Injunction halts Maria Duval scam: Internet Scambusters #721
A scam based on the name of Italian psychic Maria Duval has taken an estimated $180 million from U.S. victims, plus lots more from abroad.
Now a permanent injunction has stopped the scammers in their tracks but the money they took may not be recoverable.
In this week's issue we'll explain the scam and how it has preyed on the most vulnerable victims.
Now, here we go...
Maria Duval Psychic Scam Costs Americans $180 Million
Are you under the spell of "Maria Duval"?
More than a million Americans allegedly have been.
And, like them, do you believe in fortunetellers and psychics like Ms. Duval who claim to be able to read and guide your future?
Lots of people do. But then again, plenty of people don't.
We're not planning to enter into that debate but what we do know is that many people who claim to be psychics have been exposed as frauds.
As we've previously reported in “Psychic” Scammers See Money Troubles in Your Future, that doesn't stop gullible members of the public from handing over large sums of money to bogus clairvoyants.
Probably one of the biggest psychic scams of all time revolves around the name of Italian clairvoyant Ms. Duval (also known as Maria Gamba).
Over a couple of decades, victims have received letters, often sent out in random mass mailings, claiming Ms. Duval could read their future, identify their problems, and provide them with solutions to transform their lives.
The letters were often personalized with names of the recipients. In other cases, victims responded to newspaper and magazine advertisements.
All they had to do was send money. Investigators reckon the scam has netted its operators as much as $180 million in the U.S. and considerably more than that worldwide.
The trouble is, no one is quite sure where and to whom the money has gone, though it seems likely much of it has ended up in China.
Ms. Duval, who is believed to be still alive as of this writing, supposedly sold her successful astrological prediction company to another firm back in the '90s but her name is still being used as the source of this firm's psychic predictions.
The long, rambling letters make unsubstantiated claims in Ms. Duval's name about her psychic skills and then go on to say she has, in the words of online information site Wikipedia, "telepathically received an important and urgent message" for the recipient.
"A special constellation of the stars ... means that an important time period has begun in the life of the recipient," Wikipedia adds.
"The most important wishes of the recipient can become reality now but only with the assistance of Maria Duval."
The letters and ads then offer some sort of talisman, such as a crystal or a secret document that supposedly can be used for a psychic or telepathic connection with the clairvoyant.
"These letters seem to be written by professional marketers using several well-known marketing methods," Wikipedia notes.
Victims are often asked to send in samples of their handwriting and other personal items to convince them that the personal service aspect is genuine.
Needless to say, there is no verifiable evidence that any part of this service -- which costs between $20 to $100 at a time -- has ever produced any beneficial results.
By its very nature, the scam has often attracted victims who are already in dire straits, perhaps through illness, financial loss, family troubles, and other misfortunes -- in other words, the most vulnerable who can least afford to be conned.
Earlier this year, an investigation by broadcaster CNN identified a "huge business network" as being behind the scam.
There even seems to be some doubt about whether Ms. Duval really exists and whether, in fact, she is the person in a video supposedly of her on YouTube.
However, CNN claims to have interviewed Ms. Duval's son who told them she had lost control of her name and that she herself was a victim of the scam.
According to the broadcaster, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service has labeled the scam as one of the largest consumer fraud cases it has ever encountered "with more than a million Americans misled into believing they are purchasing personalized advice and unique artifacts."
CNN adds: "In reality, postal inspectors say the Duval letters are mass produced and the trinkets are worthless pieces of plastic from China."
In May of this year, a Department of Justice injunction barring certain named people, including Ms. Duval, from sending letters to people on U.S. soil was made permanent.
Criminal investigations into the scam are ongoing and stretch across the entire globe. As with the U.S., many countries have now taken legal action to halt the solicitations, although some people are still receiving them.
As for whether victims can hope to get any of their money back, that seems like a long shot, since no one knows where the cash has ended up and who the real masterminds behind the scam really are.
Announcing the injunction, U.S. Attorney Robert L. Capers for the Eastern District of New York said: "To line their own pockets, the defendants preyed upon the superstition and desperation of millions of vulnerable Americans. We will use every means at our disposal to protect our citizens from fraudulent schemes like this, that target the lonely, the ill, and the elderly."
If you're interested in seeing the five-part CNN investigation into the Maria Duval scam, start here: Chapter One: Who is behind one of the biggest scams in history?
Alert of the Week
Attention, veterans and their families!
Watch out for solicitations by mail, email, and face-to-face offering veteran burial plots for sale at special prices. It's almost certainly a scam.
To make the offer seem more convincing, victims are often asked to complete a series of forms before handing over money -- usually cash. Then they never hear of the program again.
If anyone approaches you with a deal like this, don't give any money or complete forms. Instead, contact your local office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to check it out.
That's all for today -- we'll see you next week.