After dating her for nine years, her boyfriend suddenly broke things off and moved on to someone else. The approaching holiday season only made her feel worse about the breakup.
“I felt very alone and very afraid,” the 26-year-old would later tell police, explaining what drove her to try a psychic. “I was desperately searching for answers.”
She went to “Readings by Natalie,” operating from a home in Bethesda, Md. “I poured out my heart to her,” the woman said.
For $100, Natalie performed a Tarot Card reading followed by a plan to bring the boyfriend back into her new client’s life. “I was on cloud nine,” the client remembered.
Delivering jolts of confidence, backed by what seemed to be a genuine concern for people going through heartache and stress, was the keystone of a $341,000 scam involving five victims in Montgomery County.
The purported psychic — real name, Gina Marie Marks, 45, who has pleaded guilty to five theft schemes — had spoken to her victims about generational curses, black magic and love spells. She coaxed them into bizarre rituals involving candles, clear dyes that turned red when applied to skin, rose petals, magnets and lying atop a massage table with necklaces hung over them to gauge energy levels.
The fraud used a classic ruse in fortune-teller scams: Getting clients to believe that cash was crucial to fixing their problems.
Victims were persuaded to withdraw large amounts and place them inside black pillowcases or under mattresses. The “energy” in their bodies would then migrate to the bills, they were told, according to court records. Marks’s next step: convincing her clients to give her the cash so she could place it before an altar at her church to help her break evil curses before the money was returned. The more cash they lent to the altar, she would say as the weeks went by, the more commitment the clients were displaying to what Marks called her “spirit guides.”
Marks also employed up-to-date techniques. Phone “spoofing” enabled her to make calls that appeared to be coming from a different phone number than the one she was using. Using that ruse, prosecutors said, Marks was able to tell a client her ex-boyfriend would call at a precise time — warning the client she was not to answer it — and the client would indeed see the ex’s phone number pop up on her phone screen at the exact predicted time.
“It just seems like that’s the worst of the worst, when you prey on people when they were down,” Circuit Judge John Maloney told Marks at the conclusion of the case on Friday, when he sentenced her to six years in prison. “That is just outrageous.”
Nationwide, consulting with fortune tellers and psychics is fairly common. Nearly 1 in 7 Americans say they have done so, according to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The danger isn’t $50 palm readings. It’s practitioners who use such offerings to scope out marks and sell them false hope. “One of the hallmarks of these scams is progression,” says Bob Nygaard, a nationwide expert on psychic scams and a private investigator based in Florida.
“It’s not rational,” Nygaard said. “But who is rational when they learn their spouse has been cheating? Who is rational when they’ve just been diagnosed with terminal cancer? And all the scammers need is just one victim a month, or if the victim has money, one a year.”
Doctors, lawyers and business owners have been sucked into the scams, according to Nygaard. When they come to their senses and know the money isn’t coming back, it’s too late. The psychic is gone. Or the victim is too embarrassed to tell anyone.
Victim embarrassment, in the Montgomery County case, was reflected in how prosecutors presented their case at the sentencing hearing. Douglas Wink, Montgomery County’s assistant state’s attorney, referred to the victims only by initials. Several victims watched the hearing, but none wanted to come forward and speak.
The once brokenhearted 26-year-old, who was not in court, earlier had written a statement that said, “while I readily admit that I was gullible at a vulnerable time in my life, being gullible is not a crime.” By contrast, what Marks did to her was a crime, she said.
By 2015, Marks had moved to Bethesda from Florida and into a home on Fernwood Road where she posted a neatly scripted sign out front above a flower bed: “Psychic Reader and Adviser . . . Walk-Ins Welcome.”
In her first meeting with Marks, the 26-year-old was told she and her ex-boyfriend were “twin flames.” The next day, according to court records, Marks told her new client she’d need $1,500 for the work required to reunite the two. She persuaded the woman to light candles, cover her body with dye, bathe in oils and recite prayers.
A short time later, Marks called to ask her to up her financial commitment.
“Her ‘spirit guides’ needed to be convinced that I was serious about reuniting with my ex,” the woman told police.
She was asked to withdraw cash from her bank and store it under her mattress next to her ritual items. The money under the mattress eventually totaled $14,800.
The woman said she would ask questions and express doubts about Marks’s techniques. But then a phone call would arrive, on cue, as promised. Or Marks would turn aggressive — telling her that her doubts were angering the spirit guides.
After the victim drained her bank accounts, Marks persuaded her to buy designer handbags on credit and bring them to Marks so she could place them at the altar. All of the cash under the mattress eventually came over to Marks as well, the case showed. None came back. When it was all done, according to the victim and prosecutors, Marks had stolen $22,792.
Other victims fared worse.
A 28-year-old woman, also upset about a lost relationship, surrendered $83,014 to Marks. She was told she and Marks needed to work with the No. 9, which meant bringing in currency in sets of nine, starting with nine $100 bills and nine $50 bills and trailing to nine nickels, according to the victim. The money was placed on Marks’s altar and never seen again, Wink said.
Two others lost $78,758 and $153,400. The smallest loss, $2,655, was by a 26-year-old man who had sought answers for why he felt so depressed. He described to police Marks’s reaction when he questioned the fees.
“She would begin berating me,” the man said. “She would say I was not taking her work seriously and demanding more and more money. I would feel bad and cave to give her more money.”
Marks’s attorney Peter Fayne had said she was prepared to pay nearly $129,500 of the more than $340,000 due in restitution. He asked Maloney, the judge, to spare his client prison time so she could earn more money to pay more restitution.
Marks told Maloney she had never intended to hurt anyone and still cared about the victims. She said her actions could be traced to her childhood.
“When you’re brought up to be a spiritualist, when you’re brought up in these kinds of situations where you go to a candle instead of just letting logic help itself, you get carried away with it,” she said. “And I guess that’s what happened.”
The judge wasn’t so sure.
“I feel like I’m being scammed,” Maloney told her, “and I’m not going to put up with this.”