On a recent evening, the author, podcast host, and tarot reader Michelle Tea was lying in bed, reading a book. She asked her husband, scrolling his phone next to her, what he was doing.
“Talking to someone pretending to be you,” he said, casually.
Tea, whose work is especially beloved in queer communities, has also been reading tarot for close to 30 years. She got her start doing street readings in San Francisco when she was new to the city, working for donations while struggling to make her way. She’s since graduated to a more established practice, aided by her popular Instagram account. And now, like many psychics and other intuitives who use Instagram, she’s recently been the target of a hive of scammers, seemingly unrelated people who are all trying to trick her clientele into paying them for readings by pretending to be her.
Impersonation is becoming one of the hottest issues in the world of mystical labor, because it’s simply so pervasive; one tarot reader told Motherboard they’ve been impersonated at least 15 times. The scammers typically copy all of their target’s photos and captions, create a new Instagram account that mirrors theirs as much as possible, and then start following and messaging people who follow the target. The impersonators—who often address the follower as “beloved” or “dear”—say they felt irresistibly compelled to reach out, that they need to urgently tell them something from their spirit guides, and offer to give the follower a reading, always for a price.
“It’s kind of ingenious,” said Hannah Graves, dryly. Graves, a UK-based tarot reader who does business under the name Cult Mother Tarot, has been impersonated many times herself, at one point with three impersonation accounts running simultaneously. She’s had time to consider how the accounts are created and populated so fast. “I’m guessing they’re acquiring accounts that are already populated with followers and then obviously just scraping your posts,” she said. “They are now even putting stories where the stories should be,” pulling actual video from their targets. (Instagram allows users to make posts, which goes on a grid on their profile page, and stories, which can be accessed by clicking the person’s profile photo and disappear after 24 hours.)
As the L.A. Times pointed out in November, the issue seems to have gotten worse recently, and often targets spiritual workers who are Black and Latinx. (The Times also pointed out that the scammers often use language that sounds overly stiff—greeting people they’re messaging with the unlikely phrase “Grand Rising,” for instance—or full of Britishisms like “hon” and “love” that don’t make sense from a supposedly American psychic. This seems to suggest that some of the scammers are either from the United Kingdom or places previously colonized by it.)
Michelle Tea was already aware that she’d been impersonated several times when her husband decided to engage the newest scammer. Because he has a macabre sense of humor, Tea told Motherboard, her husband immediately began telling the scammer that he had “done bad things,” that he was scared, and that he was in urgent need of spiritual help. The scammer said they would be glad to help—for $60, due immediately.
Tea’s husband quickly revealed that he knew he wasn’t actually talking to Michelle Tea, and the couple quickly began trying to persuade the scammer to come on a podcast that Tea hosts, Your Magic. On a recent episode, “This Fake Witch is Trying to Scam You,” Tea confronted the epidemic of scamming targeting the online psychic community.
“I wasn’t trying to bust them,” Tea said. “I just wanted to hear what they had to say about what they were doing, what their relationship is to the mystic arts, and how they justify what they’re doing.”
At the same time, Tea said, psychic workers are often met with a distinct lack of sympathy when they talk about being the victims of fraud or impersonation. “There is a portion of the population who thinks our work isn’t real,” she said. Fortune-telling for a fee is a misdemeanor offense in many places; in New York, for instance, the laws on the books require that it be clearly denoted as only for “entertainment or amusement” purposes. (Roma people, some of whom adapted fortune-telling as one mode of survival, face particularly intense stigma and persecution for practicing that profession, as well as simply existing.) But even then, she feels that people should be sympathetic to the issue of paying someone under false pretenses: “It’s not what you paid for. It’s just unethical, period. People should at least recognize that.”
Several people said the structural issues in reporting scammers are manifold: Instagram rarely verifies people like psychics or tarot readers, making it hard for audiences to distinguish a real account from a scam. And often, reporting a scam account doesn’t do much, said Edgar Fabián Frías, a licensed but non-practicing marriage and family therapist, artist, educator, and witch who is the person who estimates they’ve been impersonated on Instagram at least 15 times. Sometimes, Frías said, they’ll report an account using their name and all of their photos, and get a speedy, surreal automated response that they’re not being impersonated.
Graves agrees, noting that the only thing that even momentarily works is filing individual DMCA takedown notices for each image the scammer has stolen and is passing off as their own. “I did this for 30 images on one account and Instagram pulled the whole thing down,” she said. “In 24 hours, it was reactivated. The only way to counter that would be to go through the whole process again. It’s way too time-consuming and not effective.”
Many intuitives and tarot readers feel a responsibility to warn their community—and protect their reputation from the tinge of sketchiness or disreputability that the scammer accounts create for them. Frías responded both practically and metaphysically, they said, both to protect their reputation and to try to create some spiritual protection for their community against scammers.
“I wanted to be clear it wasn’t me,” they said. “I felt like I had to warn my community and really let people know this is a phenomenon that’s happening. I will post about it. I make reels.” They also teamed up with a witch named Kiki, who goes by the name Opulent Witch on the platform, “to do a ceremony to protect us from being scammed. So I've been trying to do metaphysical stuff around it, like protection work.” They’ve also spotlighted the work of Scammer Alert Page, an Instagram account for the spiritual worker community run by a spiritual coach and tarot reader named Nova Magick.
The feeling from a lot of people in the mystical community, Frías said, “is that the platform doesn’t really care and doesn’t do very much.”
“Instagram isn’t getting involved at all,” Tea agreed. “So it’s left in our hands. These are spiritual people, tarot readers, we’re not tech people. We don’t know how to make this change. It has to happen somehow from Instagram. (Instagram didn’t respond to a request for comment from Motherboard; it told the L.A. Times in November that Instagram tries to block scams, adding, ““We know there’s more to do here, which is why we keep working to prevent abuse and keep our community safe.”)
Graves, the U.K.-based tarot reader, suspects that Instagram may be allowing the problem to persist because it views psychic and tarot services with disdain—or, at least, doesn’t see a way to monetize their accounts, for instance by putting a “View Shop” button on their profiles. (Instagram, again, did not respond to a request for comment.)
“They don’t like us,” Graves said bluntly. “They have no interest in monetizing us. They don’t want us on the platform.”
In the meantime, the issue has gotten far worse. “There are many days this year where I log on and spend all my time reporting fake accounts on behalf of friends and people I know,” Grace Kredell told Motherboard. Kredell is a mystic practitioner, interdisciplinary artist, writer, and community organizer based in New York City, and comes from a family studded with psychics and spiritualists. She’s studied psychic labor for years and is writing her master’s thesis about it at Sarah Lawrence. The impersonation issue is real and widespread, and, she said, “I think what’s really disheartening too for practitioners is how many people fall for it. It speaks to this desire that people have to be seen individually by practitioners and recognized.”
While the issue of impersonators targeting their audiences is widespread, all of the psychics and intuitives who spoke to Motherboard say that it’s just one of a host of labor and platform issues beleaguering spiritual workers online. Psychic workers—by nature a highly sensitive group of people—say that as the pandemic wears on, they’re also dealing with secondary trauma, burnout, challenging or even hostile clients, and an influx of people who come to them looking for advice on increasingly serious health and personal issues. And they say that impersonation is one of the final straws that’s convincing many of them that it’s time to take their businesses—and their relationships with each other—partially or fully offline.
“Doing intuitive or psychic labor is really lonely,” Eliza Swann told Motherboard. They are the founder of the Golden Dome, which was created in 2015 as an artist-in-residency program for artists exploring the connections between artistic and mystical work, or who incorporate magical practices into what they do.
“We don’t have benefits,” Swann, who offers tarot and clairvoyant readings, added. “We don’t do the work with others. Most of us can’t afford to have an assistant so we’re booking sessions, running the sessions, dealing with payment, advertising ourselves, and coming up against corporate platforms like Instagram by ourselves.”
In response to the issues plaguing their community, Swann and Golden Dome offered something brand new: an organizing meeting-cum-support group for psychic workers, aimed at figuring out how to solve some of the larger structural problems they’re facing. The meeting took place online, on a recent Sunday; about 60 RSVPed, and a little more than half showed up, Swann estimated.
“Since the pandemic started, our work has gotten a lot harder,” Swann said. “We’re working on Zoom. A lot of folks feel isolated anyway because of the work and the issues we’re dealing with in our work have gotten more complex as people are navigating more complex money and health and interpersonal issues as a result of the pandemic and the issues happening in the U.S.” In the meeting, many participants brought up feeling isolated, struggling with the impersonation issue, and feeling generally conflicted or confused about the concept of charging for spiritual work.
Grace Kredell is one of the people who participated in the meeting; she said she’s spent years trying to build more robust relationships and friendships among people who work in psychic or mystical spaces.
“The work is so fucking hard and it’s so poorly paid and it’s so easy to get triggered,” she said. She feels “a lot of kinship” with sex workers, who face similar labor issues, as well as similar issues with impersonation and shadow-banning on Instagram.
“They put us on the same team as sex workers,” Graves agreed. “And that’s a team I'm happy to be on. These are people who know how to organize and optimize channels of communication without having to rely on these kinds of platforms and the rules they impose.”
Kredell notes a lot of people engage in both psychic and sex work, and adds that even for psychics who aren’t sex workers, sexual harassment has been an issue for those workers for hundreds of years.
"In my research on 19th-century psychic work, I found that the popular press heavily linked psychic workers to the sex trade [and] viewed fortune-tellers as sex workers in disguise,” she said. “At that time, a popular urban legend also told of the dangers of innocent, rural women being trafficked into the sex trade through the process of receiving a reading.”
In her practice today, she said, “I've definitely gotten the vibe from mostly male clients that they see me as something akin to a sex worker; a reading in that sense is an opportunity to book an intimate space with a femme. They think I'm available for whatever they want, and they routinely use my profession's bad cultural reputation as ammunition: ‘You have something to prove to me, so you must comply with my wishes.’”
Kredell and other readers agreed that they’re often wary to tell new acquaintances what they do for a living. In moving back to the UK after many years in Berlin, Graves said, it’s presented an issue while finding housing and integrating into a new, rural community: “I find myself not wanting to be completely transparent about what I do.” Other psychic workers said that common responses are mockery, challenging them, or demanding readings on the spot.
“The people who will belittle you or try to get into an argument will slide into your DMs or text you and demand, like, ‘What’s going on with my foot?’” Kredell noted. It echoed earlier generations, she said; she interviewed an older psychic who told her about her own grandmother, who practiced out of her house. “People from this small town would just show up at her back door. But they’d never acknowledge her in the street. She’d pray for these people in church every day, I know so many people who have been in that situation.”
Kredell has come to believe that Instagram is a fundamentally unstable space, and that psychics and other intuitives need to focus as much as possible at building their networks and relationships offline. “We need to be more together as a community more organized. We need to get to know each other better and learn to trust each other and establish firm mutual aid networks. A lot of witches on Instagram, we’re liking each other’s posts and resharing stuff, but that’s not the same as someone who can bring you chicken soup in the middle of the night. We need to take these relationships offline and make these relationships towards each other.”
She paused, then laughed. “We also need to party more together,” she said, finally. “It doesn’t all have to be work. We need to have joy as a place of resistance.”
Scammers aside, a broader issue, says Kredell, is learning how to adapt to a business model that changes again and again, as platforms come in and out of fashion. “I’m not totally against Instagram or any of these platforms,” she said. “But to me there’s got to be another way. We need to mobilize offline.” She’s studied psychic newspaper ads from the 19th century, which “created visibility and traffic,” she said, at least until the newspaper business changed. The same thing, she said, will surely happen to the social media platforms that mystical workers are currently relying on. “You don’t have to be a psychic to know that Instagram isn’t going to last forever.”
Graves agrees: Like other tarot readers and intuitives, she’s diversifying her business model, directing her followers to her Patreon and her newsletter. “In a post-COVID world we’re seeing people wanting to get back into their immediate communities anyway,” she said, “reprioritizing face to face contact and events. The big peak of online might start to shift a little bit now.”
In the end, as psychic workers try to chart a better path forward, Tea and Frías both say they’re also sympathetic to the plight of the scammers, who are, after all, simply trying to find their own way to survive, however ill-considered.
“I’m not without compassion or empathy for the people pulling these scams,” Tea said. “I understand capitalism puts people in desperate and stupid places and people try to get over however they can. This person has convinced themselves it’s OK.” Ironically, some of them seem to be creating more work for themselves, Tea said; one person progressed from simply taking targets’ money “to actually giving readings.”
A scammed client, Tea added, later told her, “I feel bad. The scammer gave me a good reading.”
“They’re people in need, and this is a gig for them,” Frías said. “I honor that gig, as someone who has known poverty. I’ve gone through people’s trash to find cans to recycle for money. I know what it’s like to be a scavenger.” They are “more annoyed at the platform than the scammers,” they added. “They may need the money. It’s not to say I like the scammers, but I feel like they’re in a much more precarious situation than I am.”