Scams and Con Artists – What to Look for

Scams and con artists can be in any field.

Unfortunately, ghost hunting is especially attractive to people whose primary interests are financial gain, celebrity status, or power.

I’m not talking about people who mistakenly think they’re more skilled than they really are.  I mean the people who look you straight in the eye and tell you lies for personal or professional gain.

If you join a group with a self-styled guru, or a con artist works his (or her) way into your circle of friends, here’s what to look for.

The first rule is: Never give or loan money to anyone without getting a signed, dated receipt. (It’s a good idea to have a long-time, trusted friend as a witness, as well.)  I don’t care how nice the person seems. If it’s a loan, have the terms in writing before you give the person anything.

And, never give or loan money that you can’t afford to lose.

Keep your money safe. Then, look for other signs of a scam or a con artist.

  • Con artists are charming.
    They’re usually fun to be with. They tell great stories, and they seem to have lived the kind of life you’d like to live. They appear to be successful or they look like rising stars. Around them, you may feel like you have a connection with greatness.
  • Con artists collect friends as quickly as possible.
    This is partly because they’ll lose so many friends, as people become suspicious. But, the larger their apparent entourage or fan club, the more you’re likely to believe their extravagant claims. You won’t know that dozens (or hundreds) of friends and fans have been deceived, too.
  • Con artists seem to have dazzling credentials.
    Their friends are famous people. Their degrees (or titles) are impressive. They talk about their past experiences and celebrity connections, pending TV shows, and events they’re planning. Their claims are so extravagant, you think, “Who’d make this up?”
  • Con artists separate people so they don’t swap notes.
    A con artist leads you to believe that you’re one of the only people he likes and trusts. He says he doesn’t trust this person and then that one. Following his advice, you’ll stay away from them, even if you used to be good friends. The con artist knows that, if you all got together and exchanged stories, his lies might be exposed.

The con artists’ larger-than-life claims lead to their downfall. They simply can’t stop lying for very long… and they’re often lying on a grand scale.

It’s vital to check the person’s claims and credentials. Check all of them, not just the first few that he or she mentions. (I’ll talk about the con artist as if the person is male. However, female con artists can be just as prevalent as male con artists.)

Types of claims

Let’s say that he claims a degree or a title, such as ‘doctor’ or ‘reverend’. Ask what kind of degree (or title) it is, and where it came from. Anyone can become a legally ordained minister, for little or no expense, through the Universal Life Church and similar organizations, such as  http://www.themonastery.org/?destination=ordination

Some mainstream universities give honorary doctorates, etc., as well.

I’ve been awarded a few of those, myself.  It’s flattering. (I mean, really, would you turn down that kind of recognition…?)

There’s nothing wrong with having that kind of title, and some do require actual work to achieve the degree.

However, when that kind of credential is represented as a formal, four-year+ degree… that can be a problem.

Some con artists claim far loftier credentials. If it’s a degree from a university, check the university’s alumni records office. Ask if the person is a graduate of the school, college or program. (Many schools proudly post an online list of some of their former registered students and graduates. In some cases, you can also use classmates directories, online, for more information.)

Please note that many universities offer extension school courses, online study, and other legitimate educational opportunities that can lead to a degree.  However, to receive a degree from that institution, most (not all) students must be formally accepted to a degree program.  While that sometimes happens within weeks of when the degree is awarded, a paper trail usually exists.

It can be more difficult to verify a student’s participation in those kinds of alternate study opportunities, if a degree has not yet been awarded.

If someone claims a British (or other) hereditary title, check Wikipedia. It lists the qualified holders of hereditary titles, including their actual surnames, and when the title was created.

People in the U.S. — and other countries where formal titles aren’t awarded — can be dazzled by claims to a real title.  Always check the person’s credentials, no matter what their IDs say.  Fake IDs are available everywhere, and con artists know that a convincing fake ID is a smart investment.

If the person claims to have a title, look it up.

For example, here’s one page at Wikipedia, listing people who hold the British title of Marquess: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_marquessates_in_the_peerages_of_the_British_Isles

If the person’s title is vague but you know their legal surname, David Beamish maintains a list of members of the United Kingdom peerage from 1801 to the present day, and he has indexed it.

It’s online at http://website.lineone.net/~david.beamish/peerages_az.htm and other pages at that website. You’ll also want to check Wikipedia’s list of the Peerage of England.

You’ll find similar lists if you search using phrases like “list of [country] nobility.”  Here are a few:  French nobilityLists of French noble families (in French) –  Lists of nobility (at Wikipedia)

If the person claims to have worked with or for a celebrity, you can confirm that. Find the official website of the celebrity, and contact the person’s manager or press agent. Ask if the celebrity has worked with the person who’s making the claim.

If the person claims to have been a paranormal investigator for many years, there should be clear evidence of that, online. Even if the person didn’t have his own website, other people will have mentioned the person, at least in reference to a case, a “ghost story,” or an investigation.

You can see how long ago they registered their domain name by using a WhoIs lookup.

(I’m not being critical of people who are new to the field; many are excellent researchers.   This article is about lies that reveal a con artist.)

If someone suggests that they’ve been on a TV or radio show, or appeared on stage, check that online. Go to the show’s official website and search for the person’s name.

(Remember that anyone can add a comment after an article or in a forum, making it appear that someone was in a show.  You’re looking for official cast lists and official lists of guest stars.)

A claim may seem harder to verify if the show was cancelled years ago.  It’s not that difficult.  In most cases, show information remains online for years, even decades after the show is all but forgotten.

The following are a few older ghost-related TV shows sometimes used as references. This kind of “reality” show became so popular, a complete list would be very long.

Some con artists prefer to claim they were on shows so old, it’s difficult to find a reliable list of cast, crew, and guest stars. The following links may help, and some shows include full cast lists at IMDb.

Every major ghost-related TV show and movie is represented by at least one webpage or website.  If all else fails, check IMdB and Wikipedia.

The truth will set you (and maybe a few other people) free.

These are just a few claims that people make, seeking a shortcut to fame or fortune… or plain old control over others, aka a “power trip.”

Thanks to the Internet, almost any person’s claims and credentials can be verified using independent sources.

Don’t assume that the person is “too nice” to lie to you, or their friends are too bright to be conned. The more impressive the person’s stories and claims, and the more convincingly they tell them… the more you must verify them, independently.

If the person is a con artist, it’s better to find out early. Thankfully, scams and con artists are a tiny minority. (To quote the movie, Grease, “They’re amoebas on fleas on rats.”)

Avoid them when you can.

Though it’s important to be watchful for scams and con artists, it’s also important to keep things in perspective.

The vast majority of people who work in paranormal fields are like you. They’re kind, sincere and genuine. You’ll meet many of them at events, investigations, and in the field. They deserve your friendship and admiration, and they make ghost hunting even more personally rewarding.

This article is part of my free, four-part course, Introduction to Ghost Hunting.

And, just so you know:  Yes, I was conned.  I wrote this article shortly after that painful truth came to light.

It was fun-fun-fun working with an apparently gifted psychic… until I started questioning some of his team’s claims.  To my absolute dismay, I learned that one or more of the guys were lying.  I’m still not sure how many people were involved.

It was a clever ruse, and I fell for it.  At the time, the guys’ claims were so extravagant — about money, celebrity connections, TV appearances, and more — I thought no one would make that up.

Then, one of them went too far. He took one outrageous story to the next step. As soon as he made the comment, I knew it wasn’t true. I quizzed him further, expecting him to correct the obvious error.

He didn’t. In fact, he dug himself in, even deeper. That’s when I began looking into his other claims… and everything unraveled.

I’m still sad about what happened. I had to speak up. The team members’ reputations were destroyed, and those of us who’d trusted them… we looked foolish.

As time went on, I learned that a few others in their circle had shady backgrounds. (One of them was the person who delivered the most damning evidence against the guys who’d been lying… and then that guy turned out to be a con artist and cheat, as well.)

Along the way, many good people had been deceived. Some had lost thousands of dollars. Charges were filed against the con artists.

The tragedy is, the highest-profile member of the team was truly gifted.  He didn’t have to fake anything, to impress me with his psychic abilities. He made poor business choices, and that brought him down.

Since then, I’ve learned about convicted sex offenders and other criminals in the ghost hunting field.  Please be cautious, even when the individual or team seem bright, fun, and on the brink of becoming celebrities.

7 thoughts on “Scams and Con Artists – What to Look for”

  1. I found more information this morning, at the Wikipedia entry for author and researcher Robert Cialdini:

    Cialdini defines six “weapons of influence”:

    * Reciprocation – People tend to return a favor. Thus, the pervasiveness of free samples in marketing. In his conferences, he often uses the example of Ethiopia providing thousands of dollars in humanitarian aid to Mexico just after the 1985 earthquake, despite Ethiopia suffering from a crippling famine and civil war at the time. Ethiopia had been reciprocating for the diplomatic support Mexico provided when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1937.

    * Commitment and Consistency – If people commit, orally or in writing, to an idea or goal, they are more likely to honor that commitment. Even if the original incentive or motivation is removed after they have already agreed, they will continue to honor the agreement. For example, in car sales, suddenly raising the price at the last moment works because the buyer has already decided to buy. See cognitive dissonance.

    * Social Proof – People will do things that they see other people are doing. For example, in one experiment, one or more confederates would look up into the sky; bystanders would then look up into the sky to see what they were seeing. At one point this experiment aborted, as so many people were looking up that they stopped traffic. See conformity, and the Asch conformity experiments.

    * Authority – People will tend to obey authority figures, even if they are asked to perform objectionable acts. Cialdini cites incidents, such as the Milgram experiments in the early 1960s and the My Lai massacre.

    * Liking – People are easily persuaded by other people that they like. Cialdini cites the marketing of Tupperware in what might now be called viral marketing. People were more likely to buy if they liked the person selling it to them. Some of the many biases favoring more attractive people are discussed. See physical attractiveness stereotype.

    * Scarcity – Perceived scarcity will generate demand. For example, saying offers are available for a “limited time only” encourages sales.

    So many of these points apply to tactics I’ve seen and heard about, lately… it’s chilling. By being aware of our vulnerabilities, we can protect ourselves from the occasional person (or people, since some of them work in tandem) who may try to take advantage of how welcoming, inclusive and supportive we are in the paranormal community.

  2. Awsome article Fiona! It’s getting really sad for paranormal researchers right now. I emailed a very popular theater near-by about an investigation. They were all for it, and I wanted to meet with the director to discuss a schedule. He didn’t reply for about a month. When I got one, he claimed he and his staff discussed that they were going to start charging 30 bucks per person as a “ghost tour”. He also made sure to include the link to the page discussing it. Ironically, it made sure to mention that the concession stand would be open. Go figure!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Scott. The combination of a difficult economy and the fact that ghost hunting is a fading fad… too many people are trying to squeeze every last cent from it. Unfortunately, that’s driving people away from ghost hunting even faster. Even some serious researchers are taking time away from this work, until the madness subsides.

      Regarding the theater: $30 a person is far better than the $1500+/night that I’ve heard requested by some locations. That said, the shoe seems to be on the wrong foot.

      If they’re putting on a show, it’s fine to charge for the entertainment. (Opening the concession stand..? That sounds like a performance, to me!)

      However, if they want serious researchers to investigate and confirm (or refute) the hauntings, the sites should be paying the researchers, not the other way around.

      It’d be like charging an entertainment fee for a doctor to examine someone, to diagnose symptoms.

      I’ll be glad when this silliness concludes, and people once again regard parapsychology as an important field of study, not a fast route to fame and fortune.

  3. Very well written ! I wish there was more info for the general public on this topic and the paranormal .People are falling victim and it makes us that have a passion for this hard to expose the field to the skeptics.

    1. Thanks, Rich!

      I wish more people would speak out about this, too. But, in some cases, they may not realize what’s going on. And, when they do figure it out… they’re embarrassed to admit that they were fooled.

      The cons can be clever. I recently read an autobiography of an aspiring ghost hunter, who may have written his story to create an authentic-sounding resume. In one chapter, he talks about his dramatic encounter with a ghost in 2001. However, when I checked his story online… well, the encounter took place, but according to others who were there, it happened in 2004. (When I see one attempt to enhance a CV/resume, I suspect that there may be others.)

      That’s the kind of subterfuge we have to look for, now. Parts of the stories will ring true, but others won’t. All I can recommend is: Check every reference, and every aspect of it.

      As of late 2009, con artists mistakenly think that there’s a lot of money to be made in this field. (They’re wrong. Those of us who are serious about paranormal research generally rely on alternate income sources, so we can provide help free of charge.)

      Once the con artists realize that this ghost hunting isn’t a get-rich-quick opportunity, they either move to another area (where their reputations aren’t so tarnished) or they leave the field altogether.

      For as long as ghost-related TV shows remain popular, I think we’ll have to deal with this kind of nonsense. It’s not just the opening that this gives to skeptics, but the number of people who lose their faith in the entire paranormal field. Too many good researchers walk away from this work, disgusted.

      Those of us who are legitimate paranormal researchers must take extreme measures to distance ourselves from those who are in the field for money, power or both. And, I think we need to speak out about it, so more people realize that many of us are sincere.

      In time, the worst of these problems will fade away. They’ll leap on the next popular trend.

      I think many of us are looking forward to that day.

  4. Fiona – Realty TV is a genre of a television show and they are filmed a certain way. Most are scripted in some form or another because the alternative is not good – leaving people to their own devises to say whatever they want. That would never do – IE: JON & KATE PLUS 8 – that memory leaves scars. But in this case of all these paranormal shows – I have grown fond of saying that they are “para-sites” and the amount of crap shows out there – Ghost Hunters included is overwhelming. We’ve stopped watching especially since some of these shows are staging their paranormal events. Money is the root of this evil – sad but true.

    1. Hi Cathy,

      It’s good to see you here! As always, your phrasing is clever; “para-sites” is a brilliant term for what’s going on with many ghost-related reality shows.

      I’m not sure what to say about some aspects of the “Ghost Hunters” show. Have you spent much time with Jason & Grant? If you have, you know they’re 100% on-the-level, so if anything is being faked for their show, they’re not part of that scam.

      But, this all adds up to why I don’t watch the ghost-related TV shows very often, except to see how bad they’ve gotten, now & then.

      The love of money — as well as greed of any kind, including just the need for attention or power — can cause people to make lesser choices. With the amount of money involved at the top of the food chains that produce TV shows… well, that’s a lot of incentive to produce popular — not necessarily good — TV shows.

      Sincerely,
      Fiona

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