Looking for Maria Duval

Melanie Hicken and her CNN reporting partner detail a massive, decades-long scam that cost many their life savings. It’s all described in the reporters’ new book.

CNN reporter Melanie Hicken (right) with co-author Blake Ellis, in France

Who is Maria Duval? “To some a gifted psychic,” says CNN investigative reporter Melanie Hicken ’09 BA (Hist/PSc), “to others, the face of one of the biggest cons in history.” For decades, letters signed by “Duval” have preyed on the lonely, weak, and elderly, offering psychic solutions to life’s problems in exchange for cash. In the United States and Canada alone, at least 1.4 million victims have sacrificed more than $200 million to this scam.

While investigating financial crimes for CNN Money, Hicken and her CNN reporting partner Blake Ellis decided to explore the Duval scam — then widespread but not well-known. The result was a five-part CNN web series and, last summer, a book, A Deal With the Devil (Atria), which documents the reporters’ journey to discoveries eluding even global investigators. They found orchestrators of a massive, all-encompassing consumer fraud hiding away in places like Monaco and Thailand, and traveled to France to confront Duval. Addled by dementia, she remembered little, but a son claims the psychic had long ago sold her identity, and had little to do with the scam.

For CNN, Hicken (who also majored in journalism at Syracuse) and Ellis have researched topics ranging from nursing home sexual abuse to government-hired private debt collectors. They were Peabody Award finalists for coverage of guns in America.

This article appeared in the spring 2019 print edition of Maxwell Perspective © Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.