Psychic adviser Gina Marks and the sign outside her home. Picture: Courtesy of Montgomery County State's Attorney's Office

Maryland - After dating 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, Maryland. "I poured out my heart to her," the woman said.

For $100 (R1400), 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 (R4.8 million) scam case involving five victims in Montgomery County, Maryland.

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 the entire body, rose petals, magnets and laying 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 off evil curses before the money was returned. The more cash they lent to the alter, 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 she was using. Using that ruse, prosecutors said, Marks was able to tell a client her ex-boyfriend would call at a precise time - and 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.

"This is an awful case," Circuit Judge John Maloney told Marks at the conclusion of the case on Friday, when he sentenced her to six years in prison.

Maloney told her the victims not only lost life savings but were robbed of self-esteem and the respect of relatives from whom they had borrowed money. To make it worse, the judge said, she'd been prosecuted for similar activity eight years earlier in Florida.

"It just seems like that's the worst of the worst, when you prey on people when they were down, taking advantage of people when they're hurting," Maloney said. "That is just outrageous."

The victim embarrassment at realising they'd been duped was reflected in how prosecutors presented their case at the sentencing hearing. Douglass 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 where she posted a neatly scripted sign out front above a flower bed: Psychic Reader and Advisor . . . 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 (R21 000) 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 young woman told police.

She was asked to withdraw cash from her bank and store it in her mattress next to her ritual items. The money in the mattress eventually totalled $14 800 (R210 000).

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 convinced 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 (R324 000).

Other victims fared worse.

A 28-year-old woman, also upset about a lost relationship, surrendered $83 014 (R1.1 million) to Marks. She was told she and Marks needed to work with the number nine, 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'd 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'd 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."

 The Washington Post