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For some of us, fortune tellers might be a bemusing attraction or a whimsical way to spend a few minutes and (hopefully) just a few bucks. For others, like New Yorker Ali Beck, they can lead to financial ruin. Beck says she gave a fortune teller almost $56,000 over seven months, destroying her credit and forcing her to sell her house.
So is there a legal line between telling someone's fortune and theft? When does fortune telling become illegal?
A few states ban fortune telling for reasons other than entertainment. A person violates New York's ban on fortune telling when:
[F]or a fee or compensation which he directly or indirectly solicits or receives, he claims or pretends to tell fortunes, or holds himself out as being able, by claimed or pretended use of occult powers, to answer questions or give advice on personal matters or to exorcise, influence or affect evil spirits or curses.
New York does have an exception, however, for fortune telling "as part of a show or exhibition solely for the purpose of entertainment or amusement."
Pennsylvania has an even more comprehensive fortune-telling statute:
A person is guilty of a misdemeanor of the third degree if he pretends for gain or lucre, to tell fortunes or predict future events, by cards, tokens, the inspection of the head or hands of any person, or by the age of anyone, or by consulting the movements of the heavenly bodies, or in any other manner, or for gain or lucre, pretends to effect any purpose by spells, charms, necromancy, or incantation, or advises the taking or administering of what are commonly called love powders or potions, or prepares the same to be taken or administered, or publishes by card, circular, sign, newspaper or other means that he can predict future events, or for gain or lucre, pretends to enable anyone to get or to recover stolen property, or to tell where lost property is, or to stop bad luck, or to give good luck, or to put bad luck on a person or animal, or to stop or injure the business or health of a person or shorten his life, or to give success in business, enterprise, speculation, and games of chance, or to win the affection of a person, or to make one person marry another, or to induce a person to make or alter a will, or to tell where money or other property is hidden, or to tell where to dig for treasure, or to make a person to dispose of property in favor of another.
Oklahoma also makes it illegal to charge for "pretending or professing to tell fortunes by the use of any subtle craft, means or device whatsoever, either by palmistry, clairvoyancy [sic] or otherwise."
Despite these prohibitions, police aren't always the most helpful in tracking down or cracking down on fortune tellers. And some states have struck down their fortune telling laws as unconstitutional limits on free speech. Beck (who asked to use an alias in the Atlantic's story) was forced to turn to a private detective for help, and even then was unsuccessful in recovering any money from the fortune teller who defrauded her.