By ELEANOR BLACK
She's a glamorous European blonde who claims to see the future and has been published in newspapers worldwide.
Problem is, she does not exist.
Maria Duval is the name used by a mail-order company which sends persuasive "personalised" letters promising the key to wealth, health and love - for a price.
The Ministry of Consumer Affairs is keeping an eye on the scam, but that has not stopped Astroforce, the company which collects mail addressed to Maria Duval, from peppering New Zealand with invitations to untold happiness.
An Auckland woman who contacted the Herald wrote to the clairvoyant after seeing a newspaper ad offering a free 15-page prediction and "powerful" talisman. She was bombarded with demands for money, a total of $500 in the space of three months.
Pamela Rogers, of the ministry, said Astroforce had been traced to the United States and might have Canadian and Hong Kong connections.
It had also blanketed Europe, the United States, and Australia with letters.
But Maria Duval was just one of hundreds of phony mailout clairvoyants. One emerged about every six weeks, she said.
Most used the same style, although the people behind the Maria Duval scam made a special effort to personalise mass mailouts by adding notes in handwriting-style printing. While the schemes offered a range of exotic services, they generally provided only a few "lucky numbers" and played on the recipient's loneliness and poor finances.
"You won't get anything of value. And once you have sent funds overseas, they're not subject to New Zealand laws."
Auckland police spokeswoman Noreen Hegarty said it was a case of buyer beware: "Before you start handing money over, investigate who you're handing money to."
The first letter received by the Auckland woman arrived on August 31 accompanied by excerpts from apparent newspaper stories about Duval.
"I can assure you that your case is one of the most astounding I have encountered in a long time," said the letter, encouraging the woman to spend $100 on a "personal positive magneto psychic aid".
"The standard fee is $300 but I have seen that your life has not always been easy and I don't want to take advantage of you."
About a week-and-a-half later came an offer for a 13-month forecast, for another $100, and two weeks after that the talisman arrived, a cardboard picture of the blonde seen in the newspaper ad, with an invitation to "93 days of intense happiness", for $80.
"That, to me, is not what it states in the first advert, that everything is free, free, free," said the woman. A month later she was offered "three telepathic actions" for $80 and two weeks after that, a "secret lucky numbers study" for $90.
When there was no response, the woman received a final letter, on November 27.
The "clairvoyant" said she was about to delete the woman's name from her database but offered a mystery gift, astral prediction and calendar of luck for $60.