Mar. 12, 2019 (Courtesy of CNN.com) – Two people have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud for their roles in one of the biggest consumer scams in history, according to court documents unsealed this week. Canadian citizens Maria Thanos and Philip Lett managed the day-to-day operations of Infogest Direct Marketing, according to the documents. Previous government filings show that this Canadian company used letters allegedly written by French clairvoyant
Maria Duval to prey on the sick and elderly. Infogest ran the North American arm of the scam, raking in more than $200 million from more than 1.4 million victims in the United States and Canada. Their alleged boss, who the government says was the leader of Infogest, has also been charged. Patrice Runner faces 18 counts of mail and wire fraud and conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. Court records show that Runner’s arrest warrant was provided to both Interpol and authorities in Spain, where the Department of Justice says he was arrested in December. Social media suggests he lives in Ibiza, Spain, and the Spanish government is now considering an extradition request by the United States, according to the DOJ.
It is unclear whether Runner has entered a plea, and he has not yet had a US court appearance. His attorney says Runner “is contesting the validity of any criminal accusation that might be held against him by any authority whatsoever.”
The criminal charges are the first brought by the US government against any of the scam’s key players. Many other perpetrators — including some of the original masterminds — remain at large around the world.
A long list of government agencies have spent decades trying to end the scam, and the US government finally shut it down for good in the United States in 2016. As part of a settlement, Infogest, Thanos, Lett and others were barred from sending the letters on US soil. But at the time, the company and employees did not admit to any wrongdoing.
According to the US government allegations, Runner was actively running Infogest from behind the scenes and used a variety of shell companies to hide his involvement as he profited from it while living in Canada, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, France and Spain. Documents say money from the scheme was transferred to bank accounts controlled by Runner and others in places like Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
Thanos and Lett each face up to 20 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines, and have not yet been sentenced. Their attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Runner could face up to 20 years in prison for each of the 18 counts against him, as well as millions in fines, if successfully extradited to the United States and found guilty of the charges.
Runner could face up to 20 years in prison for each of the 18 counts against him, as well as millions in fines, if successfully extradited to the United States and found guilty of the charges.
Using the name and image of Duval, along with that of another French psychic named Patrick Guerin, letters were sent to people all over the world promising that her psychic guidance and talismans could turn their lives around. All they needed to do was send money.
At Infogest, Lett and Thanos worked to obscure the letters’ true origins — sending them zigzagging around North America before they landed in victims’ mailboxes. The executives, according to court filings, also purchased and swapped lists of possible victims, handled the writing and proofreading of the letters, chose the cheap trinkets to be sent in exchange for payments and ensured that new letters continued to bombard the elderly victims sending in their money.
A CNN investigation in 2016 found that the hoax had been perpetrated by a massive business network, which had kept the scheme alive by exporting it around the world to players like the Infogest executives charged with fraud. One of the biggest discoveries in CNN’s investigation was that Duval was indeed a real person and not a fictitious character, and she too had received money from the scam — though her family insisted her name and image were hijacked by businessmen who made far more money.
Last year, US investigators flew to France in an effort to interrogate her and search her property. But, CNN learned, she now suffers from dementia and could not be questioned. Criminal charges have not been filed against her, and these new indictments appear to back up her family’s claims that she was not the one actually writing the letters sent in her name. The documents do not reveal any additional information about the extent of her involvement.
As part of its past investigation, the US government was able to return more than $200,000 worth of cash and money order payments sent in by nearly 6,000 victims, according to United States Postal Inspection Service figures. These funds had yet to be processed by a business involved with the scheme and were still in their envelopes when recovered by investigators. Along with pending checks and credit payments that were stopped, the investigation saved victims about $827,000.
Most victims haven’t received any money back. And even if more money is recouped, it is extremely difficult to distribute it to victims because of issues of fairness and difficulty in determining who is owed the funds.