How Psychics Rip You Off

By Jodi Smith

57% of Americans reportedly believe in psychic phenomena like ESP or telepathy. According to believers, accurate psychic predictions happen all the time and can help solve cold cases or allow people to speak with the spirits of the departed. Even when mediums’ tricks of the trade are exposed, devotees continue to give their money to fraud psychics who prey on the frightened and bereaved.

When psychics use cold reading, hot reading, or other methods to convey messages to clients, they often employ psychological and observational skills honed over a lifetime of practice. But how do psychics read palms? What is cold reading, for that matter? What other cons do mediums employ to convince paying customers they either have a link to the afterlife or the ability to see the future of anyone who crosses their path?

The techniques they use to appear mystically inclined are so simple, yet they have kept people enraptured with the idea of psychics for thousands of years.

The ‘Sherlock Holmes’ Technique

Psychics make assumptions about clients based on their appearance. They see a wedding band and deduce the client is married or will be soon. A tan may indicate a person is recently returned from a vacation while dark circles under their eyes may be due to sleepless nights. The psychic can use those details to make statements about a person to build credibility for the rest of the reading.

Backtracking Claims Based On The Subject’s Reactions

Reading body language is a key component of a psychic’s success. During a reading, the psychic may take back or restate a claim based on how the client responds verbally or non-verbally. Some psychics even take this opportunity to blame the client for not realizing the meaning of their claim.

Others resort to piggybacking and claim the information is for another member of the audience.

Mentioning ‘Heart Problems’ Or ‘Cancer’

According to a 2017 study, heart disease and cancer are the top two causes of death in the United States. When a medium speaks to a client one-on-one or in front of a large audience, they use these common ailments to convince listeners they are speaking with a loved one who has passed.

It’s a safe bet for mediums: There’s a high likelihood the client knows someone who has suffered from one of the conditions.

Asking Questions In The Form Of Statements

The psychic often puts the burden of proof on the client. Examples of this include phrases like, “He’s showing me a book. What does this mean?” This forces the client to think about how a book may relate to the person they hope to contact, and relieves the psychic from the work of grasping for a connection.


When a psychic makes a pronouncement to an audience member and it’s a miss, they will often claim the information was meant for someone else in the crowd. This is called “piggybacking,” and the medium usually explains that the spirits are providing messages at the same time.

This technique allows mediums to fish the rest of their audience for a match to the reading.

Casting A Wide Net For A Spirit’s Role

To appear as accurate as possible, a medium or psychic will mention seeing a spirit that held a specific role in the client’s life. However, they often throw out multiple options for the client to embrace in an effort to appear all-knowing.

An example is, “I’m seeing a male behind you, like a father or an uncle or a grandfather or someone outside of the family that was close to you – possibly a father-figure.”

Shotgun Statements

Much like its grapeshot-spewing namesake, this technique involves throwing out a lot of options and questions to a wide audience in order to get a hit. Questions and statements are rapidly fired at the individual client or audience until a connection is made.

At that point, the psychic or medium narrows their focus to the bit of information that stuck, and responds to the verbal and non-verbal cues of the client to continue the reading.

Mentioning A Number And Letting The Subject Fill In The Connection

Some psychics throw out numbers and then make the audience do the work for them. For example, a psychic may claim the number five is significant, adding that it could refer to living siblings, sibling sets where one has passed, or even a family of five. If this fails, the medium may claims it is a month or day or age significant to the entity or the client they are reading.

At some point, there will be a hit to build upon with other tricks of the trade.

Hot Readings

When psychics sell tickets to their events, they potentially gain access to the names of all those attending the show. Psychics may even be aware of which seat each audience member is sitting in during readings. This makes it possible to Google clients and collect information to use on them in order to build up trust.

This is known as hot reading and relies on concrete information about the client (whereas cold reads are blind attempts to glean information). Outside of the psychic business, this sounds a lot like doxxing, but the public is much more accepting of such practices when there’s a spooky element involved.

Guessing Common Names And Initials

The most common first letter of names in the US is “J,” and psychics use this information to their advantage. As seen in most televised readings, mediums begin by shotgunning the crowd with claims that someone connected to a male with a “J” name wants to speak. They often give examples of names like “James” or “John.”

For femme entities trying to make a connection, Mary is the most common name. Once someone in the crowd latches onto a name, the medium can use other cold reading techniques to continue.

Using The Jargon Blitz

Coined by author and mentalist Ian Rowland, “The Jargon Blitz” occurs when the psychic uses unfamiliar words and phrases with their client to establish their connection to a higher power. The client cannot understand the terms, but since the psychic uses them so confidently, they appear to know what they’re talking about.

An example of this includes referring to Tarot cards as “minor arcana.”

Barnum Statements

Barnum statements can apply to nearly every person in the world, with small tweaks given to account for the gender, affluence, and other characteristics of the client.

These statements include: You get a little anxious in new social situations. You have sometimes told white lies to protect another person’s feelings. You have a strong need for approval and recognition.

Rainbow Ruses

Much like astrological readings, psychics use rainbow ruses to get people to feel a statement applies to them. However, psychics’ statements often mention opposing personality traits, and they are forced must save face by qualifying their previous claims.

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