A Deal with the Devil. By Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken. Atria Books, 2018. ISBN 9-781501-163845-53600. 290 pp. Hardcover, $26.
Most people, when they think of psychic scams, think of the street-corner psychic who takes the casual passerby for a few hundred dollars and who may occasionally score big and take a repeat “customer” for a great deal more over a period of time. The New York Times reported such a case on June 6, 2015, when a psychic conned a victim out of over $700,000 to help him in a romantic pursuit. These street-corner psychics tend to be independent operators or part of a local group of con artists. Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken are experienced investigative reporters for CNN, and their book A Deal with the Devil is based on a series of reports of theirs first published on the CNN website in 2016. It describes a psychic scam operation much more organized and international in scope than the usual street-corner scam. It didn’t even involve any face-to-face meetings between the psychic and the victims. It was carried out entirely by postal mail.
The book was awarded the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry’s annual Robert P. Balles Prize in Critical Thinking (SI, September/October 2019), presented October 18 at the CSICon 2019 conference in Las Vegas. The two authors gave a firsthand video report on their project.
The idea of a mail order paranormal scam is not entirely new. In his August 15, 2015, episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver did a revealing exposé of prosperity gospel scams that operate largely by direct mail. He sent $20 to televangelist Robert Tilton. In the following several months, Oliver was bombarded with dozens and dozens of direct mail appeals that became more and more demanding and ridiculous as time passed. In one he was asked to trace the outline of his foot on an image of Tilton’s foot and mail it back, along with a donation, to receive the supposed benefits of casting his bread upon the waters.
In A Deal with the Devil, the authors describe in considerable detail how a similar direct mail scam that focused on psychic advice operated for decades beginning as long ago as the 1980s in countries all over the world. A victim would receive what appeared to be a handwritten and highly personal letter promising that if a donation was given, the addressee would receive all sorts of benefits, including better health, wealth, and even winning lottery numbers. The letters would go on for page after page and include detailed personal information that helped convince the recipient that the psychic knew all about them. These details included the birth date, birthplace, and marital status of the victim. Once a donation had been made, the scammers knew they had a sucker on the line and, as in the case of the prosperity gospel scam, sent additional letters asking for more money.
As with the prosperity gospel scam, the victims are usually the elderly, the poorly educated, the ill and infirm, and the lonely—the most vulnerable members of society. The book opens with the sad description of a Canadian woman named Doreen who, as her dementia increased, kept sending donation after donation to one direct mail psychic. The authors found such stories all too common.
Until I read A Deal with the Devil, I’d given no thought to how complex such a scam has to be. Many steps carried out by different companies are required before the letters enter the mail. The first order of business is to get names and addresses of potential victims. These are obtained from the same “data brokers” that supply lists of names and addresses to other, more honest, direct mailers. Data brokers can supply lists broken down by almost any demographic feature one wants, so it’s easy to get a list of, say, females over sixty who live in an area with a specified average income level. The personal information in the letters can be obtained from responses the victim made to other solicitations. A common scheme is to send letters offering a chance to win a prize. To enter the contest, the person has to fill out a form that includes a great deal of personal information. That data is combined with the names and addresses supplied by the data brokers and incorporated into the letters the victims receive.
The solicitation letters have to be written by someone. Not just anyone can dash off letters that will be convincing to the victim. Copywriters are hired to do this. These copywriters clearly know that they’re involved in a highly dishonest enterprise. The authors interviewed one such copywriter. It was a high paying job. He could charge up to $20,000 for an effective letter, and he “received many requests to write these kinds of letters as the mail-order psychic business boomed in the nineties” (130). This gives an idea of the amount of money such scams generate. A successful letter generated a response rate of around 10 percent, while the figure for a “dud” was about 4 percent. Some copywriters charged a flat fee for their work while others worked on a royalty basis—around 10 percent of the money their letter brought in. The interviewed copywriter tried to justify his involvement by attempting to minimize the harm done. He claimed that his letters brought some benefits to the targets, for example by making them feel better because they found out that someone really cared about them.
After the letters were written, they had to be printed. Millions were printed, so this required large commercial printing companies. Then the letters had to be entered into the mail stream. You can’t just drop off a bundle of a hundred thousand letters at the local post office, so commercial direct mail companies handled this task. The letters often included various nick-knacks such as “round metal talismans encased in little velveteen pouches with symbols and some motivational words or astrological signs on them” (26). These were described in the letters as valuable treasures with potential mystical powers. Because millions of these were sent out, they had to be mass produced by firms that manufacture such things.
The letters asked for donations as well as personal items, such as locks of hair. This is an example of a well-known psychological phenomenon called the “foot-in-the-door-effect” wherein if you ask a person to do a small favor and they do so, they will be more likely to do a larger favor when asked. When the victim takes the time and effort, albeit minimal, to cut and send a lock of hair, they have complied with the first request for a favor. With millions of letters going out, hundreds of thousands of responses came in. The victims were instructed to send their responses to addresses that were mailboxes at private mailing stores. One such address was in Sparks, Nevada. These letters often included heart-rending stories of personal tragedy along with the donations. From the original address, the envelopes were bundled and sent on to, in one case, an address on Long Island in New York. It was there that postal inspectors, who were trying to put an end to one particular direct mail psychic scam, found thousands of letters, complete with locks of hair and the aforementioned tales of personal tragedy, tossed in a dumpster. Of course, the “psychic” was never going to personally answer these letters, but further requests for donations would follow.
Once the money, cash, or checks had been received, it had to be deposited into bank accounts. In the particular scam described in A Deal with the Devil, one of the companies processing the funds was the Canadian company PacNet Services of Vancouver, British Columbia. This was a firm that “had profited from all kinds of global mail fraud for years” (225). PacNet took its cut and forwarded the remaining money to the different scammers.
An example of a mailing card from a psychic scam, although not the one discussed in the book, is shown at left. The meter imprint is faded but reads “Sun Valley, CA” and is dated November 1, 1996. The card advises the addressee that a psychic named Paulette is “Very much concerned about you. Since we spoke a short time ago, I keep thinking major event may soon change your life.” The card is addressed to my father, who died in late 1990.
A Deal with the Devil is really a detective story in which the authors try to track down a psychic named Maria Duval, who may be a real person or just a name made up for the scam. In either case, she was the name behind a direct mail psychic scam that lasted for decades and included the United States and Canada as well as numerous other countries. You’ll have to read the book to find out whether Maria Duval was a real person or not. A Deal with the Devil is a fascinating and disturbing exposé of the slick and highly lucrative business of mail order psychics. The leaders of this industry drive expensive cars and hold business conferences in expensive hotels in fancy resort locations around the world such as Monaco.
Excellent as the book is, it has two shortcomings. First, there is no index, making it difficult to look up specific names and topics that recur throughout the text. More serious is the lack of any introductory discussion of the various tricks of the psychic trade, such as cold readings, the Barnum Effect, and selective memory. A brief section covering these techniques would have greatly helped readers not familiar with them understand how psychics, by direct mail or in person, con people into believing they have real paranormal powers.