April 1, 2022

Some people hunger for thrillers. Others feast on true-crime podcasts. My underrated source of tales of mind-boggling malfeasance is the ‘Scams’ section of the Guardian’s money pages, where no gimmicks are required. Here are stories of deception to chill the blood: the man on a dating site who extorted money from a new partner by claiming that he was being held hostage by loan sharks; the retired nurse who was tricked into paying £160,000 to a phoney financial company in Indonesia; the widower who thought he was assisting the National Crime Agency but ended up losing everything, including his house, and living with a “courier” who, in a further twist, was the fraudster’s victim-turned-employee.

If I’m right in thinking that none of these real-life horror stories has yet been adapted for the screen, then I’m surprised, because the scam, the fraud, the grift, the hoax, the long con, has become a cultural obsession. In the space of three months, Netflix alone has given us The Tinder Swindler, Inventing Anna, The Dropout, Bad Vegan, and Trust No One. False identities and weaponised charm are at the heart of the BBC dramas The Serpent and Chloe. There are hit podcasts about fiendish deception, too: Tortoise’s Sweet Bobby and the BBC’s The Missing Cryptoqueen. These stories have some of the attraction of the paranoid thriller, except that most of them are true and the victims aren’t nearly paranoid enough.

Popular culture has always magnified and marketed our fears — the Bomb, terrorism, technology out of control — and it’s not hard to see why we are currently preoccupied by deception. The 2008 crisis revealed that the global financial system was a Ponzi scheme built on the repackaging of mortgage debt, and almost nobody went to jail for it. Since then, a number of ballyhooed tech start-ups and cryptocurrencies have turned out to be built on sand. Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes — the subject of The Dropout, a book, a documentary, a podcast series and the forthcoming Adam McKay movie Bad Blood — is only the most extreme example of a slick entrepreneur who exploited hype and greed to pull in vast sums of money for digital snake oil.

In the world of politics, we have seen an American president whose entire career was a series of escalating lies and a Russian president whose name has become synonymous with disinformation, while the sphere of online political commentary buzzes with unreliable narrators. We have also become more comfortable with amateur psychology. I don’t remember this much talk about sociopaths, narcissists and toxic fantasists a decade ago. I don’t remember gaslighting.

Pulling all these strands together is the internet, whose initially exciting promise of the freedom to build a new identity online has, perhaps inevitably, led us into a Kafkaesque maze of scammers, fantasists and catfishers. We haven’t all been fooled into transferring our life savings into a fake account but we all know that it could happen because we’re constantly bombarded with fraud warnings and phishing emails. According to Which?, UK account-holders lost around £2.3bn to scams in the financial year 2020-21. So-called “romance frauds”, the cruellest of the lot, stole £100m in 2021. The prospect of being scammed isn’t an exotic possibility, like being eaten by a shark; it’s one careless click away.

Traditionally, there are three ways to tell the story of a con. In a movie like The Sting or Hustlers, the viewer is embedded with the scammers, who are usually charming rogues relieving gangsters and corporations of their ill-gotten gains. As a genre, it overlaps with the heist movie: you can applaud their chutzpah and artistry guilt-free. The new movie Operation Mincemeat, like Ben Affleck’s Argo, depicts an ornate ruse targeted at a tyrannical regime in order to save lives. Who could object to a story about scamming Hitler?

Conversely, a movie such as The Spanish Prisoner plants us in the clammy hands of the person being scammed. There is always that stomach-emptying, blood-freezing trapdoor moment when the victim finds out that their charismatic new friend’s “office” is empty and their “company” no more than a letterhead. In the third category, The Talented Mr Ripley supplies the paradoxical double pleasure of identifying with both scammer and scammed. You find yourself simultaneously rooting for both Ripley and his pursuers: catch the bastard, but not quite yet.

The fresh ingredient in the current wave of griftervision is the internet, presented here as a machine for lying. Only The Serpent is set in a different era — Charles Sobhraj murdered at least 20 tourists in southeast Asia in the Seventies — and involves crimes that would have been impossible to cover up in the age of social media updates and CCTV. Then again, you can imagine how a modern-day Sobhraj would adapt to the online age, sculpting new identities on digital platforms rather than razoring passports. That’s how Erin Doherty’s imposter Becky (aka Sasha) infiltrates Bristol’s bourgeois elite in Chloe. The show ultimately cops out by having her uncover crimes far worse than pretending to be a posh gallerist with demented dress sense — the people she is deceiving are the real rotters — but the details of her process are compelling. All the information she needs to inveigle her way into their lives (and by extension yours or mine) is freely available online.

Like Tom Ripley, or Aubrey Plaza’s Instagram-addicted character in the black comedy Ingrid Goes West, Becky is a frustrated outsider who uses her wits to penetrate a bubble of smug privilege. Her imposture is a form of class warfare. Scam stories are misleadingly easy to savour when they target the vacuous, obnoxious rich rather than vulnerable pensioners in small towns. “Stories about blatant con-artists,” writes Jia Tolentino in her essay The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams, “allow us to have the scam both ways: we get the pleasure of seeing the scammer exposed and humiliated, but also the retrospective, vicarious thrill of watching the scammer take people for a ride.”

Tolentino awards the title of quintessential millennial scam to the Fyre festival: “the most gleefully covered disaster of 2017”. Promoter Billy McFarland, who attempted to organise a luxury festival in four months despite never having so much as attended a festival, is an appalling dolt but he was fleecing the kind of people who would consider blowing $400,000 on a VIP beach house at the behest of an Instagram influencer, so that made it funny. The Bahamian workers who got stiffed received far less attention in a story that became the Coachella of schadenfreude, the Instagram Altamont.

The story of Anna Delvey, played by Julia Garner in Inventing Anna, has a similar soak-the-rich quality. Delvey was an art-school dropout who blagged her way into the high life by posing as a German heiress. In reality, though, the victims of scams often have neither money nor power. The Missing Cryptoqueen cuts between the glamorous antics of Dr Ruja Ignatova, architect of a pyramid scheme based on the bogus cryptocurrency OneCoin, and the ordinary lives she has ruined. The series drives home the human cost of her multi-billion-dollar grift by ending on some of her victims in Uganda. The best scam narratives are as concerned with the victims as they are enthralled by the swindlers.

Money is at least a comprehensible motive for ripping a hole in somebody’s life. Sweet Bobby unravels how a successful young woman ensnared her cousin in a catfishing scam which lasted eight years and involved more than 60 fictional characters, but never why. The culprit, Simran Bhogal, seems to regard it as a consensual game, a fantasy to pass the time. She comes across as tetchy and aggrieved by the suggestion that she’s the bad guy. The successful scammer combines delusional self-belief with nihilistic contempt for the suckers, yet when they are exposed it often feels as if there is really nothing there. You rip off the mask and the face is blank.

If the only information available about modern dating were from TV, movies and podcasts, nobody would dare do it. Catfish: The TV Show, inspired by the 2010 movie about online deception, is now in its eighth season. Simon Leviev, the villain in The Tindler Swindler, was an Israeli conman who used the money he’d tricked out of one woman to convince the next woman that he was a wealthy playboy, and so on to the tune of $10m. Like “Bobby” in Sweet Bobby and Anthony Strangis in Bad Vegan, Leviev crafted an elaborate narrative, buttressed with phoney digital evidence and dramatic twists involving pernicious foe. Strangis built an even more ambitious alternative reality around his mark, the vegan restaurateur Sarma Melngailis. “I feel close to former cult members because we understand one another,” Melngailis said recently. Theranos, OneCoin and LuLaRoe, the fashion line-cum-pyramid scheme covered in the documentary LuLaRich, have also been compared to cults. The object of the scammer is to inspire belief and silence doubts.

Such stories won’t be the last. In the most generous reading, they are useful cautionary tales, like very expensive fraud warnings, which equip us to deal with the next German heiress or Israeli diamond dealer who comes along and asks us for a bridging loan. “I want this stuff to be useful, not merely fodder for people’s creepy entertainment,” Melngailis said.

It’s a nice thought but in practice these stories often inspire victim-blaming rather than empathy. By anatomising the plot after the fact, they invite viewers both to marvel at the reality-bending audacity of these charismatic devils and fully believe that they would not have fallen for it. Why someone would maintain an eight-year relationship with a person they’d never met can seem as inexplicable as why someone would pay £160,000 to a company that they had no history with, or invest in a cryptocurrency that doesn’t work, but it happens. Being vulnerable and credulous is not a rare condition. So I worry that this kind of entertainment breeds suspicion and paranoia, but I worry more that it is justified.

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