A Deal with the Devil: The Dark and Twisted True Story of One of the Biggest Cons in History. By Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken. New York: Atria Books. 2018. ISBN: 978-1-5011-6384-5. 304 pp. Hardcover, $26.
In the 1990s, it was common to see ads in British magazines—chiefly aimed at women, if I remember correctly—for “psychic” services. A number of these advertised amulets or talismans that would be sent to you if you wrote to the address provided, and these were supposed to do wonderful things for your life. One of our skeptics filed a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority and got a ruling to require these ads to make less absurd promises.
One name in particular popped up a lot in those ads: Maria Duval. I briefly tried corresponding with her operation to see what would happen. Not much, as I recall: you got a cheap talisman trinket of some sort and were encouraged to write back, enclosing some very small amount of money, and it didn’t seem worth pursuing (plus, I draw the line at sending money). It seemed “mostly harmless,” as Douglas Adams might have said, aside from the stupidity of the whole thing. It’s embarrassing to see how wrong I was.
Twenty-five years later, in 2017, CNN investigative reporters Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken were casting around for their next project. They had covered an abusive debt collector in Texas who was operating all over the country on behalf of government agencies, and they had exposed out-of-control animal control agencies in small towns. Now that they had some time, they turned to the boxes of mail sent them by readers concerned about charities and scams preying on the elderly. Among the fake charities and scaremongering political groups they found a psychic: Patrick Guerin. A search result showed he had been named in a Department of Justice action in 2016, which had permanently barred eight individuals and entities from operating “an alleged international multi-million dollar mail-fraud scheme in the name of alleged psychics.” Guerin, they learned, was the small fry. The big name was Maria Duval.
In A Deal with the Devil, Ellis and Hicken tell the story of how they investigated this complex, decades-long fraud. Like many of the investigative tales that surface every year at the summer school run by London’s Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ), most of it revolved around sourcing and reading thousands of documents and connecting the faintly discernible dots found in them. As CIJ speakers will tell those hoping to do this kind of work, you’re in a much better position to speak to someone when you already have the proof of what happened: “This is what happened, isn’t it?” is a powerful tongue-loosener.
What they found was that Maria Duval was a real person, a Frenchwoman who became famous for psychic claims—the same as the ones used in the letters, or close to them. But at some point, probably around the mid-1990s, she sold the rights to her name to a group of scammers who used it in ads such as the ones I saw. Under the contract she had signed, she was required to go on making personal appearances wherever they sent her and stand by as they used her name on millions of letters. People who responded with more diligence than I did were sucked into sending more and more money in response to what appeared to be personal attention and concern. In the cases where Ellis and Hicken spoke to victims personally, it was clear that the scam preyed on lonely, vulnerable, often cognitively impaired older people, whose relatives often didn’t realize what was happening until thousands of dollars had been stolen. Overall, the scam collected hundreds of millions of dollars from more than a million people in the United States alone. It appears to be ongoing in other countries, and a Postal Service criminal investigation was under way as of July 2018.
This is a twist we skeptics never saw coming: that those who have become famous for their psychic claims could effectively sell their businesses to organized crime and become pawns of their new bosses. In terms of exploiting the victims, it is a logical extension of the “sucker lists” known to be kept by other kinds of fraudsters. In terms of the psychics themselves, it suggests a startling lack of ability to foresee what they could be getting into.
By the time Ellis and Hicken finally met Duval, she, too, was elderly, frightened, reclusive, and cognitively impaired. By the time the Postal Service arrived at Duval’s door in France, Duval could not remember her own name and, her son told them, had been declared incompetent. Without the personal appearances to fuel her popularity, the impact of the letters is fading. But, as Ellis and Hicken conclude, the real scammers at the heart of it all are still active.
The story is an important lesson for skeptics, too, when we think about consumer protection. Yes, we need to help people protect themselves against psychic scams. But we may need to turn our attention to working more collaboratively with psychic claimants who are themselves at risk—and who can be captured to become the vectors for enormous widespread damage.