By Jeffrey B. Roth
GETTYSBURG, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - As pre-Halloween witches and ghouls sprout up on U.S. lawns, experts are warning people to be wary of modern occult scammers who have moved online to hawk virtual voodoo dolls, revenge spells and otherwise "haunted" items.
While the idea of spending money for a magic spell - to help with an endeavor or to inflict pain on an enemy - has been around for centuries, experts say the anonymity of online transactions can encourage people who would otherwise never think of visiting a storefront psychic to fall for a con.
"It's a new twist on an old idea," said Nicholas Little, legal director of the Center for Inquiry, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes secular and rational thinking. "It's easy to hide your identity on the Internet, so people are willing to try scams online that they would never be willing to try in person."
While most scammers offer items in the small-dollar range - selling allegedly haunted items on auction sites for under $10 - some go for large sums of money. A Manhattan woman running a fortune-telling business earlier this month was found guilty of conning two women out of $138,000, claiming that the funds would be used to solve problems related to their past lives.
Alexandra Holzer Gargiulo, daughter of paranormal researcher and author, Hans Holzer, is publishing a 50th anniversary edition of her father's book "Ghost Hunter." She said paranormal scams prey on people who are "desperate for answers."
Television shows that depict investigators using gadgets such as electro-magnetic field detectors to document evidence of paranormal activity have driven up demand for those items, Gargiulo said. She added that the shows have also sparked growth in the number of self-proclaimed paranormal investigators, who charge homeowners as much as $1,500 to rid their homes of spirits.
The law relating to such activities is not always definitive, Little said, noting that fortune-tellers and others who offer occult services often use a "for entertainment purposes only" disclaimer to prevent legal problems.
Even as people who sell occult services move online, some continue to run storefronts, offering psychic readings for a small fee and trying to talk customers into paying more to resolve problems.
One New York woman who recently fell victim to such a scam was Maya Battle.
"It was a bad time for me and I was unhappy about a lot of things," said Battle. "Before, I had visited a psychic for a $5 reading for fun, but had never invested a lot of money for a reading."
But one day, while waiting for a friend outside a bar, Battle was approached by a doorway psychic, who told her she was the target of an evil curse.
She persuaded Battle to pay $100 to remove the curse. The psychic used an egg in the ritual, touching it against her forehead, shoulders and heart.
At the end of the ceremony, the psychic instructed Battle to break the egg, which appeared to be half-cooked and filled with black seeds, she said.
"That flipped me out," said Battle.
She said the psychic told her the seeds were the physical embodiment of the curse, and persuaded her to spend another $500 to have the egg properly disposed of.
Battle said she paid the money, but later regretted her decision. She did some research on the Internet and discovered she had fallen prey to a commonly used scam.
(Editing by Scott Malone and Gunna Dickson)