This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.
Romy Rafael has the kind of eyes people get lost in. His long black hair was pulled back in a slick pigtail that reached down to his tailbone. His mustache and sideburns were neatly trimmed. Romy looked sort of mysterious, like the kind of guy people describe as "tall, dark, and handsome." His looks alone were surely enough to make hearts swoon.
I was sitting opposite Romy—a celebrity hypnotherapist famous for performing magic tricks on TV—to ask about one of the strangest kinds of Indonesian crime stories: robbery by hypnosis. Stories of mystical thieves who can hypnotize their victims with a single touch are everywhere in Indonesia. Some news outlets even have archives devoted entirely to kejahatan hipnotis, or hypnotist crimes.
The modus operandi is always the same. There's an unsuspecting victim, perhaps someone emotionally troubled or naïve, and a charming individual or group who taps the victim's shoulder or shakes his or her hand. Then it's straight to the bank, the ATM, or a safe. The victims empty their bank accounts, give up their smartphones, and even raid their jewelry box—all under the control of these malevolent hypnotists.
These crimes are so common that Indonesian police routinely warn people to be on the lookout for thieves with mystical mind control powers. The Jakarta Police once set up a sting operation to arrest three thieves accused of hypnotizing their victims into draining their bank accounts after similar stories started to grab headlines. In neighboring Malaysia, the government actually made a PSA warning of the threat of robbery via hypnosis.
But is any of this true? Southeast Asia is full of stories that seem, at first read, too strange to be true. We've investigated efforts by the Indonesian government to outlaw black magic; we've gone on ghost hunts and covered the disturbing trend of real-life witch hunts. So what about mind control and hypnosis? Is this actually happening?
Romy listened as he stirred a cup of black coffee—no sugar. He wasn't convinced.
"What people imagine as criminal hypnosis isn't true," Romy told me. "They believe it's true, therefore, it becomes true. But belief and fact are two completely different things. What people imagine is that somebody can just go up to you on the street, tap your shoulder, and you're done.
"Show me somebody who can do that and I will pay him millions. On my show, I've challenged people who claimed they could do that, but nope, they could never deliver."
What's often missing from these sensational stories of hypnosis crimes is the role the victims themselves often play in their own robberies.
"People are embarrassed to admit that they got duped or persuaded," Romy said. "So they exaggerate the myth of automatic hypnosis through physical touch. The thing with hypnosis is, it's just an art of soft persuasion. So without the victim's consent or willingness to participate, nothing would happen."
So then what is hypnosis actually? It is really impossible to hypnotize someone without their consent?
"Hypnosis is a condition in which a hypnotherapist guides someone into a state of deep relaxation so he or she is open to any suggestion." Romy told me. "But the precondition for hypnosis is having consent. I can't stress this often enough: If the person being hypnotized resists hypnosis, nothing can be done about it.
"No hypnotherapist is 'powerful' enough to force somebody to do anything against his or her free will. Physical touch like tapping someone's shoulder or shaking their hand is done to create an immediate physical connection with the victims, but it's not how hypnosis is done."
Sure enough, the media reports say the same thing as long as you know what you're looking for. While journalists like to play up the amount of money the thieves steal, and the seeming power of the hypnotists, what's really going on further down in the story are the actual methods these criminals use.
In each instance, the thieves first set up some sort of elaborate backstory to lure their victims in. Sometimes they're medicine men selling special magic cures to sick people. Other times, they're religious leaders who can arrange Umroh (minor hajj) at discounted prices.
One victim told the Jakarta Post that a man once convinced her to hurl bags of leaves into a river to rid herself of bad luck. But when the woman turned around she realized that she had handed the guy her purse and told him her ATM pin. "That was when I realized that I had been hypnotized," she recalled. The whole story sounds like a normal con until she brings hypnotism into the mix. So then is there anything to make these hypnotist thieves any different from normal old con artists?
"Exactly, "Romy said. "No difference."
"But these people insist they were hypnotized," I said. "Why?"
"Well, because of the hypnosis, the victims end up believing these schemes at a very deep, subconscious level, almost as if they were blinded, and they end up losing so much so quickly," Romy said. "Their belief is so complete that they go to the ATM straight away to withdraw all their savings on the spot. This is what makes criminal hypnotism more dangerous than con artists operations… But I would say a lot of con artists are using a type of hypnotism as well as their own charming persuasion skills. It is difficult to draw the line."
But what about the law? I get that a lot of people may believe they've been hypnotized when they've really just fallen victim to a con, but how can these "hypnosis robberies" hold up as evidence in court?
"I have been practicing law for nine years and I have never handled something explicitly categorized as a hypnosis crime," Slamet Yuwono, an attorney with F.A.S.T. Attorneys at Law, said. "Indonesians believe in santet (Vodoo) and hypnosis and so on, but these kinds of things can not be objectively proven in court. What kind of expert would you call to testify? Another hypnotherapist? How could this expert tell if the victim was in fact hypnotized?"
So then how do these thieves and con artists end up behind bars? What's the crime they're accused of if "hypnosis" isn't an option?
"It is impossible to present tangible proof for hypnosis," Yuwono said. "Hypnosis is just the modus operandi, the crime is essentially fraud. We look at the victim's testimony, eyewitness testimony, the motive of the perpetrator, and what was exchanged.
"In all these cases, victims hand over their belongings in the hope of getting something back, and then the perpetrators run off. With all this material evidence, it is enough for our legal system to convict somebody for fraud. That's about it."
If it's all fraud and the work of con artists, then it should be pretty easy to not fall victim to any of this, right? It shouldn't be that hard at all, Romy told me. All you need to do is refuse to accept what you're being told. Stubborn people, it seems, are immune to hypnosis.
"It's true that some people are more vulnerable to hypnosis, but it's all in their minds," he said. "If you tell yourself that you're grounded and strong, you can resist hypnosis pretty easily. People who fall victim are usually in some sort of emotional or financial trouble so their defenses are weak. They are willing to believe that someone can magically cure their problems, and the criminals can see this."
Does he have any advice for people still afraid of con artists and hypnotists?
"Just pray a lot and don't ever trust strangers," he said. "This sounds like cliché advice for children, but people forget it again and again."