Magnets repelled

Magnetic fields are no better for your water or your car than they are for your arthritis

Powermax magnetic water-treatment conditioners have been controversial since they were introduced in New Zealand in 1998. Now they’ve been withdrawn and the Consumer’s Institute believes customers are due a refund.

Questionable science

Powermax is simple – two magnets clip to your water pipe. It’s imported by Pat Julian of Julian’s Electrical and Energy Conservation in Inglewood. Julian’s is also the importer of a similar dubious gadget, Fuelmax. Julian has made many claims about Powermax’s powers. These include: eliminating bacteria and parasites; dissolving faecal wastes; removing silt, chlorine and scale; stabilising pH; and stopping diarrhoea in cows.

Julian’s website said Powermax worked on the principle of “magnetic frequency resonation”. That might sound scientific but a Google search shows this was the only website in the world to use the term! The website also gave a brief explanation of how it works. “In simple terms, when the water passes through the magnetic field the magnetic polarity of the molecules reverse. The molecules separate, break down into microscopic size and remain in suspension.”

We asked two professional chemists to assess these claims. Both agreed that the statements were meaningless. One told us it generated gales of laughter from his colleagues. The other said, “It’s all gobbledegook wrapped up with some scientific buzz-words to make it sound authentic to the average Joe Blow.” Neither scientist believed the Powermax could do what it claimed to do. We asked importer Pat Julian about his website and its claims. He said the information on the website came from the manufacturer, International Research and Development (IR&D). “It’s not just something we had dreamed up – we don’t work like that.” Julian also offered to provide customer testimonials.

Questionable products

Readers started asking Consumer’s Institute about Powermax in 1999. We said then we had doubts that the magnets could affect bacteria.

Our doubts were borne out in 2001 when the Commerce Commission took Julian’s to court. Julian admitted that “Powermax does not and cannot” treat water for bacteria, parasites, giardia, cryptosporidium or faecal wastes. “People believing these spurious claims and then drinking or swimming in dirty water ‘conditioned’ by Powermax are at risk of potentially serious illness,” Commission chair John Belgrave said. Julian says he refunded dissatisfied customers at the time.

The Commission also criticised Julian for accepting IR&D’s claims. “Distributors are responsible for the goods they provide and must take reasonable steps to check them. They cannot simply rely on claims made by a manufacturer,” the Commission said.

Then in 2001 Julian took exception to a TV One item about Powermax. He tried to sue for defamation but the case was settled this year before it got to court. And this year US courts ordered IR&D to stop promoting Fuelmax.

Fuelmax is a magnetic gizmo for fuel lines in motor vehicles. The court decision related to claims that Fuelmax reduced emissions and fuel consumption. Julian’s withdrew Fuelmax in May as a result. Last month, after more questions from us about Powermax’s claimed performance, Julian withdrew that product from the market too.

Questionable claims

Julian says all the technical information for Fuelmax and Powermax came from manufacturer IR&D. He told us he was disappointed with the US court decision.

“IR&D certainly have not been honest with us. The technical explanations used in our sales literature came from the information supplied by them, and we are therefore currently investigating the question of taking legal action in the US to recover the costs of what is unsaleable stock.”

This raises two points. First, Julian was warned in 2001 that he could not rely on IR&D’s claims and he should check them out himself. And if he wants IR&D to repay him for unsaleable stock, then it’s only fair that he should refund anyone who bought a Fuelmax or Powermax from him.

Pat Julian says he still believes in magnetic water and fuel treatment, and he plans to import a similar range of products from a new manufacturer.

Consumer’s view

Anyone using Powermax or Fuelmax should return them to Julian’s Electrical and demand a refund. We believe you are entitled to one under the Consumer Guarantees Act, as the products are not fit for the purpose they were sold for. And Julian was warned in 2001 that he cannot rely on claims made by manufacturers. We hope he won’t fall into this trap again.

This article appeared originally in Consumer magazine. The institute is currently interested in magnetic and other fuel-saving devices. If you spot any, please send email to Martin Craig.

Not clairvoyant enough?

Psychic scammer Maria Duval failed to foresee trouble over ‘her’ misleading advertisements. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is funded by the advertising and media industries, and has the stated purpose of ensuring that advertising is socially responsible and truthful. The ASA administers the Advertising Standards Complaints Board, which is the body that hears complaints about ads, and the Advertising Standards Complaints Appeal Board.

Self-styled clairvoyant Maria Duval’s magic seems to have deserted her. Her company has pulled all its New Zealand advertising, following a complaint the Consumers’ Institute of New Zealand made to the Advertising Standards Complaints Board (ASCB).

Who or what is Maria Duval?

Maria Duval is the frontname for a scam operating all over Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. It is listed as a scam on the Ministry of Consumer Affairs Scamwatch website and the Consumers’ Institute A-Z directory of scams.

We also published a news item on Maria Duval in February 2005, questioning why banks and credit card companies continue to profit from this scam.

The Ontario police, US Postal service, agencies in five Australian states, the New York Better Business Bureau and consumer agencies in Europe have all investigated or warned against the Maria Duval scam. We complained to the ASCB after Sunday News and the Timaru Herald published large advertisements promoting Maria Duval.

The ads promised to fulfil seven wishes for no charge – “Nothing to pay, everything is FREE!” it claimed. Among other things, you could expect to “win the lottery jackpot within a fortnight”, successfully bet on the horses, and “solve [your] financial problems once and for all”.

The underlying reason behind the ads was to build a list of potential victims, who would then be hounded to pay for dubious psychic services.

We have heard from several New Zealanders who have paid large sums to the Maria Duval scam, including some who have gone into debt.

The ASCB’s decision

The ASCB upheld our complaint. It stated that the “Complaints Board was unanimously of the view that the advertisement would create unrealistic expectations of life-changing benefits”, and therefore “there was no doubt it would be likely to mislead and abuse the trust of the consumer.”

Following our complaint, Swiss ad agency Infogest suspended all Maria Duval print ads in New Zealand.

Martin Craig is an investigative writer at the Consumers’ Institute of New Zealand.

How to complain to the ASA

  • Don’t complain very often. Every TV ad for alcohol generates a complaint from Kate Sheppard types who are opposed to the product rather than the ad. To the ASA’s credit, every one of these complaints is considered before rejection.
  • Be specific. The ASA has set criteria for complaints. Some of the complaints it gets are very vague – eg, two males kissing (in a safe sex ad) is disgusting and shouldn’t be allowed. Read the criteria, say which criteria you think the ad breaches, and say why it breaches them.
  • Be realistic. The ASA has no legal powers. It is a self-regulation tool used by the advertising industry. In fact, to have your complaint accepted you must waive your right to use legal channels. The ASA can have a specific ad pulled but it cannot order fines or damages. It can’t order retractions or apologies either.
  • The advertiser gets a right to respond. One of the reasons we made this complaint was to discover who the Maria Duval advertiser is. Even if the complaint had been rejected, this information would have been useful.

The ASCB Maria Duval decision

On 14 June 2005 the Advertising Standards Complaints Board met to consider Complaint 05/116, filed by Martin Craig for the Consumers’ Institute, concerning the Maria Duval psychic services advertisements. This is an abridged version of their deliberations.

Complaint: The newspaper advertisements carried the following headline and offers:

“Maria Duval, the very celebrated clairvoyant, Makes you this strange offer:

See the 33 Wishes below, and choose those you’d Most like to see coming true in your life NOW!

“I’ll try to realize them FOR YOU FREE!”

Maria Duval.

Choose your 7 wishes NOW!

… 1. Win the lottery jackpot within a fortnight.

… 3. Win on the horses.

… 12. Do a round-the-world tour.

… 32. Solve my financial problems once and for all.

… 33. Be able to stop working with a substantial monthly income.

Nothing to pay, everything is FREE!

Receive also a free prediction

… offering you free a special personal prediction….”

It also contained the wording: “FREE FOR YOU” and “FREE OF CHARGE”

The Complainant, Consumer’s Institute, said:

“I am writing to complain about print advertising for Maria Duval, a known scam which is listed on the government’s Scamwatch website.

“While the ads in question did not require consumers to send money, Consumers’ Institute members report that requests for money quickly follow any response to this ad.

“The ads breach the Advertising Code of Ethics Rule 2 – Truthful presentation because they are likely to deceive or mislead the consumer, make false and misleading representation, abuse the trust of the consumer and exploit his/her experience and lack of knowledge.

“The ads breach the Advertising Code of Ethics Rule 6 – Fear, because they exploit the superstitious.

“The ads breach Rule 2 by stating ‘Nothing to pay, everything is free’; ‘I fully understand that I’ll never be asked for any money in return for your help with fulfilling my 7 secret wishes, either now or later’; and ‘Maria Duval…is going to undertake for you a ritual known by her alone, which will allow your secret wishes to come true in your life’.

“The ads breach Rule 6 by offering ‘more luck’; offering to perform ‘this very special ritual’ for the consumer; referring to ‘the astonishing powers of Maria Duval’; referring to ‘Miracles’; and offering to ‘allow your Secret Wishes to come true’.

“The Maria Duval scam is well-known and international. The purpose of the ads is to gather names and contact details from potential victims. Consumers will be contacted repeatedly and asked to pay money.

“We have heard from several New Zealanders who have paid large sums to the Maria Duval scam, including some who have gone into debt to do so. I also believe that publications act unethically by accepting advertisements for any product or service listed by Scamwatch. Publishers have no excuse for failing to monitor the site. Any publisher who accepts ad revenue from a scammer is profiting from the scam and is failing in their ethical responsibility to their readers.”

The chairman ruled that the following provisions were relevant:

Basic Principle 1: All advertisements must comply with the laws of New Zealand.

2. Truthful Presentation – Advertisements should not contain any statement or visual presentation or create an overall impression which directly or by implication, omission, ambiguity or exaggerated claim is misleading or deceptive, is likely to deceive or mislead the consumer, makes false and misleading representation, abuses the trust of the consumer or exploits his/her lack of experience or knowledge.

6. Fear – Advertisements should not exploit the superstitious, nor without justifiable reason, play on fear.

Counsel on behalf of the Advertiser said:

“Our clients instruct that, as far as they are aware, the advertisements in question are not in contravention of any laws of New Zealand. Our clients instruct that the advertisements are not misleading or deceptive, or are likely to mislead or deceive the public.

“Our clients note that Ms Duval’s services have been listed on the New Zealand Ministry of Consumer Affairs’ Scamwatch website as an astrology/psychic scam. Scamwatch defines astrology scams as promotions that ‘advise that you could come into a fortune if only you send funds to mail boxes for talismans, golden eggs or fortune telling guides to personal wealth’.

“Our clients instruct that Ms Duval’s services do not fall under this category. Ms Duval’s life mission is to help others, either in predicting the future or to fulfil their wishes in life. She is a real-life person who has a history of 25 years of accurate and verifiable predictions behind her. She regularly works with doctors and the police, and has been consulted by prominent people. She has made about 2400 television appearances, and has been a guest on radio programmes on more than 8400 occasions. She has also appeared in more than 700 press articles, and we enclose a montage of press clippings for your information and reference. As such, our clients are aggrieved that Ms Duval has been listed on Scam-watch, as Ms Duval does not deceive, exploit or mislead the public.

“With respect to the article that was published in the March 2005 edition of Consumer, our clients instruct that as far as they are aware, Ms Duval has never been investigated by the Ontario police, US Postal Service, the New York Better Business Bureau, or in Europe.

“Our clients deny that the advertisements in question are likely to deceive or mislead the consumer, make false and misleading representations, abuse the trust of the consumer and exploit his/her experience and lack of knowledge.

“Our clients also deny that the purpose of the advertisements is to gather names and contact details or to repeatedly request for money following the response to the advertisements. Our clients instruct that Ms Duval provides a bona fide service and does not exploit the consumer. If any payment is asked for in respect of readings or predictions by Ms Duval, our clients instruct that full refunds are given to customers who are not completely satisfied with her services. As such, our clients instruct that customers would not be prejudiced financially if they are not satisfied with Ms Duval’s services.

“Our clients deny that the advertisements in question are in breach of Rule 6. Even if the advertisements are targeted at those who believe in astrology, psychic or clairvoyant powers, our clients instruct that Ms Duval does not exploit these customers who hold such beliefs, and does not play on their fears. She offers a service to help people realise their dreams and to give them hope.

“Whilst our clients deny the allegations raised in your letter, they have decided to suspend all Maria Duval print advertisements in New Zealand until all issues relating to this complaint have been resolved. Our clients intend to seek assistance from legal counsel in New Zealand to assist them in developing print advertisements that will comply with the Advertising Codes of Practice in New Zealand.”

The Timaru Herald, Fairfax Sunday Newspapers and ACP Media Ltd made statements on behalf of the media in which they agreed to abide by the board’s decision, and/or not to run Maria Duval advertisements in the future.


The Complaints Board noted the Complainant, Consumers’ Institute was of the view that the advertisements abused the trust of the consumer by offering services they could not reasonably deliver, and as such it was misleading.

As a preliminary matter, the chairman clarified for the Complaints Board that it would not deliberate on Basic Principle 1 (All advertisements must comply with the laws of New Zealand), as the complaint did not refer to any specific law which the advertisement may or may not have breached.

Accordingly, the task before the Complaints Board was to determine whether the Maria Duval advertisement would be “likely to deceive or mislead the consumer” as stated in Rule 2 and/or whether it exploited the superstitious, thereby breaching Rule 6.

The Complaints Board advised that it was obliged to confine its consideration to the content of the actual advertisement rather than considering the subsequent interaction between the advertiser and the consumer as alleged by the Complainant. However, it did note that the advertiser had been listed on the Ministry of Consumer Affairs Scamwatch website, and this in its view indicated that the advertisement had been found to be misleading by that organisation. The Complaints Board was unanimously of the view that the advertisement would create unrealistic expectations of life changing benefits, and thereby it effected a serious breach of Rule 2 of the Code, as there was no doubt that it would be likely to mislead and abuse the trust of the consumer.

The Complaints Board was not required to make a ruling under Rule 6 of the Code, as the issues contained therein had been subsumed by Rule 2.

It noted that all Maria Duval advertisements had been suspended from publication in New Zealand by the advertiser and that legal counsel would be sought in the preparation of new advertisements to ensure they complied with the Advertising Codes of Practice. It also noted the responsible attitude taken by the media concerned with regard to future advertisements for Maria Duval, and that the Scam-watch website, having been brought to their attention, would be checked before publication of such advertisements in the future.

The Complaints Board ruled to uphold the complaint.