"I'm not a curious man. I was once, a long time ago. I was a humble student of life's mysteries. A treader of the secret pathways, a delver into the darker corners and so forth. All rubbish, of course. At the end of the day, when the lights come up, as in one form or another they always do, there's always somebody standing there with their hand out, waiting to be paid. I decided long ago that person might as well be me." —Doctor Who, "Snakedance"
The grift-speak name for a person that runs a psychic game is 'Reader'. And it ain't about Tarot cards.
They are the profilers of the grift world. A reader learns more about where a mark's buttons are with a single side-long glance than most people will ever figure out about him. Certainly more than the mark does, anyway.
Phony psychics have a specialized set of tools available for exploring those buttons; Tarot cards, Ouija boards, convincing trance-states, cold-reads, and so forth. These are used to refine the reader's understanding of how best to operate the buttons. Once they are clearly understood, the mark is moved into one of a number of specialized tales.
Some of those tales:
Bury The Guilt — The button is guilt. The mark needs to go somewhere ooky and bury some money to mollify the spirit of someone they have wronged. That's the classic form. It takes many, many others. The main play is convincing the mark that coughing up bucks equals making atonement. The exact method of dispersing the money really makes no difference at all, as long as the reader can grab it after the mark blows off.
Rope Out — The button is greed. Best play here? Get your Con Man buddy in on it. He has tales for that. Boy, howdy, does he have tales for that. The reader's main concern here is to assure that it is clear to the Con Man that they have a split coming.
Pimp — The button is loneliness or horniness. Best of, all ... both. Steer the mark toward a prostitute/gigolo that understands the play.
XXX Holic has a chapter where Yuuko demonstrates the difference between a Phony Psychic who tries to ask for more money to give Watanuki some love, and a real psychic who guesses Watanuki's name and ghost-seeing abilities without even talking to him.
Espa Roba also pulls a phony psychic stunt in the Battle City tournament, with help from his brothers spying on his opponents' cards and relaying them through a headset. (Apparently, he and his brothers pulled this trick when he worked as a psychic in a circus.)
Before either of them was Kokurano, a student at Yugi's school. He posed as a psychic to impress girls, and had pre-planned 'predictions' hidden in his clothes (Something Yugi guessed). However, he also went as far as to make some of his own predictions came true, such as Anzu 'swooning over a great man' (he used chloroform on her) and Yugi being buried crushed by 'countless letters'. (He tried pushing a bookcase onto Yugi).
Miroku in InuYasha is a genuine Buddhist monk with very real spiritual powers... whose favorite trick upon arriving in a town is to single out a large, prosperous-looking household and announce that it is "threatened by evil spirits," which he then generously offers to exorcize in return for a meal and a place to stay for the night. Every now and again one of these houses surprises him by actually harboring a spirit or two.
Psychic Detective Yakumo is another genuine psychic who is not ashamed to pull a Phony Psychic con. In Yakumo's case, his one and only psychic power is the ability to see and communicate with the spirits of the dead; he makes money on the side by pretending to be able to tell which card a mark has pulled from a deck in his "office," which has a mirror conveniently placed to give him a clear view from behind his desk.
Misaomaru "Don" Kanonji from Bleach has all the hallmarks of this trope. He's unimaginablyover-the-top in action and presentation, has a TV show, and claims to fight ghosts. The weird part: he actually has powers. He can see and interact with ghosts. The problem is that he has no idea how to actually deal with ghosts, turning one into a Hollow through sheer ignorance in his first appearance.
Alan Moore's original graphic novel version of From Hell had a historical phony confessing to the main character in a flash forward prologue. But, he notes, despite making everything up on whims or to cover his own tail, he was still always right...
Prolix in Astérix and the Soothsayer is a phony augur (a reader of entrails), and leads a very good life requesting various edibles to 'read', such as fish, boars and beer. This works wonderfully until he is captured by the Romans, who are ordered to kill all Gaulish soothsayers, leading him to have to prove to them that he's a conman, not a psychic. Unfortunately, all his predictions end up coming true.
Two pre-New Adventures stories of Paperinik had him deal with these. In one he had to deal with a fake wizard who convinced people they needed to buy a lot of things that his accomplices would then sell them (he had been one of the victims as Donald), while in another Paperinik had to debunk hundreds of fake mages who were scamming the whole Duckburg.
Amelie de Mort in the Vampirella story "The Betrothed of the Sun-God" pretends to be a medium and cons people into thinking that their dead relatives want the will changed to benefit her, after which she has her victims killed for the inheritance money, though she gets more than she bargained for when Vampirella and Pendragon visit her and Huitzilopochtli speaks through her for real.
In Magicians, part of Karl's reinvention of himself as a 'street' magician involves a Phony Psychic routine complete with Cold Reading. He's not very comfortable with it to begin with, but when his would-be girlfriend leaves him when she learns he's not a real psychic and upon hearing the sad story of someone coming to see his act who wants to make contact with a loved one on the other side he breaks down and admits he's a fake. At the end of the movie, we then see that a much less-scrupulous magician has filled the niche he left behind.
Inverted in The Frighteners. Michael J. Fox's shady ghostbuster actually can see ghosts, but they're his friends, and he "employs" them in his cons. The ghosts haunt the place, he gets rid of 'em, they laugh all the way to the bank.
In The Wizard of Oz Dorothy runs across a fortune-teller who tells her to close her eyes, and then proceeds to looks through her bag. He finds a picture of Dorothy and Auntie Em, and tells Dorothy that Auntie Em has fallen ill - a more benevolent example of the trope than many, as the result is to inspire Dorothy to head back home instead of running away as she'd intended.
This is referenced/parodied in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure: a psychic tells him that his bike is in the Alamo's basement ( this was divined from her being across the street from "Al and Moe's Bargain Basement").
Kung Fu Panda 2. Although she has genuine foresight, Lord Shen's soothsayer doesn't mind yanking his chain with this trope.
Soothsayer: If you continue on your current path... (eyes roll up in her head) you will find yourself... at the bottom of the stairs. I see... I see... (plucks one of Shen's feathers) Pain.
Soothsayer: And anger. (takes a bite of Shen's robe)
Shen: How dare you! That is the finest silk in the province!
Soothsayer: Followed by denial.
Shen: This isn't fortune-telling! You're just saying what's happening right—
The High Aldwyn from Willow zig-zags the trope. He is quite capable of real magic, but seems to find it easier to get the results he wants through cold-reading and mind-games. Also, he is a competent leader and unambiguously good, in spite of being the most manipulative character in the film, including the Big Bad.
In the Dirk Gently series, Dirk has tried to be a Phony Psychic on several occasions. The fact he's invariably accurate (but never manages to make any money at it, and at least once was arrested) annoys him intensely.
Played for laughs in the Diogenes Club story "Angel Down, Sussex" by Kim Newman; a young woman, Catriona, visits a psychic after World War I, and the psychic divines that she is seeking contact with a soldier, Edwin; the psychic assures her that her soldier felt no pain when he died and that he sends his love to her from the afterlife, and a ghostly, indistinct image appears. After a moment, Catriona points out that there's one problem with the psychic's reading: Edwin, the soldier who the psychic has made such direct contact with? Isn't actually dead. Turns out Catriona's a particularly savvy paranormal investigator, and proceeds to deconstruct the psychic's act with devastating accuracy and reveal to her other patrons that she's a sham.
In the Connie Willis book Inside Job, the ghost of H. L. Mencken helps debunk phony psychics, by possessing one during their act. Possibly. Or it's the most complicated scam in existence to make a debunker believe in ghosts.
Employed by John Sandford in The Empress File using rigged Tarot readings to convince a corrupt official to invest in a scam. Partially averted in that a later unstaged reading comes out completely true.
Madame Tracy from Good Omens is a phony medium who puts on a show for Londoners looking to paddle in the occult while staying firmly in the metaphorical shallow end. To that end, she does Tarot readings with some of the more distressing cards removed from the deck, and pretends to channel departed friends and relatives who offer vague platitudes about how nice it is on the other side. Much to her surprise, she ends up channeling an actual ghost when Aziraphale temporarily possesses her body.
Julian gives us Maximus, a Large Ham in a toga who would make Uri Geller proud. Or perhaps not, given that his advice is what prompts Julian to reject an excellent treaty and instead march to his doom.
Live Action TV
The show Psych is about a phony psychic who's on the right side of the law; he feigns psychic abilities but really uses his acute powers of observation to solve crimes.
Why doesn't he use his real ability to be a legitimate police officer (like his Dad) or a successful non-psychic P.I.? First, he's Brilliant, but Lazy. Second, he's such a goofy dork that most of the department would rather believe he's in on the crimes he solves than admit he's just that good - they settle for letting him call himself a psychic. Third, Shawn thinks being thought of as psychic is more fun.
He's got a criminal record for stealing a car. That tends to be frowned upon in most precincts. It's implied in the show that he stole the car to deliberately ruin any chance of being a cop like his father.
He was reporting a large number of crimes to the police, which is a perfectly legal, if unpaid, use of his abilities to stop crime. Since he was so good at it, they thought he was in on the crimes. He faked being psychic to explain how he could be so good.
In "Mr. Monk and the Psychic," Monk deals with a hack psychic named Dolly Flint, who got recruited without her knowledge by Harry Ashcombe to find his wife's body after he runs her car off the road (he can't find the body himself because it would look suspicious, so he needed to recruit someone to 'discover' it for him).
In Mr. Monk Goes to Hawaii, a Tie-In Novel to the series, Dylan Swift is a phony psychic who's on the wrong side of the law. Both Monk and Natalie dislike Swift, who they can't help but notice is spending a lot of time around a recent murder committed at the resort hotel they are staying at - Monk for one set of reasons (finding the truth, plus having a dislike for people who profit from others' grief) and Natalie for other reasons (namely, personal messages from Swift about her late husband). It turns out then that Swift, as popular as his celebrity status, is actually a master manipulator who wiretaps hotel rooms to get the information he needs for his shows, and committed the murder in an effort to cover this up.
The NBC reality show Phenomenon, about the search for the best new magician, had judges Criss Angel and Uri Geller call out a man for pretending to be able to talk to the dead. When Uri Geller calls you out on psychic fakery, you've done something very wrong.
LOST's Richard Malkin appears to be a "legit" Fortune Teller in the first season episode "Raised By Another." However, in the second season episode "?" he admits he's a fraud. It's still up in the air whether he had an actual psychic experience reading Claire in "Raised By Another."
Miles genuinely has the ability to hear the dead, but semi-counts because of his history of telling clients what they want to hear for money, and using it to find a dead drug dealer's cash.
The Leverage episode "The Future Job" has a Phony Psychic as the villain, and the episode is wholly recommended for the great detail they go into on his methods.
It also is utterly hilarious: the team convinces the villain (who is very aware that he's running a con) that one of them is a real psychic.
Most of the bad guys in Trick are running this scam. The ones who aren't are the guys handling the business end of the scam.
One episode of John Doe had a woman who honestly thought she was having psychic visions about a serial killer. Turned out that she herself had been abducted and wounded by the killer, but escaped, and promptly forgot most of her ordeal due to trauma and blood loss.
Of course, the show already has a secret organization using actual psychics for remote viewing purposes.
One episode of Hetty Wainthropp Investigates had Hetty being hired by a woman to debunk the psychic her mother was seeing as a fraud. To complicate matters, the local police are also investigating the medium, for suspected blackmailing, and Hetty helps them set up a sting operation by fabricating a scandalous story about her "dead" husband's illegitimate child. The episode actually goes with Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane for the psychic's abilities, though she does make extensive use of the standard cold reading tricks, but the focus is on the blackmailing.
In Supernatural, Sam and Dean Winchester run into an entire town of these in "The Mentalists". Lampshaded to no end, but particularly when Dean mentions that Pamela was one of the few genuine psychics they have encountered. There are actually some real ones as well, including the villain, who has summoned the ghost of a dead psychic to kill the impostors, while her equally psychic and ghostly sister tries to warn people about her.
In an episode of Charmed, Phoebe applies for a position like this, noting that it would be the last place anyone would expect to find a real psychic like herself.
On Rookie Blue a man comes to the police station claiming that he is a psychic and has information about the recent kidnapping of a witness. The man knows a lot of information that was never released to the public and the cops decide to check out his claims when other leads dry up. The psychic's help allows the police to save the witness but they also discover that the man is actually the estranged brother of the wife of the mobster that had the witness kidnapped. They figure that the wife wanted to get rid of her abusive husband so she gave her brother all that information knowing that the cops would never publicly admit that they got it from someone claiming to be a psychic. The episode ends on a Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane note when a lot of the casual predictions the man made start coming true.
Spoofed in Angel when Lorne consults a genuine psychic who works at a psychic hotline.
Aggie: "Ah, you know the business. Vague predictions, lengthy pauses; anything to keep the numbers rolling."
In the Kenan & Kel episode "Mental Kel Epathy", after a bunch of coincidences that convince Kenan's family and Chris that Kel is psychic, Kenan decides to keep up the charade in order to profit from it.
New Tricks: Brian turns the tables on a fake psychic in "Dead Man Talking"; using cold reading techniques to reveal all kinds of incriminating information about him.
Mission: Impossible: Cinnamon poses as a psychic to convince a tycoon that his life is in danger, leading to a high-stakes poker game against Rollin in "The Psychic".
Illuminati: New World Order parodies them. You can dial 1-900-SUC-KERS to talk to your psychic buddy.
One of the books for Orpheus suggests a plot hook where one of these - a medium with her own television show and absolutely zero talent, as opposed to the Player Character "operators" - makes the Orpheus agents, already on the run for the suspected murder of the rest of their organization, the targets of a crusade.
The Witchcraft core book has a fiction piece where a phony medium earns the ire of a lot of ghosts, and it's only due to the intervention of one of the Gifted that she's not torn to bits.
Madame Flora in The Medium by Gian-Carlo Menotti. When she confesses to her clients that she was faking the whole thing, instead of being angry they ask her to put on another "seance" even though they know it's phony, because the thought of being able to communicate with their dead loved ones is so comforting (often Truth in Television). Then she starts hearing voices...
Eronius: How did you know that I needed a soothsayer?
Pseudolus: I'd be a fine soothsayer if I didn't!
The Pkunk from Star Control 2 are an entire race of relatively harmless Phony Psychics. Complicating things are the fact that it's implied that they actually do have some authentic psychic powers, and it's not always clear which of their statements are the real thing and which are nonsense. It's also not totally clear how much they buy into their own act.
Implied by the "Phone Psychic" career in The Sims games. No Sims have real psychic powers (though they can get magic in the first two games) and any random Sim can take the "psychic" career, so they're probably faking.
Hagakure in Dangan Ronpa is a professional psychic who's supposed to be good at his job, but considering he proudly proclaims only a 20% success rate in his predictions and charges a fortune for them... Ironically, depending on which ending you get, at least one of the two predictions he gives the hero comes true.
In Makai Kingdom, Pram the Oracle has a lot of real powers, being an Overlord, but prophecy isn't one of them. She "predicted" the future by reading ahead in the Sacred Tome. The prophecy that kicked off the entire plot was also a lie that Pram wrote into the Tome as a cruel prank on Zetta.
PvP did a similar thing to the above example, with Brent and Cole attending a taping of Crossing Over With John Edward. Brent is picked as a target, and leads Edward on with a story about a deceased teacher and his sister; when Edward falls for it, Brent says, "Yes, all us Skywalkers are strong in the Force." When the edited show is broadcast, it just comes off as a success for Edward.
The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin, of all franchises, subverted this trope with a wizard character who claims to be psychic and can show visitors magical images of anything they want to see. The catch is that, while the wizard doesn't actually have any powers, the images he shows are real. What the wizard's customers are actually seeing are films taken by the wizard's assistant, who spends a lot of time flying around Grundo taping interesting sights and places, which are then projected onto a screen. The whole "magic powers" schtick is just a way to attract customers, and otherwise the wizard isn't actually conning anyone.
Parodied in the Home Movies episode "Temporary Blindness", in which Coach McGuirk is believed to be psychic after going blind, and attempts to give a demonstration to an audience:
"Did someone over here lose a loved one?... How about over here? I'm getting a strong feeling from... here? Here. Say between 'here' and 'here.' Anyone, between this hand and this hand, going all the way back. No? So you mean to tell me that in this room full of people, no one... you don't know anyone who's died? No one, nothing. Look, it is statistically impossible that no one here knows someone who died. *sigh* Alright, who wants me to channel some dead celebrities, how about that?"
In the Powerpuff Girls episode "I See A Funny Cartoon In Your Future," the girls try to catch a fake psychic who uses her tricks to distract victims while her assistant picks their pockets.
In "The Biggest Douche in the Universe," Stan trys to debunk phony psychics after Kyle is convinced by one that his dead grandmother is disappointed in him. This being South Park, all of the idiot adults he tries to reveal the tricks to just think he has become psychic and encourage him to pursue this newfound "power." This leads as far as getting him his own (unwanted) TV show where he continues to try to demonstrate why all the psychics on TV are phony. Then it turns out he might be Real After All at the end.
In another episode, Cartman gets a head injury and wakes up in the hospital, where a string of coincidences convinces Police Sergeant Yates that he picked up psychic abilities. Cartman ends up believing his own hype and incorrectly implicates several random people in a string of serial murders. Kyle ends up tracking down the real killer, but becomes Cassandra Truth until he ends up jumping off a roof so he can get a head injury and have a "psychic vision" of the real killer's location.
A medieval age version exists in The Smurfs episode "Gargamel's Miss-Fortune".
In Disney's Robin Hood, Robin and Little John disguise themselves as fortune tellers—with the intent of robbing Prince John of everything but his underwear and crown.
Lil Gideon is exposed as one in the season finale of Gravity Falls.
Though the title characters are not an example, The Real Ghostbusters have met their fair share of frauds and hucksters. The worst one is Dr. Venkman's own father, who sets up a few ghostbusting ventures in an effort to ride his son's coattails. Less visible, but no less repugnant, is Dr. Basingham, who brought real, malevolent spirits upon Ray's aunt Lois. (He's also a walking Take That: his safari jacket deliberately echoes Jake Kong, Jr. of the Filmation's Ghostbusters team!)
Many years later, the Extreme Ghostbusters tackled a horde of ghosts which their equipment couldn't defeat. They were a part of the ghostly Pied Piper, who "got rid" of them by reabsorbing them; he used this in an attempt at extortion.