The letters would arrive in the mail bearing magical talismans and promises of soon-to-be-realized fortunes — if the recipient acted quickly and sent back a $50 fee.
Tens of thousands of elderly people in the U.S. responded and sent money orders to post office boxes in Switzerland, but the windfalls never materialized. Federal prosecutors say it was all a scam.
Investigators say they have now reached an agreement to permanently shut down the French company behind the letters and that bars its owners from engaging in any type of mass mailing or prize promotion scheme in the U.S. ever again.
Inspectors with the U.S. Postal Service say that from March 2017 until June 2018 alone, the scheme netted $1.4 million in proceeds from approximately 34,000 victims. They say the operator of the scheme, Robert Lhez, had been running similar frauds dating back to at least 2012, so the money lost is likely far greater.
“The defendants have been known to postal inspectors for years, constantly changing their fraudulent schemes in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the law,” said Eric Shen, of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Federal prosecutors filed a civil complaint in Miami this week against Lhez and his two co-conspirators, Mireille Dayer and Julie Poulleau, and the companies they operated, Arcana Center and Partners VAD International Sarl. That was followed soon after by an agreement by Lehz and the others to cease doing business in the U.S. ever again.
“This was a civil matter that has been resolved with no findings or admission of wrongdoing,” said Lhez’s attorney, Andrew Lustigman. “This was not a significant business for him and my client is happy to put the matter behind him.”
Of the monetary losses quoted by prosecutors, Lustigman said he found them “hard to believe.”
Prosecutors say the scheme involved blanketing the country with hundreds of thousands of letters from purported psychics promising impending wealth if the recipient quickly sent back a fee.
“It’s now time for John to give the Invaluable Ruby, given to him by Maharaja de Jaipur, to a person who has a pressing need for money and blatant lack of luck,” read one letter purportedly sent by a clairvoyant named Helene Fay.
“[John] told me that his Mother was American and was called [victim’s name] and that he wanted the person who inherited the Precious Ruby of perfect destiny, to also bear the name [victim’s name],” the letter read. “You fit the profile exactly!”
Prosecutors said such schemes prey on the elderly and inflict more than just economic harm.
“Beyond financial losses, predatory fraud schemes like this one lead to immense emotional suffering for victims,” said Juan Antonio Gonzalez, acting U.S. attorney for the southern district of Florida. “We urge the public to question promotions that seem too good to be true and immediately report suspected fraud to law enforcement.”