Google any of the businesses and self-declared psychics named in a federal lawsuit Wednesday and you get a page full of warnings calling them scammers and charlatans. But then these frauds weren’t targeting anyone as smart as you. They were going after your grandma in Boca who can’t find the Google button on her VCR, and making more than $15 million a year with their mail-order psychic business.
The scam, as described in a complaint filed by the Justice Department on Wednesday, combined mass-mailing lists with a personal touch. In letters that addressed recipients by their first name and appeared handwritten in parts, the psychics promised great fortunes in store if only the recipients would send them a few dollars first. And hundreds of thousands did, sending personal checks and handwritten letters of their own, many of them “elderly and in a vulnerable financial condition,” according to the DOJ complaint.
The winning lottery numbers and foretold riches never arrived. In return for their money, the victims got “mass-produced trinkets and further solicitations.” Most only sent $20 to $50 at a time but that money added up. One of the defendants in the case, Data Marketing Group Ltd., sent out “56 million solicitations since 2006” and collected “about $13 million in victim payments annually,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office Eastern District of New York told The Daily Beast.
Two different operations are named in the DOJ complaint, along with a handful of companies and a short list of defendants that gets longer when you add on the aliases involved.
The first case involves Destiny Research Center, which appears to have no official Web presence but returns 119 complaints going back to 2009 on ripoffreport.com, and five pages worth of websites calling it a scam. A Google search for the company name returns Maria Duval’s Wikipedia page as the top result. Duval, born Carolina Maria Gambia in Milan, Italy, helpfully explains on her own website why she came to be investigated by the Postal Inspection Service’s Criminal Investigation Group.
In the video, called “clairvoyance by mail,” Duval looks well preserved in her bleached blond hair and spray-on tan, like a great-aunt who retired to the Riviera with her third husband, the taxidermist. It won’t hold up in court but the video is like a grifter infomercial, with Duval sitting between the sculpture of a saint and a doctor’s office Modernist painting as she explains in French how her mentalist powers can be sent through the mail.
This isn’t Duval’s first run-in with the law. In 2004 the Postal Service filed an administrative complaint “alleging that Duval and others were conducting a scheme or device for obtaining money or property through the mail by means of false representation.” Court documents show that a cease and desist order against Duval didn’t stop her from continuing to solicit money by mail.
Duval isn’t the only psychic behind Destiny Research Center, and its affiliated company Infogest Direct Marketing. Her partner in the scheme was Patrick Guerin, whose own Google results, once you scroll below the ripoffreports complaints and “postal scams” warning page, bring you to a testimonials website, where you can view the authentic-sounding feedback from his satisfied and assuredly human customers. The very first testimonial: “Master Guerin, I have received your statue and the medallion, which has brought me the happiness that comes from well-being. With the $60 that I had left, I felt the urge to bet on 6 horses on a triple and 6 horses on a quadruple. I won $39,659.00. I thank you so much.”
Above the notes of praise is a small photo of Guerin wearing a polka dot tie and pocket square, staring at you like a sociopath. On Guerin’s official page, which is in French, he’s a bit more inviting, beckoning the visitor in with a placid New Age smile and a backdrop of Tarot cards.
A testimonial from the government’s investigation lays out how the Destiny Research Center deals with its customers. When the pitch works and they receive a response to the company’s solicitations, “Maria Duval and Patrick Guerin, among others, strips out the payments, records the fact that a consumer responded and the payment method in a massive customer database, and then discards the response.”
Master Guerin is named as a defendant in the government’s fraud case along with Madame Duval.
A second scam using a parallel model—because tried and true is worth more than original in the mail-order psychic business—was run by Christine Moussu, according to the DOJ complaint.
Moussu’s outfit runs “through New York companies CLGE Inc. and I.D. Marketing Solutions Inc.,” and “sends direct-mail solicitations allegedly written by psychics David Phild, Sandra Rochefort, Antonia Donera, and Nicholas Chakan,” the complaint reads.
Court documents put CLGE’s earnings at between $1.5 million-$2 million annually. Zugiel Soto, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, reported that the company has “approximately 200,000 names in its database of people who have paid money to the defendant as part of the scheme.”
The last line of the DOJ complaint reminds us that all the charges against the seers and their shell companies “are allegations only.” There has been no determination of liability,” it concludes.