CNN journalists Melanie Hickens and Blake Ellis have spent years investigating psychic Maria Duval. Letters in her name were sent to millions around the globe promising psychic protection in exchange for money. In 2016, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service permanently shut down the fraud scheme in the United States, but investigators have yet to find Maria, leaving Melanie and Blake to wonder whether she even exists.
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.
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[00:00:01] Will: Welcome back to Part 2 of our story about the Maria Duval psychic scam, one of the biggest cons in history.
[00:00:08] Clayton Gerber: Look, these mass marketing frauds are insidious. They sort of, they're a death by a thousand cuts. They, they suck this money away from victims who are least able to pay it.
[00:00:19] Will: Welcome back to AARP - The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Will Johnson, and I'm here with my cohost and the AARP Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale, as always, here to give us insights and feedback and uh, all you can offer on scams of, of the day.
[00:00:35] Frank Abagnale: Good to be here, Will, thanks.
[00:00:36] Will: Alright, so we are back talking about Maria Duval this week, uh last week, if you haven't listened to Part 1, please do so before listening to this part, because you'll want to know what's going on with one of the biggest cons in history that's been going on for decades. Are there cons or scams you can think of that have been out there for, for as long as this one?
[00:00:55] Frank Abagnale: Well, yeah. First of all, remember that most all scams are old. They've been around for many, many years. Uh, there's dif--, there's different ways they're perpetrated now because of communications and things that have changed in delivering the message, but most of these scams are pretty much the same old scams, and there are some long-running scams. Like, in this case of this scam, until someone really starts complaining, until somebody really starts looking into it, it could go on and on forever because you're dealing with individuals and if nobody really uh, like the reports took it upon themselves to investigate it, it could go on forever.
[00:01:29] Will: And as some of the folks found out or many folks found out along the way. If a family member or someone eventually wised up to it, and they went to the police or whomever, uh, they might get the response, well you did so willingly. You sent this money in of your accord.
[00:01:46] Frank Abagnale: Right, nobody stole it from you basically. They may do an offer and you took it and sent them the money.
[00:01:51] Will: Alright, well let's get back into the story of Maria Duval and CNN investigative reporters, Melanie Hicken and Blake Ellis, who are hot on the trail of Maria Duval. They believe that this woman is a real person. She's the name behind this decade long scam that claims to offer psychic insight and help to anyone willing to send in a check, and then keep on sending checks.
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[00:02:16] Will: US Postal Service Inspector, Clayton Gerber, collected over 45,000 victim account letters as part of the investigation. He estimates the scam has cost almost 1.4 million victims over 2 million dollars, and that's just over one 4-year period. And that's just in the US.
[00:02:32] Clayton Gerber: These are victims who need to pay their utilities. These are victims who need to pay for their medicine. These are victims that need to get their car fixed. And $40 is, is not an insignificant amount of money if you're living paycheck to paycheck, and if you're asked then to pay again and again and again, these are people who are least able to pay it.
[00:02:52] Will: The scam's mostly been shut down now in the US, thanks to the US Postal Inspection Service, but while the various companies sending out the letters in the US and Canada, they no longer exist, Melanie and Blake and still left wondering, who are the actual masterminds behind the scam? Does the blonde woman pictured in the letters actually have anything to do with the scam? Is she still alive?
[00:03:14] Will: You finally determine that Maria Duval could be a real person living in a small city in France. I won't get to all of the details on how you figured this out, but you convinced your bosses to fly you there. What were you hoping to learn in France? What happened when you got there?
[00:03:30] Melanie Hicken: Well we had spent so long investigating these letters and the people behind them and had identified some of the key players, which you can read about more in the book, but at the end of the day it was Maria Duval's face and name that was on all of these letters. So we knew we needed to try to talk to her to determine if she knew the letters had been going out and um, to figure out how she had gotten involved in all, in all of this, because at this point that we were going to France, just in the very few days before leaving, we found typical business records online in French, that showed something we had suspected which was that Maria Duval really had made money from one of the companies that was key to the scam, and so that was our first proof we had that she had profited off of these letters, specifically, and the filing we saw showed she had made at least $200,000 um, from the liquidation of one of these companies. So, with that [00:04:30] business filing in hand, we basically, you know, got on a plane and were hoping to confront her.
[00:04:37] Will: And you eventually in, in France you, you're able to track down a location, a house where she apparently is, right?
[00:04:46] Blake Ellis: Yes, we had seen this one address on trademark filings from the very beginning, and we confirmed that when we called, we called the little town of (inaudible), um, and they said that she did indeed live in the town, so we knew that she lived there and we had an address in our hands.
[00:05:05] Will: And when you got to the house what, what happened? You were hoping to, I mean you must, your hearts must have been beating fast.
[00:05:10] Melanie Hicken: Yeah, it was crazy. I think we both just couldn't believe that we were there, that we had convinced our editors to send us all the way to the South of France. So we're standing there. We, we ring the doorbell a few times, and we're pretty much convinced nothing's going to happen but then the gate slowly starts to open, and I think both of our hearts just leaped thinking that we were going to get to meet Maria, and as soon as the gate started to open, it immediately started to shut, and uh our colleague, Julia, who came with us and spoke French, unlike us, immediately starts to try to talk to this woman behind the gate. She only got a glimpse of her. She was a blonde woman, and, and the woman said that Maria wasn't there. That she was in Rome, and that all we could do was leave a note for her. So that note was the closest we got to speaking uh, with Maria herself.
[00:06:09] Will: But then, shortly before leaving France, you also finally meet up with her son, Antoine, in person, is that right?
[00:06:15] Blake Ellis: We did. So we spent a long time trying to track him down. He had been very elusive from the very beginning. We had been reaching out to him by email, and trying to call him. He finally agreed to meet with us in this little cafe nearby, and we sat with him for about an hour, and he told us, he answered a lot of our questions. It seems like he was still holding a lot back, um, but he claims that his mother had sold the rights to her name decades ago, um and that she had never intended for her name to be used in a scam like the letters that we were telling him about.
[00:06:51] Will: So there's almost this sense that you start to get like, her, her name is being used, but she's not to blame. It's other people that are behind this whole scheme.
[00:07:00] Blake Ellis: So that's what he would like us to believe, but we also knew that she had made money from the letters, um so we tried to push him on that. He claims to not understand the financial dealings, but he was also adamant that she had made far, far less money from the letters than any of the business people who were actually orchestrating this scam, but we still, leaving that, leaving that meeting, I mean we, we understood how something like this could happen, how selling your name could lead to something like this, but we did have a hard time believing that she was truly innocent.
[00:07:34] Melanie Hicken: Yeah, and I would just say, I mean it, it is such a fascinating story, this idea of how a name can become currency in this shady world of scams, and so we spent a lot of the book diving into this idea of could this scam have gotten out of her control and, and did she make money from it, and, and if she really didn't want to be involved, then why did she make all these defensive media appearances and, and really just trying to understand what her motivations were, like was it money she was after when she signs that contract? Was it um, you know greed for fame, for attention, or, or maybe, you know maybe was it romance? Like was there someone she was romantically involved with that convinced her to sign this contract? So, we, we have lots of theories.
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[00:08:29] Will: I want to jump ahead a little bit because after that time in France, you came back. You eventually published a lot of what you had, you took a, a video camera to France and you had filmed a lot of this and it came out as a web series online, right?
[00:08:43] Melanie Hicken: Yes.
[00:08:43] Will: And so, a lot of your work in reporting became public at that point. After it became public, one of the more chilling chapters in the book is when you got some messages about uh who was really behind all this. Um, and that there might actually be some connections to some more, I would say uh nefarious individuals or people who have been around for centuries in secret clubs and things like that. Can you talk about what was going on?
[00:09:10] Blake Ellis: Yeah, so, we finally thought that the story was over, um, and that's when we began getting some of the weirdest emails we've ever received, um, for any investigation we've worked on.
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[00:09:26] Blake Ellis: One came from an email address um, called secret friend, and that person warned us about very dangerous people that we should be careful of. Others had theories that included a, a widespread secret cult, um, that focused on black magic and doing evil. Then there was another person who tried to lure us to Thailand um, until we found out his true identity. Um, so it was, I mean this is nothing that we would have ever expected getting into when we first embarked on this investigation. And we've really never had an investigation go this dark.
[00:10:06] Will: And you both start to maybe even have some sense of not fear, but maybe some anxiety about your own safety?
[00:10:13] Melanie Hicken: Yeah, so it's funny. I think we were in this so deep that we started feeling like central characters in this story ourselves, which as a journalist you never want to be, you want to be an impartial outside observer, and so when we started getting these emails with people trying to get us to go meet them and it was, either we got weird emails from Romanian journalists claiming to be doing their own investigation, but then they disappeared, and so we just started creating these conspiracy theories in our heads that all these emails were connected and that someone was trying to lure us somewhere to do something and, and so I think we have since come back to reality, but at the time yeah, I mean there were some very anxious moments where we were just confused and a little bit alarmed.
[00:11:05] Will: You were, you were like instruments of Iluminada there for a minute it seemed like or something, which you mentioned in the book, like maybe that's a part of all this, whether it was jokingly or otherwise.
[00:11:17] Melanie Hicken: Yeah, I mean the hardest thing about this is that there were so many theories that people were sending us but not many people had evidence to back it up, so as journalists, we're looking for the hard evidence, but then you also can't get these stories out of your head once you've heard them. So it was, we were definitely trying to separate facts from fiction, and um, yeah, for a while there, the theories got pretty crazy.
[00:11:42] Will: So Blake and Melanie, you come back to reality, you, you more or less finish the story. You never meet Maria, at least in the advance copy of the story that I've looked at, but my understanding is that there's an update
[00:11:55] Blake Ellis: Yeah, so the story never stops, and we um, had continued to reach out to Maria Duval's son, Antoine, um, and we ended up going back to France for one more final attempt at meeting Maria Duval, and so now there's a brand new ending to our story. And we don't want to give that away, um, but what we, what we found and what we did in France really brings the whole story full circle.
[00:12:25] Will: Okay, so we'll, we'll leave it up to our listeners if they've followed along on this, this journey with us to, to find that final chapter in your book, A Deal with the Devil. So, do either one of you believe in psychics at this point?
[00:12:38] Melanie Hicken: So, a lot of people ask us that question.
[00:12:40] Will: Sorry.
[00:12:40] Melanie Hicken: No, it's a good one. I mean we still don't.
[00:12:43] Will: You were, you're skeptics from the beginning and you still are.
[00:12:46] Melanie Hicken: Yeah.
[00:12:47] Will: That's your job.
[00:12:48] Melanie Hicken: Yeah, I think as a journalist, um, if we told our bosses we have now decided that Maria is a real psychic, they think they'd be, they'd wonder who had kidnapped us, but she definitely, there was something special about Maria Duval.
[00:13:02] Will: So in all of your reporting, your investigation, your digging into these dark and seedy corners of scams and frauds and, and mail order psychics, what can you tell us about what people can look out for? How do, how do we make sure that our, our loved ones, our parents, our grandparents, and even ourselves can, can be safe in this world of mail order crime and fraud?
[00:13:25] Melanie Hicken: Yeah, so one of the reasons we originally started looking into this was because of how many scams there are are out there that are preying on people, and unfortunately, even though Maria Duval letters are not going out in the US anymore, there are countless others that still are, and so one of the things we're hoping to bring attention is this idea that you should try to keep an eye on elderly relatives and there are little things you can spot that we've heard from people that even if you're not demanding access to their bank accounts, cause I know that's a tricky conversation for a lot of um, people and their parents, but even just looking, is your father or mother or grandfather or grandmother buying a lot of stamps? That's one of the key things we've heard. They buy a lot of stamps because they're mailing in all these checks, so are they buying a lot of stamps? Are they making a lot of small withdrawals? Try to become friends with the bank tellers. A lot of elderly people will still actually physically go into the bank, and so um, [00:14:26] we've heard stories of bank employees raising the alarm saying, hey, I don't think you want to keep getting all these withdrawals. Also just mail. If your elderly loved one is getting a ton of mail, that is a sign that they might be responding to it. So just that alone um, is a good warning sign.
[00:14:46] Blake Ellis: A lot of people we talked to said that they could tell something was wrong when they realized how obsessed their loved ones were with the mail, and they waited every day for that mail to come. Um, and then they realized it was because they were getting letters like this, and then sending in money.
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[00:15:04] Will: Peter Lichtenberg is a professor of Psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit. As a gerontologist, he works closely with older people and their families. For adult children of scam victims, his advice is to proceed gently.
[00:15:17] Peter Lichtenberg: You don't come storming in like superman to save the day, because many times your older parent will slam the door or change the locks and never talk to you again. You have to be very, you have to partner with your, with your relative, your older parent, your older relative that you're trying to help and kind of find a way in of talking more generally about um, older adults being targeted, and try to get them to think and plan um, instead of coming and saying, you're throwing your money away. I need to take over your finances, cause a lot of times that just backfires.
[00:16:01] Will: Postal Inspector, Clayton Gerber, helped shut down the Maria Duval letters in the US. He's met with victims and also the perpetrators behind the scam. He knows the elderly are vulnerable, but also knows scammers will reach out to anyone who's willing to pay.
[00:16:16] Clayton Gerber: The fraudsters, um, I don't want to generalize and say they target the elderly. The fraudsters will target anybody who will give them money. This is revenue for them. This is their job. So if they can trick a 25-year-old, they'll trick a 25-year-old.
[00:16:30] Will: Do you believe Maria Duval herself, if she exists and she put her name on this or sold her name or her abilities, is to blame in some part for the scam and all the victims?
[00:16:40] Clayton Gerber: That's a good question. So I, I think there is a woman out there who is purported to be Maria Duval, sitting here now, I mean I think we, we believe there's a woman out there that, that the perpetrators of this scheme are holding up as the Maria Duval, whether that's her real name or a pseudonym or stage name. Um, is she to blame? I, I think the woman we've identified is um, a, has held herself out as a psychic, you know, in, in helps police solve murder investigations and things like that over the course of her life. Um, did she um, start this mass mailing uh scheme. I don't think she started it. Did she allow her name to be used? I think she probably allowed her name to be used, received some sort of compensation, otherwise she'd have a pretty good lawsuit for someone using her name or her likeness. Um, so I think she was probably aware, aware to the extent, I don't know, what kind of compensation she got, I don't know. Um, but I think there's a woman out there who, um, you know, they like to [00:17:40] hold up. I mean they, the fraudsters have to give, they have to plan for some kind of defense, right? Police are going to come eventually.
[00:17:46] Will: It's really tragic and heartbreaking, I'm sure, as you look into all of these crimes and you mentioned interviewing victims earlier. It must take a toll.
[00:17:57] Clayton Gerber: Um, you, you have to uh enjoy your successes. You have to celebrate your successes because, and you have to have, find humor in what you do, in your day to day because it can really become very depressing. When it became very clear to us that this Maria Duval scheme was 7,000 victims a week, I was jumping up and down screaming saying, "We have to move now!" The end of the week would go by and I would say, "That's 7,000 more victims. We need to move now." And another week would go by as we were trying to tie up loose ends and get all of our paperwork together, and I was like, "That's another 7,000 victims." Uh, we knew it, and we'd, you know, you, you, again I said it earlier, you know, I think law enforcement needs to look at as a goal to stop victimization. Putting people in jail is one thing, but stopping victimization is much more impactful.
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[00:18:51] Will: And Chrissie, whose mother, Doreen, sent thousands of dollars to the psychic scammers and watched her mother deal with shame and embarrassment as her mental health rapidly declined, is left with little consolation today. She remembers her mother's final years of life, caught in a scam. She holds onto hope that Doreen's story will save someone else from falling into the spiral of a scam.
[00:19:13] Chrissie: I'm, hmm, sorry... I suppose a part of me is grateful to have her experience to possibly help somebody else, because I know that my mother would like that. You know if her, if her experience could stop at least one other person going through the same thing, my goodness.
So what we've learned is that Maria Duval certainly had a role in all this. She let her name and image be used for years and years, but was she the master mind of a worldwide scam that took in millions using the U.S. Postal Service? Probably not. There were caging services, copywriters, a vast array of individuals never identified or brought to trial, but the flow of letters was ultimately shut down by Clayton Gerber and his team., but without Maria, how successful would it have been? What seemed to drive the Maria Duvall scam's longevity is that it's built on a real personality, someone with a reported history of psychic insight and a following. A woman with blonde hair and a soft smile, with promises of a better life for paying customers.
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[00:19:42] Will: So I'm back with the AARP Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale. So Maria Duval may or may not be involved. She may be culpable. What do you think?
[00:19:50] Frank Abagnale: She may or may not knew what was going on, or it wasn't important as long as she was getting a monthly check for the royalty to using her name and image, and again, I can see where a scam artist who sometimes are very legitimate people in the eyes of other people, so they don't want to risk losing uh, a lot of money just because they failed to pay some small amount of money, so they were just covering their bases. If they were going to use this woman's image and her name, which sounded so good and looked so good for the scam, it was worth whatever small amount they had to pay her.
[00:20:20] Will: So the benefit to them, way back when, whenever this all started, uh, is that a legitimate psychic, if you will...
[00:20:28] Frank Abagnale: Great psychic, great sounding name, she existed, uh great image, uh, you know so certainly worth paying for, no question about it.
[00:20:37] Will: Let's talk about the sort of occult, the weird stuff, they started getting messages and emails and following some paths that we talk about a little bit in the episode.
[00:20:47] Frank Abagnale: I felt, I felt that was uh they were, they realized these reporters were investigating, whosever really behind this, and that was a way to throw them off the scent, or in just a way to intimidate them a little bit and maybe scare them off a little bit. That was just an effort on the behalf of the scammers to uh to do that.
[00:21:05] Will: I think for a while it worked, they were getting kind of wrapped up in it, and then they realized they needed to kind of get their heads about the water again and come back to reality and move on in one way or another. We also hear from the professor, uh who talks on sort of the psychological component of scams, and also how to talk to family members who might be caught up in a scam, but being gentle, and not just going to them and saying, "Hey, what are you doing? You're throwing all your money away," but saying, "Hey, what is this? You know, can we talk about it?"
[00:21:29] Frank Abagnale: Right, and this is what we've talked about in the past that the reason sometimes seniors are reluctant to tell their loved ones or the police is they're afraid that their loved ones are then going to say, "See, you can't handle your money, you need to let me take over your bank account." And people want to be independent and that's totally understandable.
[00:21:45] Will: That's a really good point.
[00:21:46] Frank Abagnale: And so that's why I think it is important, as I mentioned, when you were growing up as a child your parents looked out for your well-being, and they sometimes got in your personal business as a teenager because that's their job being, not your friend, but your mom and dad. And I think it's the same way it turns around in life, your parents get older, you get older, then it's your time to take care of your parents.
[00:22:08] Will: One piece of advice we've heard that I, I had not considered, but there may be just some little ways of noticing that somebody's hooked into a scam. Is it your family member or your loved one, your mother, your father, your grandparents might be buying a lot of stamps? You know, I mean there, there's a little way that you might say...
[00:22:23] Frank Abagnale: Buying a lot of stamps or just uh, you know, starting to do things irrationally, like ordering a lot of things on television that they don't need, and they're just starting to ordering, but this is why you need to be in their life. If I, if I don't speak to my parent for uh, three months, I don't know what they're doing, or what could be happening in their life. The only way I know what's happening in their life is to be in their life, just like you want to be in your kids' lives so you know that when they're young, what they're doing.
[00:22:48] Will: So lots of different ways we can, we can pay attention and from the beginning of this story to the very end, um, what we might call red flags, but uh a lot of mail being delivered to the door to trinkets around the house that they're getting from a psychic scam, stamps, what have you.
[00:23:03] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, and even if you know, in the case of the psychic scam, if I go and solicit to a psychic that I want the psychic to help me and the psychic says, well there's a $40 fee, and I want to pay that one-time fee, but if I start getting a whole bunch of solicitations from other psychics, or this psychic keeps asking me for more and more money, telling me things that they can do that obviously they can't do, uh that again brings up that red flag. That's the time when you need to be able to say, okay, it's time to stop, obviously this is just a scam and they're trying to take my money from me.
[00:23:34] Will: As Frank says, there's two things uh we can look out for. When they ask for money or when they ask for information.
[00:23:39] Frank Abagnale: Right, that's it.
[00:23:40] Will: The AARP Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale, thanks again for all of your insight.
[00:23:45] Frank Abagnale: Thanks, Will.
[00:23:45] Will: 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. And uh, again, a huge thanks to the authors of "A Deal with the Devil"; Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken. It's an incredible story, and you can get the end of the story. Find out if they found Maria Duval. You, I mean, we all need to know at this point, so thanks again for their time and their incredible story. Also to uh Postal Inspector, Clayton Gerber, and all that he's done in relationship to this scam and shutting it down. For AARP - The Perfect Scam Podcast, I'm Will Johnson. Join us again next week. I'll be back with my cohost, Frank Abagnale.
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