How Do I Protect My Gullible Grandma From Psychic Scams?

Last week, Jon wrote to us asking how he can help protect his grandmother from falling for any more direct mail scams. She’d answered a piece from psychic Maria Duval, and subsequently her mailing address was sold to all sorts of scammers who thrive on easy marks. We suggested filing a prohibitory order via the USPS, but the core problem remains: how do you convince someone who wants to believe in psychics that she’s being lied to?

First, get the paperwork out of the way. In addition to a prohibitory order, make sure you file complaints with your Attorney General, the FTC, and the Postal Inspector.

Realistically speaking, filing complaints isn’t going to stop the worst scammers. It may not stop any of them. But it’s important to do this because it’s the only way you can let official agencies know about possible mail fraud. If enough people complain about the same scam that a pattern emerges, the odds are much higher that someone will be able to investigate it. You also never know whether they’re already investigating a scammer, so your report might provide valuable information.

Next, as we’ve mentioned in past direct mail posts, do what you can to stop direct mail in general. If you’re a caretaker for an elderly person, you can put their address on the Direct Marketing Association’s Do Not Contact List for Caretakers. For pretty much every other type of legitimate direct mail, you can find opt-out info on this page.

But everything above about is about attacking the direct mail. The real problem is that when you’re not there to intercede, your gullible relative might decide the next friendly/urgent letter from a psychic is the real deal. Here are some other ways to address the problem:

1. Sit your grandmother in front of a laptop and show her this Maria Duval website

Your grandma thinks she’s so special, huh? Well show her this online presentation of a Maria Duval pitch. Maybe she’ll notice some similiarities between it and her letter, enough so that she’ll realize the “personal” nature of it was fake.

If it’s some other scammer she’s fallen for, try to find evidence of it online so you can show it to her. If you can’t, remember that it’s easy to set up a Blogspot page.

2. Create a weekly scan-and-shred session.

Show up with your scanner and an eagerness to visit with grandma for an hour, and together go through all the junk mail that week. If you can, each time you spot a scam offer, try to connect it to a story you read online or saw on the news so you don’t look like you’re arbitrarily being suspicious of every Good Samaritan trying to help your grandmother. To get her more involved, buy her a custom stamp she can use between visits to mark suspicious letters.

3. Scam her yourself.

The problem you’re going to have with using reason is you can’t dismantle someone’s belief in the supernatural with logic. If she wants to believe a psychic, give her a psychic she’ll listen to and then use that persona to educate her on scams.

Take a look at the direct mail piece that convinced your grandmother to participate, or check out the Maria Duval site above. Then use it as a template to create your own awesome scam on grandma, where you pretend to be a psychic. Instead of asking for money, though, you’ll ask her to participate in some other way, and you’ll use the letter to warn her away from “competitors” who aren’t as serious or as psychic as you.

Some example messaging you could work in:

  • Money changes so many hands that it actually interferes with my psychic connection with you. Instead of money, I want you to [pray every day for a week at 4 o'clock in the afternoon] [buy some random new age book on Amazon or at a bookstore] [volunteer at a local organization that supports the psychic's larger mission].
  • Beware the fake psychics! There’s a whole branch of psychics who broke off from the teachings of [Madame Blavatsky] [Edgar Cayce] [Siouxsie Sioux]. They tend to be connected to organized crime, and what’s worse their psychic abilities can sometimes lead to misfortune for their innocent clients.
  • Straight up anti-fraud messages such as: you will never win a foreign lottery; if you have to pay anything for a prize, it’s not a prize; a check from a stranger is the financial equivalent of a live hand grenade, and comes loaded with bad mojo.
  • Eerily accurate predictions about her life and her family–stuff that a stranger shouldn’t be able to know without some level of pyshic ability.

Look, I’m not sure running your own scam is legal, and there’s certainly some ethical issues with it, so this probably isn’t technically a good idea. But the goal isn’t to get a dime out of grandma. Instead, your goal is to entertain her and get her attention, so you can shift her away from trusting other direct mail pieces without asking her to stop believing in pyschics altogether.

I realize that this is my most brilliant and idiotic idea ever, but wait, I can go farther: if you’ve got the programming chops, why not set up a fake psychic’s website? A person can enter her email address and the system will periodically send out “customized” messages over the course of a year or two, each one written to provide psychic advice and predictions but also to continue warning her away from real scammers. You can drive her to the site with a glossy full color postcard printed from Zazzle or Cafe Press.

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Okay, maybe the first two ideas are a little more realistic, but I do think there’s value in finding a way to capture the attention of the mark and use that moment to entertain and educate. If you’ve got real problems–an elderly relative who can no longer control her finances, for example–this sort of hands-on interaction may not help much.

If you’re dealing with someone with a lot of free time to fill and who wants to believe in psychics, getting involved indirectly might give you the credibility you’ve been lacking as a skeptic.