In their book A Deal with the Devil: The Dark and Twisted True Story of One of the Biggest Cons in History, investigative reporters Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken exposed the complex inner workings of a case of psychic fraud that spanned several decades and bilked over $200,000,000 from the mostly elderly victims. Their tale reveals how easy it is for anyone to be taken in by con artists and how seemingly small scams can explode into something much bigger and far more sinister. For their achievement, they have been awarded the 2018 Robert P. Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI).
A Deal with the Devil emerged from Ellis and Hicken’s fraud investigations for CNN Money. They found that many elderly Americans had been giving away enormous sums of money to a woman named Maria Duvall who claimed to have psychic powers. Through personalized letters, Duvall made promises to grant the recipients health and riches—if they sent her money. “The letters appealed to the most base emotions of fear, loneliness, and hope—making it nearly impossible for victims to resist,” wrote Ellis and Hicken, who discovered that the scam was much bigger than letters from a sketchy psychic. What Ellis and Hicken revealed is an enterprise in consumer fraud on a massive scale, involving the buying and selling of personal information from data brokers, the emotional manipulation of vulnerable populations, and even the adoption and expansion of the con by organized crime.
“It’s easy to think of psychic scams as mostly harmless, taking in only a few gullible folks who we think should have known better,” said Barry Karr, executive director of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. “A Deal with the Devil reminds us just how sophisticated these cons can be and how all of us have the potential to fall victim to emotional manipulation.”
“In an age of alternative facts misinformation,” said Karr, “A Deal with the Devil has broken the ice on some badly needed discussions about the need for critical thinking.”
The Robert P. Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking is bestowed by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, publisher of Skeptical Inquirer magazine and a program of the Center for Inquiry. Ellis and Hicken will receive the prize at the CSICon convention October 16–20, 2019, in Las Vegas, which will also feature speakers such as John de Lancie, Brian Greene, Richard Dawkins, Julia Sweeney, and many more. See csiconference.org for more information.
The Balles Prize is a $2,500 award given to the creator of the published work that best exemplifies healthy skepticism, logical analysis, or empirical science. The prize was established by Robert P. Balles, a practicing Christian, along with the Robert P. Balles Endowed Memorial Fund, a permanent endowment fund for the benefit of CSI. The winners of the 2017 Balles Prize were Donald R. Prothero and Tim Callahan for their book UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens.