My Psychic Scam Letter to CSICon: Presenting the Balles Prize for Critical Thinking

October 23, 2019

On Friday night at CSICon 2019 in Las Vegas, I presented the Balles Prize in Critical Thinking to reporters Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken for their book A Deal with the Devil, which was about the infamous “Maria Duval scam,” in which a fake psychic scammed people out of millions of dollars through very personal-seeming letters. Ellis and Hicken couldn’t be there in person, but they did accept the award via prerorded video message.

Anyway, I thought I’d take a cue from the con, as it were, and introduce the award in a sort of Duvalian style. What follows are my remarks.

My dearest skeptic friends.

For my job with the Center for Inquiry, I work from my home in Maine, so it’s rare for me to be in the company of the people I work with, and rarely do I meet any of the folks, like you, who make up our wider community. But even if I haven’t met you in person…gosh…I feel like I know you so well! It’s like we grew up together! 

And it’s because I feel so close to you in this moment, to each and every one of you, that I can say this with such enthusiasm and unjustified confidence: Your life is going to change! Big, amazing things are right over the horizon for you! I can see it! If only you make the right decisions for your life right now.

Look, I get it. Things are not what they ought to be. This isn’t the life or the world you imagined for yourself. For your family. For your planet. Listen to me: I understand. I see you. I have been there and I am there with you. When you lie awake late at night and worry about those bills – am I right? – that big opportunity you missed – it still stings! I feel it. I see it. But I also see you overcoming it. Yes, you!

I see you coming upon a large sum of money! Let’s say! And that sudden change leads to bigger changes! I see love! I see hope! I see a new day dawning for you!

But I also see something else. I see the pain and the regret and I see it growing. Darkness darkening

But don’t worry. I am right there with you. That hand you feel patting your back? That’s me and it’s totally platonic and not at all inappropriate. And I know that you can choose the path to happiness. 

I know what you’re asking yourself right now. I hear it. Literally, I hear it. “How?” 

The Robert P. Balles Prize for Critical Thinking, of course.

This gorgeous and surprisingly heavy crystal-artifact-talisman-power-trophy is what’s gonna light your way through this miasma of melancholy and into the lens flare of true happiness slash wealth slash purpose slash companionship slash fulfillment. I know, I know, I can’t believe how easy it is either!

Attaining this power is so simple! All you have to do is send me $10,000 by check, money order, PayPal, Venmo, wire transfer, backpack full of unmarked bills, rolls of quarters, McDonald’s gift certificates, Pokemon Cards, CoinStar redemption code, or Bitcoin, but not Facebook Libra, and this power can be yours. Forever.

And your money can be mine. For probably a very short time.

Just kidding. 

This award is not a power crystal, but it is heavy, and it is indeed the 2018 Robert P. Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking, a $2,500 award bestowed by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry upon the creator of the published work that best exemplifies healthy skepticism, logical analysis, or empirical science. The prize was established by Robert P. Balles, a practicing Christian, along with the Robert P. Balles Endowed Memorial Fund, a permanent endowment fund for the benefit of CSI. 

This year, the Balles Prize goes to investigative reporters Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken for their book A Deal with the Devil: The Dark and Twisted True Story of One of the Biggest Cons in History, which unravels a dizzying tale of psychic fraud that spanned several decades and fleeced mostly elderly victims of over $200,000,000.

Ellis and Hicken’s book began with their fraud investigations for CNN Money, when they found that many elderly Americans had been giving away enormous sums of money to a woman named Maria Duvall who claimed to have psychic powers. Through personalized letters, Duvall made promises to grant the recipients health and riches—if they sent her money. The authors wrote that these letters “appealed to the most base emotions of fear, loneliness, and hope—making it nearly impossible for victims to resist”…which is exactly what I just tried to pull of on you, and I sort of hope it still might work. 

But the authors discovered that the scam was much bigger than letters from a sketchy psychic, revealing an enterprise in consumer fraud on a massive scale, involving the buying and selling of personal information from data brokers, the emotional manipulation of vulnerable populations, and even the adoption and expansion of the con by organized crime.

When people ask “what’s the harm?” when it comes to people pretending to have psychic powers, this work by Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken shows that the manipulation of people’s very real and deeply felt hopes and fears is not just “for entertainment purposes only.” And it’s not just about gullible people who should have known better. These are highly sophisticated criminal enterprises, using our own data against us. A Deal with the Devil shows us that today, when we are awash in misinformation, we need skepticism and critical thinking more than ever. 

For this invaluable and timely work, we are happy to award the 2018 Balles Prize in Critical Thinking to Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken.