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Operation Bumblebee

Susan Gerbic

February 5, 2015

Most everyone in the skeptic community has a hot-button subject that really gets their heart racing. Mine is psychics. Not the kind of psychic that you meet at the Halloween party or the fortune-telling tent at the county fair. Giving commonsense advice and having a bit of fun is like going to a haunted corn maze: it's just fun and the average person should understand that it is all fake and purely for entertainment. What I have a problem with are those people who say they can communicate with your dead family members. The worst are the ones who claim to solve crimes, find missing bodies, and say they have worked with the police department­. I call these people "grief vampires."

I've seen videos of mediums being caught in what looks like a hot read, but they were random acts that just happened to be caught on video. There were no controls; the medium could claim they received the information directly from the "spirit world" and not the tattoo with a date, initials, and "RIP" on a forearm. What we needed was solid evidence. My other motive for engaging in this venture was that I had grown frustrated with people posting "someone should do something." I had the idea if I could prove a hot read, then we might just be able to expose that medium with incontrovertible proof. For the two of you that need a reminder, a cold read is a set of standard generalities applied to a total stranger; a hot read is information gained from outside sources before the reading. I wanted to leave the bait in plain sight without being suspicious. For this, I exclusively used Facebook as part of Operation Bumblebee, a sting I organized over the Internet in order to show that it’s possible to catch a psychic in a hot read.

Our first target was psychic Chip Coffey, who was to have a show near me in San Jose, California. We have had dealings with Coffey in the past and gathered quite a bit of information about how he operates.

I and other attendees from those shows have written about what happened in detail. Coffey claimed to be clearly communicating with our nonexistent family members. What we did not write about was the four months of work the team had been doing behind the scenes on Facebook to try to catch him in a hot read. Because we were still working on other projects, we could not release that information at the time.

I put out a call on Facebook among my skeptic friends that I was starting a project to expose a psychic; forty-five people joined and I started a private Facebook group for planning. I instructed people to start a Facebook page for a fictitious psychic believer. Not to go over the top, but to look like someone who had the money for potential future readings and shows, and could maybe even go on a themed psychic cruise. The pages friended each other and were closed to all viewing while we developed these characters.

screenshot of Facebook fans Facebook is the place to be—Coffey has almost 400K fans.

Several people were instrumental behind the scenes: Amanda Devaus and Ross Balch from Australia, Amy Kelly from New York, Ann in Florida, Mike Jarsulic in Chicago, and Jay Diamond, Linda Lawrence, Jim Preston, Scott Smith, Derek Serra, Greg Dorias, and John Friedman all from California. Mark Edward and my son, Stirling, were much needed advisers and sounding boards. We spent months talking to each other about our "pretend" lives, sharing photos of our cats, talking about books and movies, and checking into restaurants that we might not have actually gone to. We talked about the good ole days even though most of us had never met before. What we were trying to do was to create real looking Facebook pages: occasionally posting popular memes, celebrity photos, and of course paranormal topics that we fully supported. We uploaded photos of people who showed parts of faces and were slightly blurry so that the photos would be useful for almost anyone who would eventually be attending the October 2014 show. From May through August 2014, we didn't know who that would be and were just working to create realistic Facebook people.

At the beginning of this operation, I let it be known on my fake Facebook page that I had a son named Matthew who had died when he was three. I uploaded photos of my real son, Stirling, from birth to age three and everyone commented on the photos. I talked every few weeks about having dreams about Matthew trying to reach me.

Facebook post made by another person to fake page
Facebook post by fake page

These conversations continued until late August when I started finalizing the end game. We knew that Chip Coffey's website gives the attendee several opportunities to let his or her Facebook friends know he or she is planning on attending his show. We know that by clicking on these features Coffey's staff would receive a notification of who would be attending the show. This is where it started to get really tedious and complicated.

Eventbrite ticket buyer form
Connect with Facebook button after buying tickets

Next I posted that I was looking for people to attend the San Jose and Los Angeles events, and we needed funds to make this possible. One mistake skeptics make is to buy the cheapest ticket possible when they attend a psychic event, and psychics know this. One previous Coffey event that happened in Los Angles failed partly because one of the organizers faked up tickets which drew attention to us. I planned on buying the VIP tickets, which were $161. I raised $900 from skeptics on Facebook in about twelve hours with the promise of more if it were needed.

Disclaimer requiring that ID be shown at the door (amongst other things)

I received assurances from Sheldon Helms, whom I had worked with once before during a Sylvia Browne protest at TAM 2012, and Jan Wachtel, from my local skeptic group, Monterey County Skeptics. Jim Preston and his wife as well as my son, Stirling, all attended to take copious notes and act as witnesses if Chip should hot read any of us. Because they were not going to be part of the bait, they could sit in the back and get the cheap seats. For the Los Angeles show, Linda Lawrence, Emery Emery, Dan Geduld, and Heather Henderson promised to attend.

Save This Event button

According to Coffey's website, each attendee had to show ID at the door. In order to not be Googled and shown to be skeptic activists, we altered the names or used maiden or middle names to match our real IDs. We used gift Visa cards for our online purchases so even that could not be traced back to our real names.

attendance details including receipt and ID  requirement

Now we were really ready to start baiting the hot read. All Facebook pages opened up so that we could friend outsiders and start posting on Chip Coffey's Facebook page. We talked openly about attending the event, each time tagging the event page and mentioning what day we would be attending. We had a lot of Facebook friends that had nothing to do with the project. We joined cat video clubs as well as other non-paranormal groups to make us look like we were real people.

Facebook post about attending the event
Facebook post checking into event mentioning missed loved one

During this time we were more open about who we would like Coffey to contact. We posted photos and told stories about our loved ones. We posted on Chip's Facebook page telling him and anyone watching how excited we were to be meeting him. We made it as easy as possible for one of his staff members to learn all about us.

Facebook post about being excited for the event
Facebook post asking a person to come with to the event
Facebook post about attending the event

We then set up controls. Every one of our show attendees had their Facebook passwords changed, and once they arrived at the venue they were "checked in" at the location, tagged the Coffey event, and then one statement was made for Coffey's team to find. An innocent statement that could have been repeated as if it came directly from the spirit world, but in fact our team had no clue what that statement might be. All of our attendees were informed to agree to whatever Coffey told them if called on.

Facebook post about attending the event
Facebook post checking into the event
Facebook post checking into the event
Facebook post directly mentioning deceased person they would like to contact
Facebook post checking into the event
Facebook post checking into the event and directly mentioning deceased person they would like to contact

As you will read from the blogs that recounted what happened at the Los Angeles and San Jose events, Chip Coffey did not use these Facebook profiles at all to get a hot read. He did clearly communicate with our nonexistent family members, but he learned about those because we had been loudly chatting to everyone around us about who we were there for. When he stated from stage that he was "getting an older woman and a child," we sprang on that statement as coming from our people. Then we just rode it through agreeing to everything he said.

In our opinion, everything he said that entire night could have been a cold read. Everything was general, and the audience gave lots of feedback and information. At least a third of the room had paid $160 to get a seat near the front. People who have invested this much money and time reading his books, attending his live shows, and memorizing his TV performances are likely to overlook any mistakes he might make and not be interested in an alternative explanation for his accuracy.

The only thing that could be considered a hot read was the statement he made to me: When I said privately to his manager during a break that I was worried that my son Matthew would be too young to contact, I was assured that Chip had reached children who were stillborn. Then when Chip spoke to me thirty minutes later he said, "You said you are worried that I won't be able to reach your son." The only person I had said that to was his manager.

After all this work, months of preparing, and over $900 given to the Chip Coffey experiment, all we could be reasonably sure of is that he did not know we were skeptics and he did not know we were lying, and he claimed to have seen the two nonexistent people we pretended to have: a sister for Jan and my son Matthew. He "spoke" to Wade's dead mother who was really alive and is nothing like the personality that he described. He even smiled through the photo session we had paid extra for. In my opinion, there was nothing more we could have done to make it as easy as possible for the Coffey team to find our bait and repeat it back as messages from the other side.

I know the argument could be made that even psychics have a bad day and "it doesn't work like that," but if he was able to clearly see all that he had seen that night, hundreds of statements down to one woman from the spirit world showing him a bottle of Vicks Vapor Rub, then you would think that one of these spirits would have told him to avoid us. Yet he didn't.

I've heard from many skeptics that they expected us to stand up and disrupt the show saying that we had made up the people with whom Coffey said he was clearly communicating. That might have been satisfying at the moment, but we weren't there to educate this audience. They probably would not have listened anyway, and we would have been escorted out, unable to gain more information. Our goal is to educate a much larger audience.

We had the team. We had these very detailed profiles. We wanted to try again; this time with a phone psychic.

To be continued...

Susan Gerbic

Susan Gerbic's photo

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. You can contact her at SusanGerbic@yahoo.com.