A small-town psychic in France became the face of a mail fraud scheme that ripped off elderly victims for more than $200 million… but CNN reporters discovered she has dementia and may not have even been aware of what was going on in her name.
Authorities around the world are currently investigating Maria Duval, who is known for Nigerian Prince-type letters sent out in her name requesting money for fake fortune from sick people and Alzheimer’s patients. The schemers used Duval’s name and background to pull off the scheme, but she didn’t know all the details, according to a CNN investigation by Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken.
The letters appeared to be handwritten and signed by the psychic. They contained personal details, like a recipient’s name, age or hometown. It seemed as if the psychic had intuited this information. It had actually been pieced together from “suckers lists” sold by companies known as data brokers and from information the victims themselves unknowingly provided in the past.
Seduced by Duval’s promises, US investigators say, people paid around $40 each time they corresponded with her in exchange for her guidance, lucky numbers and talismans. This seemingly simple scheme became one of the longest-running mail frauds in history — infiltrating more than a dozen countries, spanning more than 20 years and raking in more than $200 million in the United States and Canada alone. In America, it ensnared 60 times more victims than Bernie Madoff’s infamous Ponzi scheme…
Our initial investigation showed that Duval was not operating the business or mailing the letters — as so many victims had been led to believe. Instead, a complex network of international shell companies and front operations had been used to hide the letters’ true origins from investigators. Eventually we identified ringleaders on the beaches of Thailand and in the secrecy havens of Switzerland and Monaco — and determined that the operations had passed through an endless number of hands over the years.
The reporters spent two years investigating the massive and long-running fraud scheme, as well as the so-called psychic who served as its face, often overlapping work being done by international authorities. By the time the news agency was able to secure an interview with her, she appeared to have dementia and was unable to answer questions.
We began by asking Duval to state her name. She did. Then we asked her the date. She didn’t know and turned to her family for help.
We asked about her psychic powers. In her books, she describes in detail the bestowing of these powers from her uncle, a priest in Italy.
Where did they come from? How was it she received this gift?
She couldn’t say.
And she had no idea what we were talking about when we asked about one of her most celebrated rescues, in which newspapers said she used a pendulum to direct a helicopter to the exact spot where a missing person was found barely alive.
Duval spent most of our conversation sharing her thoughts about love. She said she loved life and hoped the world would remember her for doing everything with love.
Ellis and Hicken said Duval’s son tried to paint his mother as just another elderly victim of the anonymous businessmen — she agreed to let them use her name and it got out of hand — but they were skeptical of that portrayal, despite the solid evidence that her dementia diagnosis is legitimate. After all, they wrote, this scheme had been going on for decades, and Duval continued to renew the contract year after year. “It wasn’t a question of whether she’d made money,” they claim, “only how much.”
There is almost no doubt that Duval has at least some culpability in this, but there’s another side to this story we simply don’t know. Hopefully investigators will be able to find out who’s really behind the scheme and stop them from taking advantage of more elderly people who don’t realize that even the person signing their letters doesn’t know the full extent of what’s going on in her name.
Ellis and Hicken just wrote a book about their years investigating this case, called A Deal with the Devil: The Dark and Twisted True Story of One of the Biggest Cons in History. It comes out next week.
(Thanks to Anu for the link)