A federal jury in the Eastern District of New York convicted a Canadian man today for perpetrating a decades-long mass-mailing fraud scheme that stole more than $175 million from victims in the United States.
According to court documents and evidence presented at trial, Patrice Runner, 57, a Canadian and French citizen, operated a mass-mailing fraud scheme from 1994 through November 2014. As part of the scheme, Runner sent letters to millions of U.S. consumers, many of whom were elderly and vulnerable. The letters falsely purported to be individualized, personal communications from so-called “psychics,” including Maria Duval (leading this type of fraud scheme to be referred to as a “Maria Duval Scam”), and promised that the recipient had the opportunity to achieve great wealth and happiness with the psychic’s assistance, in exchange for payment of a fee. Once a victim made a single payment in response to one of the letters, the victim was bombarded with dozens of additional letters, all purporting to be personalized communications from the psychics and offering additional services and items for a fee.
Although the scheme’s letters frequently stated that a psychic had seen a personalized vision regarding the recipient of the letter, in fact, the scheme sent nearly identical form letters to tens of thousands of victims each week. Runner and his co-conspirators obtained the names of elderly and vulnerable victims by renting and trading mailing lists with other mail fraud schemes. In reality, the so-called “psychics” identified in the letters sent by the scheme had no role in sending the letters, did not receive responses from the victims, and did not send the additional letters after victims paid money. Some victims made dozens of payments in response to the fraudulent letters, losing thousands of dollars.
Runner directed the scheme for the entirety of its 20-year operation, providing instructions to co-conspirators who ran the day-to-day operations through a Canadian company. Runner used a series of shell companies registered in Canada and Hong Kong to hide his involvement in the scheme while living in multiple foreign countries, including Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, and Spain.
Runner was extradited from Spain to the United States in December 2020.
“This case exemplifies the commitment of the Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Branch and its partners in the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to investigating and prosecuting fraud schemes targeting Americans, no matter where in the world those schemes originate,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “We will work with our law enforcement partners in the United States and around the world to bring to justice criminals who target Americans.”
“For over 20 years, Patrice Runner managed a predatory scheme that targeted older American by mailing personalized letters to millions of victims purporting to be from a world renown psychic. Yesterday’s verdict should have come as no surprise to Mr. Runner,” said Inspector in Charge Chris Nielsen of the Postal Inspection Service’s Philadelphia Division. “Postal Inspectors are committed to protecting American consumers by eliminating these fraudulent mailings from the mailstream.”
Runner was convicted of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, eight counts of mail fraud, four counts of wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering. He was found not guilty on four counts of mail fraud.
Runner will be sentenced at a later date and faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison on each count. He remains in prison pending sentencing. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
Four other people previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud in connection with this mass-mailing fraud scheme: Maria Thanos, 59, of Montreal, Canada; Philip Lett, 52, of Montreal, Canada; Sherry Gore, 72, of Indiana; and Daniel Arnold, 61, of Connecticut.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service investigated the case. Assistant Director John W. Burke and Trial Attorneys Charles B. Dunn, Rachel Baron, and Ann Entwistle of the Justice Department’s Consumer Protection Branch are prosecuting the case. The Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs worked with law enforcement partners in Spain to secure the arrest and extradition of Runner.
The department urges individuals to be on the lookout for lottery, prize notification, and sweepstakes scams. If you receive a phone call, letter, or email promising a large prize in exchange for a fee, do not respond. Fraudsters often will use official-sounding names or the names of real lotteries or sweepstakes, or pretend to be a government agent purportedly helping to secure a prize.
If you or someone you know is age 60 or older and has experienced financial fraud, experienced professionals are standing by at the National Elder Fraud Hotline: 1-833-FRAUD-11 (1-833-372-8311). This U.S. Department of Justice hotline, managed by the Office for Victims of Crime, can provide personalized support to callers by assessing the needs of the victim and identifying relevant next steps. Case managers will identify appropriate reporting agencies, provide information to callers to assist them in reporting, connect callers directly with appropriate agencies, and provide resources and referrals, on a case-by-case basis. Reporting is the first step. Reporting can help authorities identify those who commit fraud and reporting certain financial losses due to fraud as soon as possible can increase the likelihood of recovering losses. The hotline is open Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. ET. English, Spanish and other languages are available. The Federal Trade Commission also provides a hotline at 877-FTC-HELP and a website at www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov to receive consumer complaints.