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#AceNewsDesk – Psychic scams are swindling Australians out of thousands of dollars, but no one is going after the culprits
When Nasser Zahr was approached by a man purporting to be a psychic on the main road in Sydney’s Burwood in December 2019, he was at his lowest ebb.
He said he could help with health and wealth,” Nasser says. “Those were the very things getting me so down. So I thought, I’ve never done this before and it’s $25 — I’ll give it a try; what have I got to lose?”
It turns out, a lot. Specifically, $2,400, his and his kids’ sense of safety, plus a whole bunch of his clothes.
Nasser has two severely disabled children, aged 24 and 21, who both have myotonic dystrophy and the intellectual capacities of very young children. He gave up work to become their full-time carer.
“I remember that day this ‘psychic’ approached me, I was feeling particularly hopeless,” he says. “My wife is also disabled. My kids need 24-hour care and can’t do anything alone, including eating. It’s a very challenging life; they wholly depend on me. I feel very isolated and stressed.”
But Nasser says he typically keeps his problems to himself and doesn’t always know how to “release the pressure” that builds up: “My mental health sometimes spirals out of control.”
It had spiralled downwards on this December day, when the psychic enticed Nasser to follow him into a small nearby unit with the promise of hope and a better life.
“I know it sounds silly now,” Nasser says. “But some people turn to drugs or alcohol when they’re really down. I thought I’ll try this and see what happens. I didn’t know what to expect.”
Nasser was surprised by what he discovered at the unit.
“It was so slick and professional inside, all done up like a temple with drapes and candles. I walked in. And this is where it all began.”
The mechanics of a psychic scam
Nasser was about to fall prey to a particular type of scam which is defrauding Australians of increasingly large sums of money.
According to ScamWatch, the amount extorted from Australians via psychic scams more than doubled between 2020 and 2022, jumping from $230,273 to $555,240.
To sceptics, a “psychic scam” sounds like tautology; they believe all psychic readings are scams. But a psychic scam doesn’t involve a psychic making an inaccurate prediction. The psychic scam follows a specific pattern: and it all starts with a “curse”.
Nasser’s “curse” was revealed not long into his psychic reading. “He said, ‘You have a very bad curse on you and it’s too much for me to take off. I need my master with me’,” Nasser says his psychic told him.
A second appointment was made a week later with the “master” — at a steeper price.
“I didn’t know what to believe,” Nasser says. “I guess, with my life as it was, it was tempting to believe I’d been cursed.”
The “master guru” told Nasser just how bad the curse was. “He said, ‘Your family has a very, very strong, bad curse on them’ and that it’d take several sessions to remove it.”
Then the guru issued Nasser a grave warning. “I was told, unless this curse is removed, your children could die. And I’d do absolutely anything to keep them alive.”
A third expensive appointment was made. It was even more intense.
“They’d asked for me to bring in a bag of my clothes to help them remove the curse. There were lots of candles and a big knife,” Nasser recalls.
“The psychic does these prayers in a foreign language and suddenly smoke and fire starts coming out from my bag of clothes. They start burning. He pulls out this sinister black doll that looks like the devil. His assistant starts screaming and crying, throws himself on the floor, then blood starts coming out from his mouth.”
Nasser was alarmed. “I just thought, ‘What the hell is happening here?'”
‘I realised I’d been taken for a ride’
Then the psychics claimed to have jarred the curse. “They said, ‘Look, we’ve got it!’ But we can’t destroy it here. It has to go back to India and get destroyed by the super master.”
The cost? $7,000 for the flights and curse removal.
Nasser baulked. “First of all, I couldn’t afford it,” he says. “But also, it was all getting too weird.”
When he tried to leave, the psychic grabbed the big knife and blocked the exit. “He said, ‘Where are you going? We’ve done all this work. Your life is in danger. Your kids’ lives are in danger. What are we going to do with this curse? We can’t leave it here’.”
The psychic threw the knife into the table and punched a hole into it, presumably to intimidate Nasser. Terrified, he offered $2,000 if he let him leave. “It was all I had,” Nasser says. “And I feared for my life.”Australian psychic scam victims commonly report being dismissed by police.(ABC News: Dan Cox)none
As he managed to escape, Nasser was followed by the psychic’s “assistant” who insisted he come back and pay the remainder when he had it, or the curse would return.
“I realised I’d been taken for a ride,” Nasser says.
One of the problems, though, was that nobody seemed to be able to do anything about it.
“Not the financial fraud officer, the police, the local government or the council,” Nasser says. “I tried them all.”
Psychic fraudsters also trade off embarrassment, knowing that victims may feel humiliated by being accused of being naive or foolish if they come forward with their story, allowing them to ensnare other vulnerable victims.
Just one person in the world is known to have become an expert in recovering funds from psychic curse scams: former NYPD cop Bob Nygaard, based in America — ground zero for such scams.
Police often blame the victim
The sums of money Bob Nygaard works with range from $250 to multimillion-dollar cases extorted from psychic scam victims mostly in America, although he also takes calls from Australian victims who are dismissed by police.
“Police often blame the victim,” Nygaard says. “They’ll also say it’s non-violent crime and therefore a civil case, and send them away. But these crimes can go on for years, defraud victims of millions and devastate their lives. They’re criminal cases, not civil ones.”
The investigator, who wants the criminal justice system to take such crimes more seriously, has made a name by returning extorted money to victims — and sending the scamming psychics to jail on charges of grand theft or larceny.Former NYPD cop Bob Nygaard works to investigate psychic scams and recover funds for victims.(Supplied)none
One psychic he landed in prison for wire fraud in 2019 was Sherry Tina Uwanawich, who convinced a 27-year-old student suffering from depression she was cursed. The student paid up to $1.5 million to Uwanawich over seven years to “remove” the “curse” that had, amongst other things, allegedly killed her mother.
And In 2018, after a decade-long pursuit by Nygaard, psychic fraudster Gina Marks pleaded guilty to defrauding five victims out of more than US $340,000, which she was ordered to return.
Nygaard says each victim’s story reads like “an exact script”: they’re usually seeking answers for problems with money, health or a failed relationship. “The psychic convinces them they’ll cure that cancer or bring their partner back.”
They always start, Nygaard says, with a nominal fee — between $5 and $20 — and once in for the reading, the psychic con artist will ominously utter the same six words almost verbatim: “I see a darkness around you.”
Amanda decided to get a psychic reading to help answer her questions. The psychic — based in Liverpool, NSW, and in her 70s — had been recommended by a friend.
From there, fees start increasing so the psychic can “do the work” to remove the “curse” which is endangering them and their family, and “dispose” of the “evil”.
“They’re grooming the vulnerable person to suspend their critical thinking at a low point in their lives and get hooked on the scam,” Nygaard says.
It’s about vulnerability, not intelligence
Sophisticated stunts like Nasser experienced are also common. Eggs are injected with red dye to look like blood or inserted with snakes or spiders; a curse-lifting meteorite costing US $14,500 (which turned out to be a lump of quartz worth US $300); watches purchased for the psychic to be submerged in a mystical lake to turn back time and undo the curse (but the watches must be Rolex): Nygaard has seen it all.
As bizarre as it all sounds, Nygaard cautions people not to victim blame with suggestions of gullibility. To afford such extortionate prices, his clients are invariably high-end professionals: CEOs, doctors, lawyers, teachers, even a rocket scientist.Psychic fraudsters trade off embarrassment, knowing that victims may feel humiliated by being accused of being naive or foolish.(Pexels: Liza Summer)none
“It has nothing to do with intelligence,” he says. “It has everything to do with vulnerability.”
Partly, they fall for something called the “sunk cost fallacy”.
“It’s a psychological principle: when someone sinks money into something and starts thinking maybe they shouldn’t have, there’s a tendency to say to themselves, ‘If I just see it through, I won’t have to admit to myself I was scammed’,” Nygaard says.
“It’s the same principle that hooks people on gambling: ‘If I gamble just a bit more, I might get everything back’.”
But the house — or psychic — always wins. Until Nygaard steps in. The problem remains, no Bob Nygaard equivalent exists in Australia — and there’s mounting evidence the exact same chicanery is being imported here.
‘How did I fall for that?’
In 2018, Amanda*, 55, a professional children’s entertainer, was another of those Australian victims.
“I was in a pretty dark place,” she says. “I was undergoing cancer treatment and questioning everything — why is this happening? Why me? I’d got very depressed. And wanted quick answers.”
“She initially made me feel so good. She was hearing me and letting me say all the things I needed to say,” Amanda says.
Then the curse doom-mongering started. Another appointment was made to begin the process of “lifting” it. “I just felt petrified,” Amanda says.
With six months of appointments costing $125 each, Amanda lost $1,000.
“I kind of lifted myself from the meltdown and thought, ‘Jesus Christ, how did I fall for that?’ I’m usually pretty switched on,” she says.
The scam on the increase in 2023
Scamwatch has already received 63 reports of clairvoyant scams this year that have cost Australians more than $260,000. This is up 219 per cent on losses recorded last year.
A Scamwatch spokesperson told the ABC: “Scammers are increasingly opportunistic, often connecting with victims through social media platforms. Scammers often use personal information shared on these platforms to convince victims their insights are genuine.”
Scamwatch’s advice is not to send money to anyone claiming to be a clairvoyant; personal information and credit card details disclosed in one scam can also be used as part of other scams.
Bob Nygaard’s advice for anyone who believes they’re being scammed is to “document everything that occurred meticulously” so it can be reported to police as a crime. “That’s the difficult bit,” Nygaard concedes.
Meanwhile, Amanda fears this scam — imported largely from America or India — is spreading here unchecked.
“Now I worry about how many people like me are taken advantage of when they’re on a downward spiral.”
*Names have been changed.
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