Elderly, broke and homeless: The victims of a $200 million psychic scam

CNN/February 25, 2016

By Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken

Its victims are all over the world, but they have one thing in common: desperation.

They are seniors suffering from debilitating illnesses, debtors struggling to get back on their feet and even families facing homelessness.

The scam is remarkably simple: people receive letters promising them that psychic guidance and talismans from the French clairvoyant Maria Duval are the secret to turning their lives around. All they need to do is send in money.

The scheme's victims quickly become convinced that Duval can help them win huge amounts of money, find professional success and overcome terrible health problems.

Some investigators around the globe question whether Duval exists at all or if she is actually the creation of scam artists. But for the scheme's victims, Maria Duval is remarkably real.

And their haunting stories show just how heartless the scheme really is.

'Something tells me that I can trust you'

Many victims have written lengthy letters in response to the Duval mailings, unloading their hopes and fears to the psychic.

"I'm already thinking what I would do with all this money," one victim wrote in a letter that was recovered by the U.S. government. "My wife would not have to work anymore and would drive a newer car. So I would too. We could install air conditioning in our house." And in a note scrawled at the very bottom of the letter: "I forgot! A good amount of this money would go to the bank."

'How can you do this to an elderly person?'

Like many of those who have fallen prey to the Duval letters, Leela DeVere's mother was suffering from Alzheimer's disease when she began sending $139 a month to the psychic. The payments quickly added up to thousands of dollars. "How can you do this to an elderly person with Alzheimer's?" DeVere asked.

'I am getting more broke every day'

In another letter to Duval that was taken by authorities, one person wrote that they had serious money problems and that they were struggling to afford new glasses or a dentist appointment. They apologized for not writing more often, telling Duval that they had been "in distress" with back problems. "I am getting more broke every day. I can't send what I don't have."

"Clare used to be a happy girl"

It's not uncommon for some victims to feel so close to Duval that they become obsessed. An article from the Evening Chronicle reported that a 17-year-old U.K. girl was found dead in a river in 1998 with a letter from Duval in her pocket. Her mother told the paper that her daughter had been corresponding with Duval for weeks before her death. "Clare used to be a happy girl but she went down hill after getting involved with all this," she said.

'They have made an independent elderly man dependent on his children'

Online consumer forums are filled with complaints from victims and family members about Maria Duval and the financial and emotional toll of her letters. One complaint, from a resident of British Columbia, tells of an elderly father who sent $6,000 to the psychic hoping to win money. "Now he is broke and nothing came true. I hope these [people] are not able to sleep at night."

'She was eagerly waiting on my disability check'

Someone who said they were suffering from brain cancer wrote in an online forum that Duval would send "panicky" letters demanding $45 twice a month -- ultimately costing the person around $1,500 in disability benefits. "She can never have enough. She is the biggest scam ever."

'I couldn't eat or sleep worrying whether I'd be hit by more bad luck.'

In some cases, the Duval letters have taken a more sinister tone -- suggesting that misfortune awaited those who ignored her. In 1997, one woman told the Scottish Daily Record & Sunday Mail newspaper that she was terrified of what would happen if she didn't send money. "When I wrote to say I didn't have that kind of cash, the letters got even more frightening," she said at the time. "I was so scared I couldn't eat or sleep worrying whether I'd be hit by more bad luck. I was convinced I'd need further heart surgery and this time I might not survive."

'I feel like a fool'

A mother of five living on a fixed income thought that sending money to Duval would help bring about a better life for her children. "I have sent this woman lots of my money where I could not pay my bills," she wrote in a consumer complaint forum. "Yes I feel like a fool, but when you receive [these] letters over and over you feel like a failure if you did not send it in to get a better life for your children."

'I was so desperate for some kind of hope'

A Michigan woman wrote in an online complaint that Duval's letters came to her in some of her darkest days -- after separating from her husband, watching her son join the military and losing her job. "This scam crushed the last bit of hope I had in any kindness or miracle that could be, and pushed me over the edge," she wrote. "Congrats! You got another weak one."

A Milwaukee resident wrote online about their 96-year-old father-in-law who refused to believe that the Duval letters were a scam and even tried to send a cash payment after his family closed his bank account. "He is so desperate for money that he pins all his hopes on this."

'He is now bankrupt and at the mercy of the state'

A Milwaukee resident wrote online about their 96-year-old father-in-law who refused to believe that the Duval letters were a scam and even tried to send a cash payment after his family closed his bank account. "He is so desperate for money that he pins all his hopes on this."

"I live on Social Security"

An 82-year-old Oregon widow said she regretted the day she first sent money to Duval. Even after realizing it was a scam, she wrote in an online complaint that money continued to be deducted from her checking account. "I live on Social Security, so don't have very much money. Can someone please help me?" she wrote in 2009.

'I am homeless and $5000.00 in debt'

A Utah resident said they ended up in even worse financial shape after sending money to Duval. "All she wanted from me is money. Now I am homeless and $5000.00 in debt," the person wrote in an online complaint. "I need dental care, and I have no money to pay."

Who is behind one of the biggest scams in history?

It's one of the world's longest-running cons. Hundreds of millions of dollars stolen from some of the world's most vulnerable people -- the sick, the elderly and the poor -- who all thought they had found a savior in a mysterious woman named Maria Duval.

It has claimed more than 60 times the number of victims of Madoff's Ponzi scheme. With millions of people affected from the United States to Japan, federal investigators say it would be hard to find another case of consumer fraud that has hurt more people.

Since the alleged mail fraud started around 20 years ago, a laundry list of government agencies across the globe -- including the U.S. Department of Justice, British authorities, Canadian fraud investigators and Australian consumer protection officials -- have attempted to put an end to the scheme.

It all centers around a mysterious French psychic named Maria Duval. In letters, interviews and Internet videos seen around the globe, Duval says she has had visions of the world exploding and humans living in space. She claims to have successfully predicted election results, forecast winning lottery numbers and helped police investigate crimes. She says she even found the missing dog of movie star Brigitte Bardot.

And millions of people have been convinced by her "personalized" letters that she can help them, too.

But somehow, it has raged on for decades.

In what appear to be handwritten notes signed by Duval, she tells them they could win the lottery, recover from ailments or avoid terrible misfortune. All they need to do is pay a small sum -- often around $40 -- to receive her guidance, lucky numbers and special talismans like a Five Forces Stone or a Vibratory Crystal.

While many recipients would simply dismiss these letters, the scheme's massive success stems from its ability to take advantage of emotionally and financially vulnerable people. Many of its victims are elderly, often suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's. Others are lonely or depressed and are touched that someone is thinking of them.

"Not only was my poor mother quickly losing her mind due to Alzheimer's disease, she was lonely, bored, wanting to be wealthy and well," said Chrissie Stevens of her late mother Doreen Robinson, who fell prey to this scheme.

As her health and mental capacities diminished, Robinson sent more and more money to Duval -- sometimes as often as twice a day -- eventually adding up to more than $2,400 in a single year. 

And Duval was just one of the schemes Stevens discovered her mother, 80 years old at the time, had fallen victim to. She ultimately realized her mother was tens of thousands of dollars in debt and had been sending much of her monthly fixed-income payments straight to Duval and other scammers.

Robinson passed away in September of 2014, and Stevens is still brought to tears remembering her months-long battle to try to rip her mother free of Duval's grasp. Even after her mother promised to stop sending in more payments, Stevens found an envelope stuffed with cash and change that she had been hiding, hoping to send to her "friend" Maria.

"She didn't have the quality of mind anymore to realize how much money she was losing or how often she was sending money," said Stevens. "She put value on silly, worthless, two-cent amulets she'd paid a fortune for and received nothing of value in return."

Duval has been the subject of horror stories like this for years. But we didn't learn about her until late September, when we were combing through piles of solicitations sent to seniors. Several readers had sent us this junk mail urging us to look into the many unscrupulous nonprofits, political groups and flat-out scammers that prey on the elderly by mail.

Among the mailings, we found a letter from a psychic named Patrick Guerin and were intrigued by its many details and promises -- of lottery winnings, luck and happiness.

In a quick Google search, it became clear that all sorts of psychics are targeting seniors. But one name kept coming up: Maria Duval.

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