A letter arrives in the mail from a woman claiming to have psychic abilities. She warns you of danger but promises good fortune — if you send her money. This is the setup for one of the longest-running scams in U.S. history. These predatory letters were sent to millions of Americans and raked in over $200 million. At the center of it all is the elusive French psychic Maria Duval. Who is Maria Duval, and is she really the mastermind of this fraud scheme? Or has she unknowingly lent a face and a name to one of the biggest cons in history?
TIPS: If you think you’ve been a victim of a scam or would like to report fraud call The Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Anyone can become the victim of a scam, it’s important to be vigilant and know your vulnerabilities. For instance, if you are looking for a job you are more vulnerable to a work-at-home scam.
00:00:00] (music segue)
[00:00:01] Will: Coming up on this episode of AARP - The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:04] We're not talking about a psychic on the street corner with the little palm reading and tarot card sign out front.
[00:00:09] It's pathetic. That these people should pick on people that don't know any better.
[00:00:16] No one had ever really figure out whether she really was a real person and whether she really was the one sending out these letters.
[00:00:25] Will: Welcome back to AARP - The Perfect Scam. I'm your host Will Johnson. I'm here with the AARP Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale. Frank, good to see you again.
[00:00:33] Frank: Yeah, good to be back.
[00:00:34] Will: Well we're back in the studio talking about scams and fraud and this week, uh, we have a two-part episode, this week and next, it is an amazing story. We'll get into it shortly. One of the biggest cons in history and it's based on a new book that's uh just coming out. So we'll tell you all about that, but truly a phenomenal story. In the meantime, before we get into that, I have a question. I brought it up in one of our recent episodes, but since doing the show with you, this, this idea of being suspicious, of being on guard, um, not trusting a phone call or an email. It's a difficult place to be in modern society and it, it's sort of, you want to be suspicious but you also want to be sane and be able to be civil.
[00:01:21] Frank: Yeah, I think so, but I think in today's environment, you have to be, you have to just make sure that uh what you're hearing and what you're reading is, in fact, legitimate because unfortunately there are so many people out there that are trying to separate you from your money, so I think a wiser person is a little skeptical and you know a skeptic being skeptical is really somewhat of a virtue and uh I think that there's nothing wrong with taking a moment or two to verify that what is being sold to you or what is being told to you, what's being written to you, what's coming over the internet to you is, in fact, legitimate. And we do have tremendous resources today we didn't have 20 years ago where you can check a lot of things out and go find out, is this a legitimate company? Is this something that's real? So I think there's nothing with taking a few minutes and always acting on the, I need to know that this is correct before I again separate with my money. That's the thing here. I'm going to separate either with my money or I'm going to [00:02:21] give out information, so there's nothing wrong with stopping for a minute to say, before I take that step, I want to make sure and verify that, that it's real.
[00:02:31] Will: Maybe just doing this show I got too wrapped up in it.
[00:02:35] Will: Something like that. Alright, Frank, today's show and, and going into next week as well because this is a, a big story and, and we're going to use two episodes to get into it, is about a very well-known, decades long psychic scam. You don't strike me as the type of person who would go to a psychic. Maybe I'm wrong.
[00:02:50] Frank Abagnale: No, I'm not.
[00:02:52] Will: It's not your kind of thing. Palm reader?
[00:02:54] Frank Abagnale: No.
[00:02:55] Will: No, okay.
[00:02:55] Frank Abagnale: No horoscopes, none of that.
[00:02:56] Will: Alright. Well let's get into today's episode; the story of Maria Duvall.
[00:03:03] Will: I'd like to welcome CNN investigative reporters and authors of the book, "A Deal With the Devil" Melanie Hicken and Blake Ellis.
[00:03:10] Melanie Hicken: Thank you for having us.
[00:03:12] Will: Melanie, let me start by asking you, how did the Maria Duval letters work? How does a mail order psychic scam generally work?
[00:03:18] Melanie Hicken: So they have have a list of people who they believe, for some reason, are likely to respond to a letter like this. and it's usually because elderly, they have dementia, um, they are more likely to fall for this scam. And so, they will get a letter, but then once they get that letter, if they do respond and send in money, then they get more letters, and then they send in more money, and then they get even more letters and then they probably start getting more letters from other psychics and other scams and so it just becomes this huge domino effect. In many cases, we've spoken to people whose loved ones have had so much mail coming to them that the mailman has to bring up a box of mail to their doorstep. There's so much junk mail coming to these people that it may not even fit in their mailbox, and, and I know it's hard for some people, for those of us who don't have dementia, it's hard to understand why someone wouldn't just throw that letter away. [00:04:18] I mean the letter would say, "I'm Maria Duval, and I see how lonely you are, or I see how many problems you have, and I'm going to help you fix them. All you have to do is send me money," but because of the data they're able to get from data brokers, the letters can seem believable, especially to someone who is cognitively impaired. So, it could have their birthday, it could have their hometown city. Oftentimes the letters would ask them to send in more personal information as well, so they send that personal information in, and then it would be used in future letters against them. So it really is a, a pretty sophisticated process, so to us at first, it seemed like just a simple letter, but there's a lot of layers to it that really makes it successful.
[00:05:06] Will: And it, stop me if I'm wrong here, and then the psychic information is, or the, the payoff is that then you get more uh, psychic insight into your life or numbers to play at the lottery, or any number of things, right, that could impact your wealth, health, and happiness.
[00:05:21] Blake Ellis: Exactly, and it just makes, it makes the people receiving these letters um, more likely to believe, because they see, oh, this letter, Maria Duval knows that I am widowed. Maria Duval knows that I live in Kansas. She knows where I was born. She even knows the time I was born. I mean the information that these scammers can get is amazing. And so, yeah, you might think that these people are just gullible, but it's, they can seem very, they can be very believable with all of these personal details in them.
[00:05:54] Melanie Hicken: The letters were designed to be handwritten, or to look handwritten, so they often had fake coffee cup stains, as if Maria had been sitting there with a cup of coffee or they have these scrawled out notes, uh about the psychic reading, so again, if you aren't able to really determine facts from fiction, there is a lot of stuff there that would add to the believability.
[00:06:17] Will: So, and, and another aspect of the letters is there's a photo of Maria Duval.
[00:06:21] Blake Ellis: Yes, there's a very inviting photo of Maria Duval in her younger years, um, that it, it seems like really does help draw people in, cause she kind of has the small smile on her face, um, and it gives people reading these letters someone to envision...
[00:06:41] (music segue)
[00:06:43] Will: In the fall of 2015, Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken are interviewing victims, digging through bank and court records, emails, online videos. Any evidence they can find on the mastermind behind the scam.
[00:06:55] Blake Ellis: And at first, we had no idea if she was a real person. We saw in government filings that she could be a fictitious creation, but as we started Googling, we found all these YouTube videos of a blonde woman who looks like she could be the same woman in the letters talking about her psychic abilities, but then we kind of wondered if she was potentially, this could be an actress.
[00:07:20] Will: You also came across a copywriter in Canada, and that's actually a really interesting aspect to this scam, is that the, the copywriting and the way the letters are written, play a really important role in the scammer's ability to ensnare people.
[00:07:35] Blake Ellis: This was one of the most fascinating interviews we had. It was so interesting to hear from someone who had actually written some of these Maria Duval letters. And interestingly enough, he had once been a journalist himself, and said that this is just a different kind of storytelling. But we asked him if he ever felt bad about doing any of this, and he answered, "Yes, to an extent, but at the same time, I'm sorry, but I think I'm doing good in giving someone to talk to. If they didn't talk to me, they would talk to someone else, and hopefully someone legitimate, but I can't control that."
[00:08:07] Melanie Hicken: Yeah, what's interesting with him, too, is just he kind of drew a line in the sand where he said, well yes, they wrote Maria Duval letters, but I would never write the illegal ones.
[00:08:18] (music segue)
[00:08:18] Will: As Melanie Hicken and Blake Ellis delve into the Maria Duvall scam, they start searching for victims to interview. They come across the story of Doreen and sit down with her daughter, Chrissie, in Arizona.
[00:08:29] Melanie Hicken: Chrissie ended up being a very important window into her mother, because unfortunately, her mother had passed away just before um, a little bit before we had started looking into this. So we weren't able to talk to Doreen and hear what this had been like for her, but Chrissie was still so angry about how this had taken advantage of her mother in her most vulnerable years, and uh, she told us that she had spent thousands of dollars on these letters.
[00:08:52] Will: When we talk with Chrissie, she's back in Canada, living outside Edmonton, Alberta for the warmer months. The 57-year-old mother of three and grandmother of four, tells us about her mother, Doreen. How she came across the Maria Duval letters and what eventually happened to her mother as she dealt with a rapid mental decline.
[00:09:08] Chrissie: I, I was helping her clean the house, and it was at this point that we knew that her mind was slipping pretty bad. But we didn't know how bad. Um, and then we came across letters from this Maria Duval promising health, wealth, happiness, um, winning lottery numbers, um, and, and this kind of stuff, and these were personalized letters. Dear Doreen.
[00:09:40] Will: Chrissie goes back through Doreen's bank statements and finds month after month, a $49 payments going back two years, totally $2500.
[00:09:48] Chrissie: And I called the police, and they had just cautioned, buyer beware. I asked Mom who this Maria Duval is. She either couldn't or wouldn't tell me. You know she would batt her blue eyes and "Oh, I don't know" or "I don't remember, " you know.
[00:10:11] Will: Chrissie takes her mom's checkbook and stops payments, but she then gets a frantic phone call from a friend who's visiting her mom.
[00:10:17] Chrissie: So when her friend got there, what was happening was my Mom was putting physical money, like bills and, and coins into envelopes to send.
[00:10:32] (music segue)
[00:10:36] Will: Frustrated and angry, Chrissie starts doing her own research about Maria Duval. She finds stories of victims who had experienced financial collapse because of the scam.
[00:10:45] Chrissie: I came across some desperate people and always the same story. Give me a refund. Or, I've spent this money and nothing has happened. Or, you've, you've cleaned my parent out of you know, their whole life savings.
[00:11:06] Will: As CNN reporters keep reporting and digging fairly early on they reach out to Clayton Gerber with the United States Postal Inspection Service.
[00:11:14] Blake Ellis: He was really the person that helped us understand the magnitude of the scam.
[00:11:19] Will: He's been with the Postal Service for 14 years and is currently involved in the investigation of mail fraud. When he joins us in the studio, he's wearing a gun and a badge and has a confident air of authority about him.
[00:11:29] Clayton Gerber: People trust what they receive in the mail. There's some, there's some belief that it has this blessing of, of sincerity or, or some authenticity or something genuine about it. And I've interviewed tons of victims and they will, it'll be after a collapsed Ponzi scheme and they'll get their, they'll have their last statement, and they'll be clutching the statement saying, the money can't be gone. Says right here, my money's right here. And I says, "You believe that your money is there because it's printed on that piece of paper and it came in the mail." Now, if I mail you a letter, on my letterhead that says, that that scheme has collapsed and there's no money left, will you believe it? "No, I won't believe that."
[00:12:09] Will: When did you first hear about the Maria Duvel letters, and how did they come to your attention or the Postal Service's attention?
[00:12:15] Clayton Gerber: It came to the Postal Service's attention years ago. We actually have a, a regulations in file administrative action. So these are enforcement actions that are truly done by the Postal Service to stop mail delivery, or stop the, the receipt of mail so we can stop you from receiving mail if you're running a fraudulent sch--, scheme, or we can stop you from putting mail into the mail stream. So, um, years ago, 2006 or something, an inspector had initiated an administrative action against the Maria Duval scheme to shut it down, as a fraudulent scheme, and the then operators at the time agreed and filed a Cease and Desist Order and they consent, Cease and Desist Order, and said they would shut down and go out of business.
[00:13:05] Will: And if we've, as we've come to learn this scam has maybe been around for decades in one form or another.
[00:13:11] Clayton Gerber: Sure. It had been around for many years before then, and the moment they signed that Cease and Desist Order, they ramped up production and kept going. They just changed their PO Boxes and, and keep going.
[00:13:22] Will: So, in your line of work, that must be frustrating but expected.
[00:13:25] Clayton Gerber: Very expected. Um, it's, it's good sport.
[00:13:29] Will: The case seemed to drop off the radar after that initial investigation in 2006. It was years later, around 2013 when one of Clayton Gerber's Postal Inspectors comes across some curious bank records.
[00:13:40] Clayton Gerber: So then the instant investigation started when a postal inspector on my team was looking through a production from a bank and looking at high rates of recurrence, and a bank that had been processing payments for this Maria Duval scheme had high rates of returns for this scheme. He's like, Maria Duval, who is this?
[00:13:58] Will: High rates of return for the bank?
[00:14:00] Clayton Gerber: For that vendor, so if, if um, you're processing a payment, some people are going to say, hey I want my money back. I, I'm not happy with the product, you know, so your money back guarantee kind of thing. For a, a bonafide vendor, their rate of return is very, very low. Fraudsters have a very high rate of return. There's a couple of reasons; one, people didn't get what they thought they were going to get; two, most fraudsters will pay returns instantaneously if you complain. They actually claim that's what make them a legitimate business. We always pay returns. We provide the best customer service. They pay returns so that they don't get complaints from law enforcement. So about 2013 or '14, when we were noticing these high rates of returns, um, in this, for this solicitation with the name, Maria Duval, and the guy on my team used the most powerful investigative tool we have available to us, the Google, and uh we plugged Maria Duval into Google and it was replete with [00:15:00] Psychic Scam, Scambook, you name it, and we're like, how is this bank processing for this Maria Duval scheme when all of the available information is everyone complaining about how it's a scam.
[00:15:14] Will: So it comes to your attention and others on your team, uh as you got into it in the scheme of other investigations, how big did the Maria Duval case seem?
[00:15:22] Clayton Gerber: Fairly early on in the investigation, we uh we went and did a trash pull, um, to pull the trash from the company that would slice open all the envelopes, so a customer would send their payment in, the payment envelope would go to what's called a caging service. A caging service is a service provider that slices open envelopes, takes your payment out, takes your order information out, does the order entry and the like. So we did a trash pull at the caging service, and um, we counted up all the envelopes, the empty envelopes and we had 7,000 envelopes from one week's trash, and we were like, this is unbelievable. We have 7,000 victims a week on this scheme and we collectively, none of us could think of a scheme that had ever had that kind of return. That is a phenomenal mailer order business.
[00:16:10] Will: Did you have a sense or ever wonder to yourself or with your team, uh is there a Maria Duval? Or did you have a pretty good idea that this was run by somebody not named Maria Duval?
[00:16:20] Clayton Gerber: I assumed, there was a photograph in the solicitations, and I assumed that that was a photograph of a real person. I mean it could have been digitally created, but I, it was more likely it was a real person. Um, was it a person who actually has previously claimed to have psychic abilities and things, I didn't know, and I, and I didn't care. We're not attacking any belief someone has about psychic ability.
[00:16:40] Will: So then, did you talk to victims of the scam right away, or along the way?
[00:16:44] Clayton Gerber: Um, we talked to uh many. I, I didn't have to do that. Talking to victims is an, is an emotional task. Um, many guys on my team, some of my uh support folks talk to many victims.
[00:16:58] (music segue)
[00:16:59] Clayton Gerber: I remember a story, one of my inspectors came back after he had been around, traveling around Pennsylvania talking to victims, and he took pictures inside the, individual and pictures inside the house. He had all of the pictures from all of the mailings taped up on the wall, running down the hallway from all of the mailings he had received from Maria Duval. All of the little trinkets, mass produced junk was on a bookshelf, all in one spot. Um, he couldn't afford his medicine, couldn't afford his utilities, and he was sitting there with a piece of rope tied around his waist in a knot as a belt cause he couldn't afford a belt. But he was writing $40 checks like crazy to Maria Duval, and that really affected my investigator. He, I, he has reminded me of this victim over and over and over again over the years, and that's one of 7,000 victims.
[00:17:50] (music segue)
[00:17:53] Will: Meanwhile, Melanie and Blake are still on the hunt. They follow the trail of Post Office Boxes where the scammers are apparently picking up the letters and payments. One of these return addresses and PO Boxes is in Sparks, Nevada.
[00:18:06] And the address ended up taking us to this, this commercial shopping center kind of in the middle of nowhere, um, and we just were talking to everyone we could find at any of the stores, asking them if they had heard of Maria Duval, if they knew anything about these PO Boxes, um, and no one knew anything, and we ended up finding the, the mailboxes, um but they had been shut down um by the government.
[00:18:33] (music segue)
[00:18:33] Will: That's thanks to Clayton Gerber and his team of postal inspectors.
[00:18:37] Clayton Gerber: So, in the Maria Duval case, we filed a civil, a civil complaint seeking an injunction against the caging service that was slicing open the envelopes, uh, against a Montreal-based, Montreal, Canada based company that had employed them, that was hiring them. They were controlling the North American scheme. Then we went to the Post Office, and we shut all these PO Boxes down and any mail that comes to them, send it to us. So we started collecting those victim envelopes. Um, we went to the Post Office where they were dropping the 100,000 or 200,000 solicitations in the mail, and we said, you cannot accept mail from this mailer anymore. These envelopes cannot go in the mail stream. If they show up with a truck, give us a call. We went to the caging service and we actually executed a search warrant at the caging service on the day of the injunction; seized all of evidence there, and they were served. We were given notice, you need to shut down, we've already closed your PO Boxes, it's not like you're going to receive any mail today, so you could come in tomorrow, but you wouldn't have anything to do.
[00:19:37] Will: And you were present at the serving of that warrant?
[00:19:39] Clayton Gerber: Yes.
[00:19:40] Will: What was that like? You walk into an office, and there's people sitting there doing their job and you say, hey this is, this is coming to an end?
[00:19:47] Clayton Gerber: Yeah, but we're law enforcement officers, so we wear body armor and we have our guns out and...
[00:19:52] Will: Really?
[00:19:52] Clayton Gerber: Yeah. Yeah, cause this is America and a lot of people have guns, even fraudsters, and uh, so we, we go with um, enough uh presence that things are going to stay calm.
[00:20:05] Will: Where was that company?
[00:20:06] Clayton Gerber: That company was on Long Island.
[00:20:08] Will: And were those the two companies then that were shut down by the inspection service?
[00:20:12] Clayton Gerber: Yes.
[00:20:13] Will: How did work? How has it worked?
[00:20:14] Clayton Gerber: We collected about 45,000 victim response payments in the immediate aftermath of the injunction, so we immediately stopped 45,000 victim payments and we've, we've returned cash and money orders to those victims. We have not seen a Maria Duval mailing uh in the US. There are other psychic mailings and we're, we're aware of some.
[00:20:35] (music segue)
[00:20:37] Will: Clayton, how many victims would you estimate in this Maria Duval scam, at least here in the United States or how much money would you estimate? Do you have any idea?
[00:20:48] Clayton Gerber: So we were able to collect pretty precise records for victimization going back 10 years. And in um, the US alone, there were a little over 1.4 million victims over a 10 years period, and it was over 200 million dollars US. We were able to, to seize 40,000 or so victim payments, so once we shut the scheme down, these were payment envelopes from victims that were still in the mail stream that were still destined to the PO Boxes, we seized all of those after the court issued us an order that we could open them, and we could return the payments to the victims. We did that.
[00:21:24] Will: The government action seems to stop the scam's bloodletting in the US, but remember, this is worldwide scam with millions of letters beings sent to countless countries, and for Melanie and Blake, one main question keeps haunting them. Where is Maria Duval?
[00:21:40] Will: I'm back with the AARP Fraud Watch Network Ambassador Frank Abagnale. Frank, psychic scams. I mean sure, why not? It seems like a, a natural fit for a scam.
[00:21:49] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, some are done by amateurs and some, like in this case, obviously done by somebody with a lot of resources behind them and a lot of thought that went into it. Uh, they're done on a worldwide scale. Um, they probably, I would think, get a lot of their information from people who just go on and Google, looking for a psychic. They want to uh find out about a psychic and have a legitimate looking so-called website and a reputation, and again they're, they are dealing with not one or two people, but literally hundreds of thousands of people, and again, we're not saying give me $100,000, we're saying give me $40, $50, so it's a small amount of money and if people feel that they could advise me or help me with a problem I have, uh I'm, it's worth $40 to me. But in the, in the ultimate end it's just, all are scammed.
[00:22:40] Will: To come back to the idea of the psychic scam and why it might work so well, and especially this one, and the authors that we talked to make it very clear that it's sort of a triple threat with hope, they, they might give someone hope, they might win the lottery and they can help them out that way, fear that you know, they need to get in touch with a psychic, something terrible could happen unless they do that, and also much making a, a real connection with people over time where the, the letters uh are coming to someone, they're addressed to your name and they say your birth date and they might say your horoscope or your sign or something.
[00:23:10] Frank Abagnale: I'll never forget that a couple years ago I was in Belgium, sitting in a hotel room, and I watched this TV ad that was on from a bank and it was about a minute long. And it was a psychic and you would walk in and the psychic basically it was being record--, or filmed for this television ad would say to you, if you'll just tell me your name and where you're from, I'll tell you a lot about you. And I, and they had two or three different people in this one-minute ad that came in.
[00:23:35] Will: You called right away, right?
[00:23:36] Frank Abagnale: Well no, but what really fas--, was fascinating about the ad, for example, one woman who sat down, she's in Belgium on a tour, she's from New York, she gives her name and where she's from, and he immediately says, oh, when you're married to your husband, Robert, and um, you have three children and their name is so and so, and the woman, you can see the panic start to form on her face, cause she's wondering how he knows all this. And he goes, and you work for IBM, and um, your, your parents live in so and so, so she started to get very scared and then he, he kind of stopped, and he said, you know how I know all this about you? It's not that I'm a psychic, and he points to a curtain, and they pull the curtain back, and there's all these people back there on computers getting information. And it was all about identity theft and it was a great ad from the bank. It's on YouTube, but it's basically shows you how quick, in seconds they can get this information.
[00:24:28] Will: Alright, Frank Abagnale, thanks for your insight. We will be back next week with the remainder of our story about the Maria Duval scam, and the CNN journalists, Melanie and Blake who are, are hot on the trail, potentially of Maria Duval. They're interested to know whether she's an actual real person. Clayton Gerber and the Postal Inspection Service have shut down the scam, uh as far as they know. Uh, but, but there's more to the story. Alright, thanks again to my cohost, the AARP Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale for being here.
[00:24:58] Frank Abagnale: Great to be with you, thanks.
[00:24:59] Will: And I am Will Johnson. We will be back next week. And a reminder to our listeners, if you or someone you love is the victim of a scam, or you just have a question about any type of scam out there that you need some assistance with, you can call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
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