MULVIE Wright, a 76-year-old widow from St Agnes, Cornwall, died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage in 2007. It was a terrible shock for her family, and their grief was compounded when they made a disturbing discovery after going through her effects in the annexe of her daughter's house, where she lived.
"Upstairs in her bedroom we found boxes and boxes of correspondence from fake clairvoyants," recalls her daughter, Louise. The family found that for the last 12 months of her life Mrs Wright had on a daily basis been writing, and paying money, to 34 bogus 'psychics' based in Luxembourg, Switzerland, the US and Ireland.
"We thought she'd been going out for walks, but she had actually been going to post these letters by registered mail," says Louise. In one month alone, Mrs Wright paid £400 to bogus clairvoyants.
To many people, unsolicited letters from phoney psychics or clairvoyants offering predictions or the promise of healing properties seem a blatant scam - less plausible even than the infamous Nigerian scams, where confidence tricksters claim to be associates of President Abacha of Nigeria, (or, more recently, Saddam Hussein) persuading hapless victims to deposit money into a bank account in the hope of receiving a larger sum. But the reality is that both are effective because the con men target the vulnerable.
Figures from the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) reveal that more than 170,000 people fell victim to clairvoyant scams, losing an average of £240 each. An estimated 70,000 victims were ripped off by the 'Nigerian' scams, at a total cost of £340m.
Jackie Snow, team leader at Cornwall's Trading Standards Office, has read the letters that Mrs Wright was flooded with over the last months of her life.
"They were particularly nasty,"she says. "They work by frightening people into doing all kinds of things, including parting with money."
Snow's office has issued a warning about corresponding with a 'clairvoyant-astrologer' who calls herself Samantha, after menacing letters were sent out widely in the area bearing an Austrian address and enclosing a jack of spades playing card.
"This letter reveals worrying events concerning your future," began one of the 'Samantha' letters sent to Mrs Wright. "It is the jack of spades card which dominated the deck of your destiny - a symbol of treason and disaster that you must absolutely destroy in order to avert the curse!'
Another fake psychic ('ever present to protect and assist you'), wrote bullying letters claiming that she was missing out on untold fortunes from a lottery win ('Dear Mulvie, Quite honestly I was expecting a reply from you. Even today I was impatiently waiting for the mailman...').
The OFT acknowledges that it does not know who is behind these malevolent cons. But they are clearly commercial companies rather than business-minded individuals, reckons Mike Lambourne, head of its 'Scambusters' campaign.
He explains that the scammers buy an address list from 'a list broker' and identify target groups such as those interested in psychic phenomena. Those who respond are added to a 'suckers list' and the scammer sells the names on to other con artists.
According to Lambourne, those who respond to the initial approach 'typically find themselves deluged by scam mailings and often lose thousands of pounds, causing not only financial detriment but also deleterious effects on their health'.
Louise Wright is convinced that the scammers' letters contributed to her mother's failing health and may have led to her death. "She had become increasingly withdrawn and wasn't communicating with us,' she says. "She had become obsessed by winning money which we didn't need. She had high blood pressure, which she was on medication for, and was becoming more and more stressed."
The OFT has tried to contact a number of the clairvoyants but, unsurprisingly, none has responded. Most letters come from outside Europe, where the OFT has no enforcement powers.
"We've written to our counterparts in Switzerland, where the majority of [European-based] psychics have return addresses, asking them to shut down the PO boxes used by the psychics and share any intelligence on those responsible for the mailings," Lambourne adds.
Louise Wright is still coming to terms with her mother's death. "She was a very fit and active 76-year-old. Every day she would dig her vegetable garden," says Louise.
In 2006, Mulvie Wright was diagnosed as clinically depressed. "I think she became vulnerable to depression in the winter, when she couldn't work in the greenhouse,"says Louise. Mrs Wright only spoke to her daughter once about the letters, when she received one from a psychic claiming to have walked past her house and felt 'a sense of evil'. Louise believes her mother might have 'grabbed on to it as an external reason for her depression'.
"Most people would open these kinds of letters and immediately know it was a scam. I find it very hard to understand why she fell for it," she says. "Dealing with her death has been very difficult for me. There is real anger there about what happened.'