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French Psychic Scam Rakes in Millions in Mail Fraud Scheme

A letter arrives in the mail from a woman claiming to have psychic abilities - but there's a catch

French Psychic Scams the World

AARP

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This 2018 episode tells the story of the elusive French psychic Maria Duval. A letter arrives in the mail from Maria, 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. Who is Maria Duval, and is she really the mastermind of this fraud scheme? 

Editor's Note: This episode was originally published in August 2018.

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[00:00:01] This week on 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 neon sign out front.

[00:00:09] It's so pathetic that these people should pick on people that don't know any better.

[00:00:17] No one had ever really figured out whether she really was a real person and whether she really was the one sending out these letters.

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[00:00:29] Michelle: Welcome back to AARP's The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Michelle Kosinski. This week the strange shadowy unfolding of one of the largest, longest running, most successful scams the United States has seen. We're talking thousands of victims a week, well over a million in total, and all the money they sent. It involves an alleged psychic and her personalized letters through the mail. Lots and lots of letters targeting people who might be happy to get them, people in need of anyone to talk to and hear from. And as we transition into our next season with brand new episodes coming soon, this is an opportunity to hear some episodes you might have missed. They're episodes 15 and 16 combined hosted by Will Johnson. I hope you enjoy them. This is quite a scam and quite a story.

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[00:01:28] 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.

[00:01:36] Frank: Yeah, good to be back.

[00:01:36] Will: Well we're back in the studio talking about scams and fraud and this week, uh, we have a, 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.

[00:02:20] 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 wrong 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 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.

[00:03:30] Will: Maybe just doing this show I got too wrapped up in it.

(chuckling)

[00:03:35] Will: Something like that. All right, Frank, today's show 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.

[00:03:45] Frank Abagnale: No, I'm not.

[00:03:46] Will: It's not your kind of thing. Palm reader?

[00:03:48] Frank Abagnale: No.

[00:03:48] Will: No, okay.

[00:03:49] Frank Abagnale: No horoscopes, none of that.

[00:03:50] Will: All right. Well let's get into today's episode, the story of Maria Duval.

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[00:03:57] Will: I'd like to welcome CNN investigative reporters and authors of the book, "A Deal With the Devil" Melanie Hicken and Blake Ellis.

[00:04:04] Melanie Hicken: Thank you for having us.

[00:04:05] Will: Melanie, let me start by asking you, how did the Maria Duval letters work? How does a mail order psychic scam generally work?

[00:04:12] 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 they're 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. 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'd 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 seems like just a simple letter, but there's a lot of layers to it that really makes it successful.

[00:05:59] 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.

[00:06:14] 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.

[00:06:48] 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 fact from fiction, there is a lot of stuff there that would add to the believability.

[00:07:11] Will: So, and, and another aspect of the letters is there's a photo of Maria Duval.

[00:07:15] 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...

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[00:07:37] 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.

[00:07:48] Blake Ellis: And I mean at first, we had no idea if she was a real person. We saw in government filings that she could be a fictitious creation, um, but as we started googling, um, 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.

[00:08:14] 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.

[00:08:29] 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. When 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."

[00:09:01] 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.

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[00:09:12] Will: As Melanie Hicken and Blake Ellis delve into the Maria Duval scam, they start searching for victims to interview. They come across the story of Doreen and sit down with her daughter, Chrissie, in Arizona.

[00:09:23] 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.

[00:09:46] 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.

[00:10:02] 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.

[00:10:34] Will: Chrissie goes back through Doreen's bank statements and finds month after month, a $49 payments going back two years, totally $2500.

[00:10:42] Chrissie: And, 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.

[00:11:05] 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.

[00:11:12] 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.

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[00:11:29] 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.

[00:11:39] 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.

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[00:12:00] Will: As the CNN reporters keep reporting and digging fairly early on, they reach out to Clayton Gerber with the United States Postal Inspection Service.

[00:12:07] Blake Ellis: He was really the person that helped us understand the magnitude of the scam.

[00:12:12] 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.

[00:12:23] 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. It says right here that my money's right here. And I said, "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 it."

[00:13:03] Will: When did you first hear about the Maria Duval letters, and how did they come to your attention or the Postal Service's attention?

[00:13:09] Clayton Gerber: They, 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.

[00:13:59] Will: And if we've, as we've come to learn this scam has maybe been around for decades in one form or another.

[00:14:05] 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.

[00:14:16] Will: So, in your line of work, that must be frustrating but expected.

[00:14:19] Clayton Gerber: Very expected. Um, it's, it's good sport.

[00:14:22] 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.

[00:14:34] 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 returns. 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?

[00:14:51] Will: High rates of return for the bank?

[00:14:53] 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 to 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 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.

[00:16:07] 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?

[00:16:16] 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.

[00:17:04] 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?

[00:17:13] 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.

[00:17:33] Will: So then, did you talk to victims of the scam right away, or along the way?

[00:17:38] 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 talked to many victims.

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[00:17:53] 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 and 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.

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[00:18:47] 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.

[00:19:00] And the address ended up taking us to this, um 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.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:19:27] Will: That's thanks to Clayton Gerber and his team of postal inspectors.

[00:19:31] 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 said, 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, and they were served. We were giving 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.

[00:20:31] Will: And you were present at the serving of that warrant?

[00:20:33] Clayton Gerber: Yes.

[00:20:34] Will: What was that like? You, 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?

[00:20:41] Clayton Gerber: Yeah, but we're law enforcement officers, so we wear body armor and we have our guns out and...

[00:20:46] Will: Really?

[00:20:46] 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.

[00:20:59] Will: Where was that company?

[00:21:00] Clayton Gerber: That company was on Long Island.

[00:21:01] Will: And were those the two companies then that were shut down by the inspection service?

[00:21:06] Clayton Gerber: Yes.

[00:21:06] Will: How did work? How has it worked?

[00:21:08] 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.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:21:31] 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?

[00:21:41] 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 year 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.

[00:22:18] Will: The government action seems to stop the scam's bloodletting in the US, but remember, this is a 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?

BREAK

[00:22:37] Will: Welcome back to AARP - The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Will Johnson. 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, 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.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:23:04] 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.

[00:23:20] 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.

[00:23:41] 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?

[00:24:03] Will: You finally determined 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?

[00:24:19] 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 that 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 pivotal 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 business filing in hand, we basically, you know, got on a plane and were hoping to confront her.

[00:25:26] Will: And you eventually in, in France you, you're able to track down a location of a house where she apparently is, right?

[00:25:34] 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 Colossae, um, and they said that she did indeed live in the town, um, so we knew that she lived there and we had an address in our hands.

[00:25:53] Will: And when you got to the house what, what happened? You were hoping to, I mean you, you, you must, your hearts must have been beating fast.

[00:25:59] 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.

[00:26:56] Will: But then, shortly before leaving France, you also finally meet up with her son, Antoine, in person, is that right?

[00:27:03] 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.

[00:27:39] 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.

[00:27:48] 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. Uh, 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 businesspeople who were actually orchestrating this scam. Um, 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.

[00:28:22] 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 signed 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.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:29:17] 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?

[00:29:31] Melanie Hicken: Yes.

[00:29:32] 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?

[00:29:59] 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.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:30:14] 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 but 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.

[00:30:55] Will: And you both start to maybe even have some sense of not fear, but maybe some anxiety about your own safety?

[00:31:01] 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, 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.

[00:31:52] Will: You were, you were like instruments of illuminati 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.

[00:32:04] 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.

[00:32:29] Will: So Blake and Melanie, you, you've 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

[00:32:42] Blake Ellis: Yep, 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 but, um, what we, what we found and what we did in France really brings the whole story full circle.

[00:33:13] Will: Okay, so we'll, we'll leave it up to our listeners if, 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?

[00:33:26] Melanie Hicken: So, a lot of people ask us that question.

[00:33:28] Will: Sorry.

[00:33:28] Melanie Hicken: We, no, it's a good one. I mean we still don't.

[00:33:32] Will: (chuckle) You were, you're skeptics from the beginning and you still are.

[00:33:34] Melanie Hicken: Yeah.

[00:33:35] Will: That's your job.

[00:33:36] Melanie Hicken: Yeah, I think as a journalist, um, if we told our bosses we have now decided that Maria is a real psychic, I think they'd be, they'd wonder who had kidnapped us, but she definitely, there was something special about Maria Duval.

[00:33:50] 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?

[00:34:13] Melanie Hicken: Yeah, so one of the reasons we originally started looking into this was because of how many scams there 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 to 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 really 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, we've heard stories of bank employees raising the alarm saying, hey, I don't think you want to keep getting all these withdrawals. Um, 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.

[00:35:34] Blake Ellis: A lot of people we talked to said that they could tell something was wrong when they realized how obsessed um, 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.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:35:52] 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.

[00:36:05] Peter Lichtenberg: You don't come storming in like Superman to save the day, because many times your older parent is going to 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.

[00:36:50] 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.

[00:37:04] 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.

[00:37:18] 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?

[00:37:28] 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, 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 hold up. I mean they; the fraudsters have to give, they have to plan for some kind of defense, right? The police are going to come eventually.

[00:38:35] 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.

[00:38:45] 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. Uh, 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, you know, you, you, again I said it earlier, you know, I think law enforcement needs to look as a goal to stop victimization. Putting people in jail is one thing, but stopping victimization is much more impactful.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:39:40] 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.

[00:40:02] 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.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:40:31] Will: So I'm back with the AARP Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale. Um, so Maria Duval may or may not be involved. She may be culpable. What do you think?

[00:40:39] 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 uh, 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.

[00:41:08] Will: So the benefit to them, way back when, whenever this all started, uh, is that a legitimate psychic, if you will...

[00:41:16] Frank Abagnale: Great psychic, great sounding name, she existed, uh great image, uh, you know so certainly worth paying for, no question about it.

[00:41:25] Will: Uh, 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.

[00:41:34] 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 uh, maybe scare them off a little bit. That was just an effort on the behalf of the scammers to uh to do that.

[00:41:53] 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 above 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?"

[00:42:18] 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.

[00:42:34] Will: That's a really good point.

[00:42:35] 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.

[00:42:56] 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 that 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...

[00:43:11] 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 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.

[00:43:36] 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.

[00:43:52] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, and even if you know, in the case of the psychic scam, if I go and then 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, 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.

[00:44:23] 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.

[00:44:28] Frank Abagnale: Right, that's it.

[00:44:29] Will: The AARP Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale, thanks again for all of your insight.

[00:44:33] Frank Abagnale: Thanks, Will.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:44:35] Michelle: There is a lot that's still unclear. The real Maria Duval is still out there, likely still in the South of France today. Who would have thought maybe the psychic might have, I don't know, predicted how whatever deal she claims to have made for name would have turned out? But that's her story and she's sticking to it. How she feels about all this now remains as murky as the operation that made this enormous scam possible. It's over now. But I hope you like these episodes from deep on The Perfect Scam archives, and don't you go anywhere, because we are back with brand new episodes and more scams than you ever dreamed possible on July 24th. See you then.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

END OF TRANSCRIPT

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free “watchdog alerts," review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.

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