Conman who swindled $175m in ‘massive’ psychic fraud scheme sentenced to 10 years

<span>US authorities have been pursuing Patrice Runner since 2014.</span><span>Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA</span>
US authorities have been pursuing Patrice Runner since 2014.Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

A Canadian conman, who swindled more than US$175m (C$241m) from his North American victims through “a massive psychic mass-mailing fraud scheme” has been sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Patrice Runner, 57, who holds citizenship with both Canada and France, was convicted by a jury in June 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.

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On Monday, a New York judge handed down a decade-long sentence to Runner, whom US authorities had been pursing since 2014.

“Patrice Runner’s extravagant lifestyle, born on the backs of millions of older and vulnerable Americans, has come to an end,” Chris Nielsen, the inspector in charge of the US Postal Inspection Service’s Philadelphia division, said in a statement following the sentencing, calling it an “appropriate punishment”.

Among Runner’s scams, his companies sent letters, falsely purported to be individualized, to millions of people. The correspondence, written in cursive, was seemingly from the famed French psychic Maria Duval and promised the recipient an “opportunity to achieve great wealth and happiness with the psychic’s assistance”, according to the US Department of Justice.

Recipients were often “elderly and vulnerable” people and were encouraged to send a fee to Runner’s company for an “astral-clairvoyant forecast”. Once payment had been made, the recipient would then receive dozens of additional letters, all seemingly personalized, requesting additional fees. They were also asked to mail back personal items, such as locks of hair, palm prints and photos – “to conduct additional personalized rituals and astrological services”, according to the indictment.

Runner has maintained he never crossed a legal line in his mail business, Infogest Direct Marketing, arguing people would have asked for their money back if they were not satisfied.

“Maybe it’s not moral, maybe it’s bullshit,” he said in an interview with the Walrus magazine. “But it doesn’t mean it’s fraud.”

Runner has twice been found guilty of running scams by Canadian authorities. In 1991, a company held in Runner’s name was fined US$31,100 for falsely advertising the services of a clairvoyant who could predict winning lottery numbers. In 2000, a company under his name was fined US$362,000 by a Quebec court for misleading advertising about weight-loss products.

In the Walrus interview, made from a New York detention centre, Runner said the appeal of his long-running con lay in his ability to seize the attention of millions of people who, “after a few minutes … sends a cheque, to get a product, to an address or company they’ve never heard of”.

The court heard how letters were printed in Canada and transported by truck to Albany, New York, and then mailed out in large batches. Companies linked to him sent an estimated 56m letters over two decades between 1994 and 2014, raking in US$175m from nearly 1.5 million people across Canada and the US.

“The most lucrative years of the [Maria] Duval letter business were from 2005 to 2010,” Runner told the Walrus, referring to when he made US$23m in a single year.

The DOJ says Runner used a number of shell companies registered in Canada and Hong Kong as a way of masking his role in the fraud. He moved often, living in Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Costa Rica and Spain.

Law enforcement began investigating the scam in 2014 and shut down the operation two years later. In December 2020, after lengthy extradition negotiations, Runner was arrested in Ibiza and eventually flown to New York.

Four other people linked to the mass-mailing scam have all pleaded guilty.

Before the trial, Runner said he did not have enough to pay for a lawyer.

“I used to live like a rock star,” he said. “I was not cautious enough. I thought the mail-order business would be forever.”