Late one night Stella Premo received a cryptic DM on Instagram that appeared to be from Aja Daashuur, a medium and spiritual advisor based in Los Angeles.
“Grand rising 💫💫💫,” the direct message began. “I’m drawn to you my beloved 💕💕 for your reading and guidance. You are blessed.”
Premo, who teaches yoga in Sacramento, was surprised to hear from Daashuur directly — she’d only been following her for about a week — but she wrote back that she was planning to reach out to the medium soon. She had a big project coming up and could use some divine guidance. Then she put her phone away and went to bed.
But the more Premo thought about it, the weirder the DM seemed. The next morning she took a screenshot of the exchange and sent it to Daashuur’s original account.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but do you have two accounts?” Premo wrote. “I recently received a message from another account with all your same information. … If it is you, please let me know.”
It was one of hundreds of similar messages Daashuur and others like her have heard from confused followers in recent weeks.
“This is a scam,” Daashuur wrote back. “Please report and block.”
Psychics, tarot readers, astrologers and other metaphysical practitioners say that in the past few months they’ve experienced a deluge of scammers who clone their accounts and use their likeness to solicit payments from their followers for faux readings. While some white spiritualists are getting scammed, the problem seems to be worst among Black and brown practitioners, they said.
“It’s been happening to me at least once a week since September,” said Kirah Tabourn, an astrology educator in Los Angeles and co-founder of the Cusp Astrology App. “They’ll copy my profile, then follow a bunch of my followers and reach out to them and say, ‘My ancestors drew me to you, can I give you a reading?’”
If the person says yes, the scammer will send them a PayPal, Venmo or Cash App account. Once the person has paid the money, the scammer usually blocks them on Instagram.
Spiritualists say that being scammed in this way is especially hurtful because their work has long been stigmatized as one giant fraud.
“Historically people who work in wellness and spirituality have been ridiculed as hustlers and scammers, and literally burned at the stake,” Daashuur said. “We have great integrity with what we do, but we’re an easy mark.”
Marcella Kroll an artist, tarot deck creator and reader, agreed.
“I’ve worked super hard to legitimize my work,” she said. “I do everything to be on the up and up. I pay all my taxes, I have my certificates. This doesn’t help.”
Instagram has become a powerful tool for metaphysical practitioners to market themselves and generate new clientele, but most say they don’t use the social platform to directly solicit work.
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The most successful among them don’t have time: Daashuur accepts new appointments only four times a year, and they usually fill up in just 15 minutes. Tabourn has become so busy with consulting and teaching that she stopped giving individual readings. Kroll is booked one month in advance.
“True spiritualists are not going to solicit tarot readings, palm readings or any type of spell work in your direct messages,” wrote the host of @ScammerAlertPage, an Instagram page that launched in September to track imposter accounts. “If you receive a direct message from anyone asking you to book a reading with them, be on alert!”
The fake accounts can be tricky to spot at first, especially for vulnerable people who are desperate for spiritual counsel. The name on the account is usually just slightly altered — Daashuur’s handle @thespiritguidecoach becomes @thespiritguideccoach with an extra “c,” for example, or “thespriteguidecoach.” The practitioners’ avatar, bio and a few dozen of their posts are copied as well.
One thing the scammers can’t copy, however, is the language the practitioners use.
“It’s all very similar language and always has a lot of ‘hons’ or ‘loves,’” Tabour said. “I think a lot of them are British or live in places colonized by the British because they use the ‘ou’ spelling in ‘favourite’ and ‘colour.’”
Like Premo, most people who are contacted by the imposter accounts eventually realize that something is off before they hand over their money. But not all.
Sanyu Nagenda, who works under the name Sanyu Estelle as a soothsayer, tarot reader and word witch, said one of her clients sent $500 to someone impersonating her on Instagram. In return the client received a 15-minute video of a burning candle.
Nagenda was appalled.
“I don’t even have a $500 reading option on my site,” she said. “And if I did, it would certainly be more than 15 minutes.”
When another impersonator started reaching out to her followers more recently, Nagenda replaced her avatar photo with the words, “I do not solicit clients.”
“I’m particularly offended because I am a soothsayer — my business is the truth,” she said.
Kroll temporarily deactivated her account because she was so overwhelmed with people reaching out to her about imposters using her name and likeness.
“To open up my inbox and have 100-plus messages from people who are mad at me because they are afraid of getting scammed put me in a full-blown anxiety panic attack,” she said.
But shutting down her Instagram account has come with a financial cost.
Each week she does a collective tarot reading that she shares on her account for free, but she relies on the tips she receives for those readings to help her pay for necessities like groceries.
“To not have that additional support stresses my finances,” she said.
Some of the fake accounts have been removed, but metaphysical practitioners say they have not received enough support from the social media platform.
“These scammers are preying on people who are vulnerable and in need, and Instagram does nothing,” Daashuur said.
A spokesperson for Meta, the company (formerly known as Facebook) that owns Instagram, said that impersonation of any kind is not tolerated on the site and that the company has a team to detect and block these kinds of scams.
“I don’t think Instagram is out to get us, but it does feel like they don’t care because of the nature of our work.”
Kirah Tabourn, co-founder of the Cusp Astrology App
But the company did not deny the problem.
“We know there’s more to do here, which is why we keep working to prevent abuse and keep our community safe,” the spokesperson said.
Laura Eimiller, a spokesperson for the FBI in Southern California, said the agency hasn’t received complaints about this type of fraud, but she’s not surprised it’s happening.
“Scammers prey on people’s vulnerabilities,” she said. “If they know someone is sensitive to tarot or psychic readings, they’ll use that. If they know someone loves dogs, they’ll use that. If they know someone wants to leave a nest egg for their grandkids, they’ll use that too.”
Tabourn has tried several ways to fight back against her impersonators. She’s told her followers to report them to Instagram and to string them along long enough to get their Venmo, Cash App or PayPal account so she can report them on those apps.
“That never really does anything,” she said. “You can report them, but they never follow up with you.”
She’s even been in contact with a few of the scammers herself.
“One person was like, ‘You don’t understand. I have to do this. I need money,’” she said. “They are ruthless and they won’t stop.”
Tabourn’s followers have suggested she get her account verified on Instagram, which would mean her official account would have a little blue check next to it that cannot be replicated. She’s tried several times but has always been denied.
“I don’t think Instagram is out to get us, but it does feel like they don’t care because of the nature of our work,” she said.
The best strategy she’s found to shut down an imposter account is to go through a multi-step process of reporting the impersonation directly to Instagram. To make it easier for other spiritualists, she has created a guide that she shares with others. Ultimately it ends with the practitioner sending a photo of herself holding a photo ID to the company.
“It’s a lot, but honestly pretty quick and it’s worked for all the fake accounts I’ve had,” Tabourn said.
Some have other approaches.
When Mark Newton received a DM from someone pretending to be Kroll a few weeks ago, he was instantly suspicious. He’s known Kroll for more than a decade and knows she doesn’t solicit readings.
He texted Kroll, and together they decided he should play along.
“The spirit directed me to deliver a message to you from the realm of the universe and it’s very important,” the original DM read. “Kindly send me a message directly to book a reading and receive a message.”
“Wow! That’s so cool!” Newton replied. “Do you do in person readings? I would like my family done.”
The fake Kroll offered to do a reading via text, phone or FaceTime.
Newton said that “didn’t feel very spiritual” and asked if she had an office in LA where they could do an in-person meeting.
“I don’t allow people in my office for a reading that [sic] why I told you we could do it through FaceTime dear,” the imposter wrote back.
Newton bargained the fake Kroll down from $350 to $60, before asking for her account on Cash App. From there he was able to deduce that the account was registered to someone in Uganda.
Then he stopped pretending.
“The real Marcella is family to me,” he wrote. “You [messed] with the wrong people. You are cursed to live a horrible life. Good luck you lowlife scumbag, we see you no matter where you hide and will haunt you for all eternity.’
“What’s that?” the fake Kroll replied.
“That’s a curse from a true Witch,” Newton wrote. “Marcella Kroll.”