How to Spot a Con

By Sarah Skye

How to Spot a Paranormal Con-Artist

The paranormal world is filled with good, trusting people who are looking for answers. Unfortunately, a few con artists are happy to provide those answers for a price. Let’s talk about con artists in general, and what to look for in the paranormal field.

Paranormal Con Artists

Con artists are inventive. They see an opportunity, and they reinvent themselves to make the most of it.

Few of them are “early adopters.” That is, if the con artist spots a new market to be fleeced, he (or she) waits to be sure that it’s a long-lasting market or that it will at least be worth his while to construct the con.

Google Trends may indicate that the public’s interest in ghosts has been on the decline since late in 2004, but the paranormal field remains strong and vulnerable.

There are many people who are new to ghost hunting, and they don’t really know what they’re doing. As long as they don’t pretend to be authorities, and don’t charge money or do anything dangerous, I’m reluctant to call them “con artists.”

However, others are pretending to be paranormal experts. Their goal may be fame or fortune (or both), and people should be on the alert if they suspect a scam or even if they don’t.


Whether they’re con artists or not, when someone gets involved with a case claiming to involve demons, a dangerous door has been opened.

crystal ballMediums who ask leading questions

If you consult a medium or any psychic watch for leading questions. For example, “Did someone in your family have the initial J?” leads the client to mention a given name such as John, James or Jane. In the 1990 U.S. census, John and James were the two most common men’s names.

That same question could lead to the surname, Johnson. It’s the second most common surname in America, according to the 1990 census.

Another safe guess is, “Is there a name like William or Williams, close to you?” William is fifth most popular given name in America, and Williams is the third most common surname.

Here’s another trick by fake mediums: They’ll ask you just the first three numbers of your Social Security number, saying that they need a number you’ve used for a long time, to “get a better sense of your energy.” Then, they’ll “see” a particular state that you’ve lived in.

Well, the first three numbers of your Social Security number indicate the state in which the number was issued. There’s nothing psychic about that.

Are you cursed?

A favorite ploy among fakes is to claim that the client is cursed, and it will take considerable work (prayer, candles, magic, rituals, etc.) to remove the curse. If you don’t pay for this, your bad luck will not only continue, it will get worse and worse.

If you think you’re genuinely cursed, see a religious professional such as a priest, minister, rabbi, or witch who won’t charge you a ridiculous fee to “remove” the curse.

Fake psychics and paranormal investigators

A person doesn’t have to be a good researcher to come up with enough history to bluff his (or her) way through a “psychic” investigation.

It’s even worse when the so-called psychic pretends to come up with information, and the audience is impressed.

Where this falls apart is when the performer gets the name wrong, or tells a story that happened at another (well-known) location. Then, the truth is obvious. If the person had any genuine psychic skills, it can take a long time to rebuild credibility.

Fake haunted housescharleville

It’s smart marketing if a business can claim a ghost. “Haunted” hotels, restaurants and other attractions can appeal to more tourists. Frequently, an attraction opens as a mainstream business during the daytime, then offers special “ghost watches” or “ghost tours” after dark.

One clever haunted B&B fastened a pager to the frame of a bed in the house’s most haunted wing. During the night, the guest in the bed was woken several times, but could find no explanation beyond a sense of uneasiness and expectation or dread.

After awhile, he got up and closely examined the bed. The pager had been set to vibrate the bed whenever someone at the B&B called it. It was a subtle trick, but an effective one.

Good fun or a crime?

tvThanks to TV shows and the income from paranormal conferences and events, the line between entertainment and research has blurred in some areas.

When something is clearly presented as entertainment such as a TV show or a performance people should not be surprised when some or all of the show has been contrived. However, when people are led to believe that the experience is genuine, and money is involved, that’s a scam. For some, it’s even worse when someone’s faith in genuine research is shaken, or when they begin to doubt their own spirituality.

What Con Artists Have in Common?

conartistCon artists and scammers usually have these things in common.

1. They’re great guys. (Con artists can be male or female.)

Con artists are schmoozer’s. They say what you want to hear, especially at first. They’re lounge lizards dressed up like to look like everyone else or like someone on the fast track to celebrity status.

Around the con artist, you feel great. Well, you do at first. After awhile, you notice that you don’t feel quite so good about yourself. You defer to them because, hey, they’re on the road to success and you’re just lucky to be able to help them.

If con artists looked or sounded like liars and thieves, they wouldn’t be successful.

2. They tell great stories.

They know famous people. They’ve done things that most people only dream about. They’ve earned degrees, received awards, and worked in fields that would impress almost anyone.

Their claims are so huge, you wonder, “Who’d make something like that up?” Like the characters around Will Smith in Six Degrees of Separation, people are willing to believe huge, even absurd claims to greatness. It takes a long time for anyone to pause and say, “Let’s check that story, online.”

Whenever a celebrity is in the news, the con artist has a story that’s related to that person… somehow. Sometimes the connection isn’t clear, but it always leads to another great story.

Though the con artist’s charm begins to fade after awhile, their stories and dreams can provide you with weeks, months or even years of entertainment.

3. Your rewards are always almost within reach.

The con artist is always on the brink of success. Whether you’ve invested money, time, or your good name in the con artist, he (or she) assures you that it’s all about to be worthwhile.

Then, the deal falls through. It’s usually someone else’s fault, and the con artist seems to feel as betrayed as you do. Maybe even more than you do.

Or, the con artist announces that he blundered. He’s distraught. You end up consoling him by saying, “There’s more money where that came from.” Or, “It’s okay. I’ll introduce you to someone else, someone even better.”

It’s like you’re consoling a child.

4. They collect friends and associates.

Con artists collect friends the way some people collect stamps, or virtual trophies in a computer game. (And, the con artist usually assures you that you’re their only real friend. The rest are just hangers-on.)

Most of the con artist’s friends are new. Most of them blindly believe the con artist’s stories.

The more friends (or even fans) the con artist has, the more readily he (or she) can tell his stories and work his scams. After all, you see all the people who look up to him and you might think, “How could all these people be wrong?”

But the fact is: Most people never even think that far. They see someone who is successful or a rising star. They see a large number of people who look up to the person. They figure that it all must be true.

A con artist needs lots of friends or fans to lend credibility to otherwise almost unbelievable stories.

When someone is on the brink of figuring out the con artist’s game, that person is ostracized from the group as quickly and effectively as possible:

    • He’s a liar or a thief, or both.

    • She was just taking advantage of the con artist’s connections.

    • He’s a sexual deviant, or even a predator.

    • She’s become a stalker.

    • He’s a little crazy and may be dangerous.

They’re never claims that could be proved, one way or the other. Some such as, the “stalker” charge seem confirmed when the victim of the slander tries to confront the con artist, or at least talk with him (or her) to “straighten things out.”

That’s the con artist’s main weapon. He (or she) acts like a forum troll, turning people against each other with no real proof of any wrongdoing. He isolates friends and associates from each other, planting seeds of mistrust.con_artist

By contrast, the con artist flaunts his (or her) own lofty credentials, assuring everyone that “anyone can check what I’m saying and see for themselves.” He (or she) is always above reproach.

That’s the key to exposing a con artist.

The Con Artist’s Weakness

Con artists can’t stop making grandiose claims. That’s their weakness.

Sure, they can keep a low profile for a little while, but it’s only a matter of time until they resume their grandstanding.

In many cases, the claims have a small morsel of truth in them. The con artist did win a lottery… but it was only $5,000, not five million. Or, the con artist did meet the American President… but it was an accidental introduction to an entire group, during a routine White House tour.

The con artist displays “evidence” of his celebrity connections.

For example, he might keep a bottle of champagne on his kitchen counter. When asked about it, he casually replies, “Oh, that. Donald Trump gave me that as a gift at Christmas.” (The con artist may even go to the extreme of having a fake label printed, including a line like, “From the private wine cellar of Donald Trump.”)

Or, let’s say that the con artist is a woman. She may claim an undeniable connection with greatness, such as a famous cousin or celebrity ancestor.

Other con artists like to display awards, trophies, diplomas or certificates.

That’s the con artist’s Achilles heel.

The more extravagant the claims, the easier it is to expose the con artist.

whistleblowersHow to Expose a Con Artist’s Credentials

The con artist’s claims are his (or her) weakest link.

You can look up almost any claim or credential online, and either prove it, disprove it, or point to an alarming lack of evidence.

For example:

The college degree

Almost every college will confirm whether someone graduated from their school. Sometimes this information will be in their Alumni Office, or you may need to ask their Information Office. Many schools publish a list of graduates, online.

The celebrity connection – current

You can contact the celebrity’s personal assistant, press agent or manager. Ask if the suspected con artist has a real connection with that celebrity.

The celebrity connection – family or ancestral

Ask to see the person’s family tree. That’s a normal request, when the person claims a celebrity connection. In fact, many people proudly display their family trees that include legitimate (and illegitimate) connections to statesmen, royalty, actors, and other famous people.

For example, if the person claims to be a descendant of George Washington, America’s first president, you can find the connection at the George Washington Family Tree.

If the person can’t document their ancestry, suspect a scam. Actual descendants of famous people can be fanatics about documenting every known relative — no matter how distant the connection — to the present generation. Within two or three generations of the con artist, the connection is documented, and probably at a website.

If you can’t find the connection online, be suspicious of the claim.

Don’t be put off by lines such as, “I’ll get that to you, soon,” or phrases such as “witness protection program,” “family secrets,” or “Well, it’s an illegitimate line.”

Many genuine descendants and relatives of famous people are obnoxiously proud of their family trees, and flaunt them at every opportunity.

Note: If someone shows you a family tree, check it against information at surname websites.

Fake genealogy: There are no known modern-day descendants of Henry VIII. Websites that claim to list the descendants of Adam & Eve (or Noah, etc.) frequently advertise “male enhancement pills” and other spam at the foot of each webpage. Those that don’t well, I wouldn’t take them seriously, either.

TV shows, radio shows, and appearances on stage

AsSeenOnTVIf someone claims that they were on a TV or radio show, you can look it up at the official website for that show. Do a search for the con artist’s name at the official site. If that fails, use any search engine and look for the person’s name (in quotation marks) and the name of the TV or radio show.

Ignore the press releases, stories, blog posts and comments planted by the con artist.

Awards and recognitions

Like colleges, most genuine awards programs list their recipients. Many faux awards do, as well.

For example, there are the Marquis “Who’s Who” directories, but there are several “who’s who” publications (on- and offline) that list almost anyone as long as they give the publication enough money. Usually, the listing is conditional on the person buying three copies of the overpriced book, or something like that.

New in 2011: The TV producers’ scams

Con artists are now part of TV production teams. This trended in mid-2011, and it looks like it’s been in full swing since then. There are a few variations. The following are the ones I hear most often.

Would you like to be on TV?

producerSomeone contacts you via email or by phone. The person claims to be a producer for a TV show (new or on-going). They want to know if you’d like to be on their show.

They may pay your travel expenses, but that’s all. Usually, when you ask to be reimbursed for the time you’ll be away from work, they pause and say, “Well, we can’t pay you anything. Then, it might look like you were just doing this for money.”

The worst part is the release you sign, usually called a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). No matter how they edit or dub your appearance on TV, and no matter how stupid you look as a result, you can’t do anything about it. In fact, they’ll sue you for six figures (it’s in your contract, if you read the very tiny print) if you even defend yourself to others.

That’s why you hardly ever hear anyone gripe about one of those TV shows. Even the stars are bound by NDAs and can’t say anything for a long time. Jason Gowin of Extreme Paranormal is one of the few who’s dared to say anything. [Read his interview, here.]

So, if you want to look like the stupid kid or the crazy cat lady go ahead and take one of these gigs. No matter what they hint at, don’t expect money unless you have everything in a signed contract.

Even then, have your attorney look it over before you agree to anything.

We’ll pay you for leads

I received one of these emails in 2011. It was from an actual production company and for a show that’s on the air, as of late 2011. I spoke with the producers at length before agreeing to work for them.

Their line was, “We’ll pay you $500 for each good, haunted location you suggest that we might put on our TV show. Then, we’ll pay you a bonus of another $500 if that location becomes part of the show.”

I’ll admit it: I fell for it. After all, the agreement was in writing right?

After two weeks’ full-time work, the producers called me and asked my mailing address. They wanted to send me my first check. I was delighted, because that seemed almost premature. I was still putting the finishing touches on my initial research.

When I said it seemed too soon, the producer assured me that they were simply making sure I was happy with them. My stories were so good, they didn’t want to risk another TV show securing my services. So, they wanted to pay me early.

I worked an additional four weeks before I realized that the check would never arrive. In fact, when I took the matter to the next level up, the producer made it clear they’d never intended to pay me.

What happens if you’re caught up in their lies, as I was?

Sure, you could win if you fell for one of these scams and then sued the producers. However, they have deep pockets and pit-bull lawyers who are very effective at bullying people. It wasn’t worth the time, money, or anguish of suing, so I didn’t.

“I’m a producer for _________.”

About once every two weeks, I receive a call from someone who claims to be a producer for a particular paranormal show. The odd thing is, most of them claim to be producers for the same TV show. Either the show has a huge staff with terrible interoffice communications, or they have rapid turnover, or these people aren’t really producers.

I suspect the latter is true. As soon as I say, “Yes, but I’ve already spoken with [the head producer for the show],” they get off the phone in a hurry. Some actually hang up on me, mid-sentence.

Currently, I believe they’re people who’ve fallen for the “we’ll pay you for leads” line. After all, the show I thought I was working for? They told me it was okay to say I was part of the production team. Though I knew that’s not the same thing as being able to say I’m a producer, that’s only because I’ve worked in Hollywood.

Others who fall for the “we’ll pay you for leads” scam may not be so savvy about TV show terminology.

These cons keep expandingdrama

The fact is people who work in spiritual fields, or who are deeply spiritual themselves, are often the most gullible. Con artists and TV producers can take advantage of us.

All I can say is: Get everything in writing, and do absolutely nothing until a good contract lawyer has looked at all of the paperwork. Don’t trust anyone in entertainment just because “they sounded so sincere.” That’s why they’re in entertainment: They’re great actors.