trick
- Con artist
- Flim-Flam! (Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and other Delusions)
- Houdini's debunking of psychics and mediums
- List of con artists
- List of confidence tricks
- Oxford Capacity Analysis
- Televangelist Peter Popoff exposed by James Randi
- Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium
- Rogue security software
- Romance scam
- Rose Mackenberg (Historic psychic medium investigator)
- Virus hoax
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- See, e.g., Marks v. State, 144 Tex.Crim. 509, 164 S.W.2d 690 (Tex.Crim.App. 1942)
- W. W. Zellner, William M. Kephart, Extraordinary groups: an examination of unconventional lifestyles (Macmillan, 2000; ISBN 1-57259-953-7), pp. 121-122
- Sylvia Browne, Lindsay Harrison, The Truth About Psychics: What's Real, What's Not, and How to Tell the Difference (Simon and Schuster, 2009; ISBN 1-4391-4972-0), pp. 230-321
- Illinois State Police, above
- Skip Hollandsworth, "The Curse of Romeo and Juliet", Texas Monthly, June 1997
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- Spiritual Psychic Science Church, 39 Cal.3d at 513-515
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