The Psychic, The Novelist, and the $17 Million Scam | Reader's Digest

The Psychic, The Novelist, and the $17 Million Scam

"Take off your bracelet," the fortune-teller commands. That's a test. Do you trust? You'd be amazed at how much you'll hand over, telling yourself that it will return.

By Robert Andrew Powell
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine March 2014

fortune teller illustrationIstvan Banyai for Reader’s Digest
Start the whole nightmare on a whim. Kind of as a joke, really.

Walk up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan with a little time on your hands. As you turn past the Plaza Hotel, spy a sandwich board on the sidewalk advertising fortune-telling and psychic insights. Notice how the sign points to a prewar building where the rents must be astronomical. The address alone signals that this operation—you’re unsure what exactly psychics do, to be honest—is legit, that it isn’t some carnival-barker-at-the-fair scam. Not that you’re thinking about it so deeply. This isn’t to be a big deal, a major financial mistake, an event in your life that you will later come to describe with the words disgust and shame. It’s just a little entertainment, initially, as you step inside the building. Akin to visiting the Apple Store, one victim will testify. Harmless. Just a fun diversion.

Be at your lowest point, emotionally. Really suffering. (This emotional weakness will be your undoing.) Susan Abraham, an Englishwoman in town with her husband, doesn’t know whom to talk to about him. How he’s always criticizing her. How she feels like a bird trapped in a cage. And how she wants out of the marriage so very badly. Jennifer Hill, a marketing executive from Hawaii, has just ended a long relationship. The breakup leaves her without any prospects as she sees her last chance at childbearing fade away. Jude Deveraux, a romance novelist from New Mexico by way of Kentucky, feels stuck in a terrible marriage too. Unable to turn to her husband, Deveraux walks alone with her problems, like the others. She craves someone she can open up to.

Rose Marks will be that person. She’s a grandmother in her 60s. Matronly in appearance, with silver hair, olive skin, designer eyeglasses. She’s one of a long line of women brought up in the dark art of fortune-telling. Her mother was a psychic; her grandmother too. Marks has been in the business since being pulled out of school in the third grade. Her operation is a scam, prosecutors argue. But Marks regards herself as a life coach of sorts. In federal criminal court facing charges of fraud, money laundering, and falsifying tax returns, Marks insists through her attorney that she was an independent contractor who was hired by clients for her keen ability to offer guidance. Not a grifter, she was a combination of psychologist, social worker, financial counselor, spiritual teacher, and friend.

“I gave my life to these people,” Marks says in an interview with the Sun-Sentinel before the trial begins. “We’re talking about clients of 20 years, 30 years, 40 years. We’re not talking about someone I just met and took all their money and ran off.”

Marks is not the only fortune-teller to find herself in a criminal courtroom in 2013. Another Manhattan psychic, working under the name Zena the Clairvoyant, was recently convicted of swindling $138,000 from her clients, including $27,000 from a Naples, Florida, woman who was led to believe that she had been an Egyptian princess in a previous life.

Marks, though, is the next level. No other clairvoyant has raked in anything close to her financial haul. That novelist she counseled, Jude Deveraux? Her bestselling books—Scarlet Nights, Days of Gold, and others that if you haven’t read, you’ve seen in airport bookstores—have sold some 60 million copies. Marks took from the writer more than $17 million of her profits, an eye-popping sum that the defense does not dispute. Again, Marks claims this money was simply payment for services rendered. Just like the several million dollars she was given by more than a dozen other alleged victims listed on the federal indictment, adding up to a grand total of $25 million.

“You’re going to hear many references to ‘the work,’ ” Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Bardfeld tells the pool of prospective jurors when the trial opens in August in West Palm Beach, Florida. As witnesses testify over the course of the following month, what the work entails will become clear—and how easy it is to fall for it.

Inside the storefront, you’ll be ushered into a room—closet-size, windowless, so tiny there’s space only for two chairs and a small round table. A menu, just like at a restaurant, lists the services. You want to see your future in tarot cards? Anyone can do tarot cards, you’re told. Choose something else. A palm reading? Again, no, too common. “Take off your bracelet and let me see it,” the fortune-teller instructed Hill, the Hawaiian executive who, prior to this, says she’d always considered herself street-smart. That’s your first test: handing over something valuable. You’re being screened. Do you trust? Hill turned over her bracelet. Abraham, the unhappy wife from England, gave Marks’s daughter-in-law a pair of earrings. You’ll talk about your love life while the jewelry is appraised. Vent about your husband, your breakup. Finally, you’ve found someone who cares.

“I kept coming back because she was listening to me. I’ve never been able to get anyone to listen to me,” Deveraux testifies.

But there’s bad news. It turns out the jewelry is giving off evil vibes—really bad signals, serious problems. This is going to take all night. “I have to pray on it,” you will be told. Can you come back tomorrow? (Another test: Do you still trust? Or do you feel the hook sliding into your flesh?) You don’t want to come back, you’ll protest. You were just playing around. You don’t believe any of this, really. Such talk earns you a scolding. Your negativity is a problem. With this attitude, nothing can be done for you. You’ll end up feeling kind of badgered into it, but you will leave your jewelry with her. And the next day, as instructed, you’ll return.

“I wanted to get my bracelet back,” Hill explains.

But when you come back, there’s more bad news. Turns out you’ve been cursed. Centuries ago. In another life. This curse is the reason why your relationship ended, why you can’t conceive a child. But there’s good news. Marks and the family members who work under her can change things. “I can block this curse,” Hill is told. “This is what I am here for. I can help you.”

  • Your Comments

    • Luo

      The statement: “anyone who goes to see a psychic
      deserves to be fleeced” is misleading. It is like saying: “Anyone who uses the internet deserves to be scammed”, or “Anyone who invests money deserves to lose it”. Genuine psychics can often produce amazing information – a little actual research will bear this out. But fake psychics are just like fraudulent web pages or bad investments – worse than useless.

      There is no need to condemn genuine psychics just because fake psychics exist.

      • KSEubanks

        I’ve never even **heard** of “real psychic”. Are they listed in the Yellow Pages or somewhere on the ‘net? Where does one find a “real psychic”? I could certainly use some word of what my future will bring.

        • Aku Bata

          This essay is on point and I laughed whilst reading it because it reminded me of myself. I have been a victim and yes, I have been gullible. It is embarrassing but true. I have been fleeced of lots of money (thousands of dollars) because I keep seeking for solutions to my problems via spiritual means. You see I have myasthenia gravis and my children have autism—– and because of my cultural background, I was raised to belief in supernatural. I believe in God and the power of God to heal, thus I seek pastors and prayer warriors to help me pray. I have done countless spiritual works and these involve money. Yes, one of the “pastors” I met claimed that I was meant to be a priestess (or what we call native doctor….like a shaaman) and that I came from the “water spirit”. Long story short, it cost me good chunk of money trying to appease the water spirits who were said to be at war with me, and who were said to be behind my health misfortune and my children’s misfortune. After that, she discovered that I was “cursed” by a jealous woman….and that my personal “chi” or god wants appeasement sacrifices….It was one demand after the other from the spirits…. And I got wiser. She even warned me that if I fail to appease the gods and work as a priestess, that they would bring more suffering to me… Anyway, I defied that, and have refused to keep wasting my money. It is sad that a lot of us are superstitious regardless of how sophisticated we may appear to be. Anyway, this was a good story.

        • raymondschep

          Pyschics do exist..
          Go and read Annie Besant’s Book on “Man, Whence, Whither and Wherefrom”. It was written in 1910 and in it she gives an accurate description of the internet. She says at a future time there would be no more newspapers and families would get the news sent to their homes via a device, and they would be able to print out the daily news inside their own homes. She also wrote that all European countries would eventually unite into one central government and that ther would be no more warring between European countries. And this was 1910. Go read it, it is all in there.

          • KSEubanks

            Sorry, that’s not really proof, or even evidence, that psychics exist. You can say the same thing about Nostradomus(sp?) “predictions” which only work if you read them the right way. Even in 1910 – and well before then – there were a lot of people predicting the same things. A unified Europe has been a goal of a lot of people for decades before this person ‘predicted’ them.
            The book sounds interesting but it **doesn’t** seem to be proof that psychics exist.

            • raymondschep

              Well nobody can prove anything to anyone who disagrees, it is very easy now that Europe is Unified to say oh it would have happened anyway, but this was not so apparent in 1910, as a matter of fact two of the worst world wars where just about to break out, and nobody except a true psychic would have predicted this at that stage, and also in 1910, nobody had the slightest idea of what internet is and only a true psychic could have predicted it.

            • KSEubanks

              The funny part is that I would LOVE to see proof, or even decent evidence, that psychics exist but this person’s book just isn’t “it”. It proves nothing, it doesn’t even really **show** anything aside from some sleight of hand tricks that have been used by “psychics” for a great many years. It’s not that it’s easy to say something like European unification would’ve happened anyway in retrospect, there were a LOT of people working towards that unification and predicting that it would succeed.
              There were futurists who were predicting things like cell phones and the Internet in the late 1800′s and early 1900′s. H.G. Wells wrote “The Time Machine” and in that story he wrote of things no one had the slightest idea about; lasers, genetic engineering, automatic doors, etc… In other books he predicted nuclear weapons, mankind landing on the Moon, WWII, and more. Yet he never claimed to be psychic, he saw where science was heading and dreamed of the possibilities.

              I honestly don’t like to disagree with psychics being real but I’ve never, not in 40 years of reading and looking, seen evidence for a psychic that wasn’t easily debunked or explained somehow. Maybe I’ve become cynical over the years but I keep looking, and hoping to find, evidence of real psychic occurrences. Along with ghosts, UFO’s, and a few other supernatural happenings that I’ve not seen good evidence for I keep hoping these things can be shown to be real. Maybe someday I’ll find decent evidence.

    • least fascist

      This essay is so poorly written it’s not believable – even though it’s true.

      • Betty Jo

        What was poor about the writing?