2019 was deemed by many as the “year of the scam”. The competing Fyre Festival documentaries (Hulu’s Fyre Fraud and Netflix’s Fyre), and the success of Hustlers and The Laundromat grabbed audience’s attention with fictionalized depictions of real fraudsters. Streaming services carried this momentum into 2020 with scam documentaries, such as McMillions and Made You Look. In 2021, this only continued with Operation Varsity Blues, I Care A Lot, and LuLaRich depicting a variety of fraud stories rooted in truth. Now, only 3 months into 2022, we’ve seen five scam story releases already. From the dating horror stories of the victims of The Tinder Swindler, the bizarre character of Anna Sorokin in Inventing Anna, and the corporate catastrophes brought to light in Super Pumped, WeCrashed, and The Dropout, it seems that the year of the scam has become an era. These kinds of stories have always been told and have always been entertaining, but with the recent rise in media centered around fraud, it begs the question of why, and why now?
Scamming: The American Spirit
Outside the film and television industry, scamming is incredibly prominent. Just by reading the news, we can see major political scandals, election meddling, police misconduct, big bank bailouts, and other situations in which the fraudulent activities of major institutions have come to light. Many people find their faith in these people and the surrounding systems dwindling. The hope that justice will be served can feel unrealistic after constantly having to witness unjust situations. The idea of righteousness is increasingly fleeting. Scam media has the unique ability to provide audiences with a scrap of optimism. The sheer multitude of scam stories in entertainment (most of them being about or based on true stories) only adds evidence to the fact that scamming is everywhere. But in order for a scammer’s story to be told, they must be caught. Watching these movies comes with the reassurance that the culprit doesn’t get away with it in the end. This can bring back faith in the integrity and goodness of mankind to those who have lost it, and this comfort has drawn in an audience of millions.
The exciting and satisfactory nature of catching a scammer has led scam media to soar in popularity, inventing its own genre. True crime is massively popular, but many consumers often feel shameful about finding entertainment in violence and trauma experienced by others. Scam stories are much easier for audiences to take in. Not only do they typically lack gore, but viewers can also easily divide the on-screen con artist characters from the real suffering they caused for many. Many people watching have the notion that they are not vulnerable to these situations and see the victims of scams as stupid or naive. The reality is that we are all just as vulnerable as anyone else. When the victims of a scam are not seen as someone a viewer respects, there can be a large element of schadenfreude (pleasure derived from another’s misfortune) drawing people in. It can be cathartic for those struggling financially to watch the wealthy lose their money or to see outsiders disrupt organizations that are inaccessible to most of the population. Scam media has created its own style of true crime that keeps what fascinates us and leaves what upsets us, even when the consequences of these situations can be just as bleak.
By focusing these stories around the scammer, these shows and movies depict incredibly charismatic characters that simply fascinate us. The idea that someone could be so blatantly confident in themselves and so sure of the fact that they will get what they want is shocking. It’s the polar opposite of the imposter syndrome and numerous obstacles faced by many people every day. Dishonesty, and those who weaponize it, is itself incredibly compelling. A huge tenet of human society is the idea of honesty. We go through life assuming most people have the best intentions. When someone does the opposite, utilizing false kindness for evil, it is a riveting experience. We have a deep desire to understand this kind of personality because it is so unfathomable to us. Scam media digs deep into the minds of these characters and captivates audiences by exploring their motivations, not just their crimes and their consequences.
The film and television industry has told many scam stories over the years, but for a long time most were rooted in the finance world. Now, we can watch scams of every shape and color. From romance scams to medical scams and every kind of fraud you can imagine in between, scam media is a wide-spreading genre. Because of the variety of scamming itself and the media that depicts it, every piece of scam-centered media captivates audiences for its own specific reason. In 2022 alone, we’ve seen Anna Sorokin charm her way into New York society (Inventing Anna), Simon Leviev use dating apps and the real women on them to his financial advantage (The Tinder Swindler), and Elizabeth Holmes climb to the top of Silicon Valley only to crash down once it came out that her genius invention never successfully worked (The Dropout). By analyzing these pieces of scam media, we can begin to understand how uniquely captivating each story can be.
Inventing Anna (Netflix) tells the story of Anna Sorokin, who goes by Anna Delvey, a Russian-born German woman who used her charisma and the trust of others to make a place for herself in New York society. She uses her association with wealthy and respected people to build wealth and a name for herself, often giving excuses for her lack of funds or inconsistencies that are quickly believed by those around her. Her fraudulent behavior involved scamming hotels and banks with unpaid charges and scamming her friends into covering her with no intention of paying them back. After a few years, Sorokin was convicted on charges of attempted grand larceny, larceny in the second degree, and theft of services. She served three years in prison and now awaits deportation to Germany in an ICE detention center.
Sorokin is an incredibly odd character. Her accent has been the subject of many jokes. The way she brags about herself has been ridiculed. The outlandishness of what she did and how much she got away with creates a compelling, oddball on-screen personality. Her character provides an insight into just how charismatic and compelling scammers can be, not just on-screen, but in real life. She is incredibly confident in herself and her abilities and claims to be multi-talented, multilingual, and even a genius. Even when she is in prison, she feels that she is above it. Her driving force is that she believes herself to be deserving of more than her situation in life. Her lack of money does not stop her from living extravagantly, and her lack of reputation does not stop her from aiming to build a social club in her name. Her character is a key example of how many scammers lack imposter syndrome, and how this trait can be so appealing to us. Many people, especially women, find themselves constantly doubting their abilities and whether they deserve to be in the position they are. Those who experience this describe feeling like a fraud that will be eventually found out, even though they’re deserving of their achievements and only feel this way due to self-doubt. Scammer personalities like Sorokin show us imposter syndrome’s polar opposite. These people, who are truly frauds that will be uncovered, have so much confidence in themselves that they feel deserving of much greater things than they have been offered. Their lack of self-doubt allows them to achieve what would otherwise be impossible for them. Sorokin shows how confidence in yourself can drive your ambition, but also how it can fool others into agreeing that you are as deserving of your achievements as you think you are. For people whose self-doubt is an obstacle in life, this delusional level of self-esteem is a fascinating concept.
The ease with which Sorokin fit herself into Manhattan society, and the ease with which she took socialite money and dignity away, is a great example of the unique class-based catharsis scam stories can provide. Most viewers of Inventing Anna will never have a net worth even close to that of Sorokin’s victims, so watching them lose even some of it can give viewers a good dose of schadenfreude. Our envy of these peoples’ lifestyles means that we don’t simply desire to be like them, we resent them. It is much easier to laugh at scam victims and deem them stupid when we feel negatively toward them. Our disparity in wealth also convinces us that we are not vulnerable in the same way as them. The indignation that has grown from such severe wealth inequality trumps any shame viewers may feel for reveling in others' misfortunes. Because she targeted the wealthy, Sorokin has been regarded by some as a sort of anti-hero. Although her actions were illegal and her weapon was deception, there are people who believe that the consequences of her crimes are not significantly harmful because of the status of her victims. Rather than being horrified, there are many in the audience cheering her on. It is a lot easier to root for someone who is scamming those above them than someone scamming those below them. Sorokin’s story is defined by her victims, but their own losses have been completely ignored.
Although Sorokin’s story garnered a lot of attention and there was excitement surrounding its TV adaptation, Inventing Anna is the lowest rated amongst the shows I am exploring. A lot of the audience reception was that it was boring and slow-paced. There was a lot less of Sorokin’s actual scamming portrayed in the show than expected. Surprisingly, Sorokin is not even the protagonist. The show focused largely on Vivian Kent, a journalist based on Jessica Pressler, whose piece on Sorokin went viral. Journalist characters are quite common in scam media, but making Kent the focus of the show distracts from what actually draws audiences to this genre. The show does involve her scamming, but only in small amounts, and it does not begin until a few episodes in. The reaction to this shows how scam stories are typically appealing because they center around the scammer. By not digging too deep into the motivations of Sorokin, the show loses that compelling edge. Sorokin’s off-putting personality was what made her so popular, but without focusing on her inner life, it feels like something crucial is missing: inside the brain of the scammer herself.
The Tinder Swindler
The Tinder Swindler (Netflix) is a documentary about Simon Leviev, a conman who utilized Tinder to steal money from women. After convincing them of his wealth and love for them, he would pretend to be targeted by his “enemies” and ask the women to send him cash or credit cards in their name to help. He used the money from each encounter to fund his next and lied about repayment through forged documents. Leviev served five months in prison for use of a forged passport, but is now free and has not been charged on any fraud-related convictions [since he was released].
Leviev’s use of the internet, specifically dating apps, highlights the ease with which con artists can find their victims and carry out their scams with modern technology. The internet is a breeding ground for all kinds of fraud that would have never succeeded before. The anonymity of the internet and the ability for a scammer to target anyone anywhere makes it the perfect setting, and because of this fraud has risen significantly. Online romance scams are not very rare. The anonymity of online dating is an easy entry point and the vulnerability of those looking for love makes them easier to trick. Internet safety is preached often, especially in the context of scamming or “catfish” dating, but the women who fell victim to Leviev were given an abundance of evidence to confirm his identity. They had no reason to believe he was vying for their money. He introduced himself to his victims by showering them with money, which built a reputation for himself as wealthy. He also waited until the victims were in committed relationships or long-standing friendships with him, which builds a large element of trust. The victims spoke about how being in love with him made it so much harder to believe that it was all a lie, even after they eventually found out. The Tinder Swindler can act as a wake-up call, sending the message to viewers that we are all much more vulnerable than we like to admit.
The idea that one can be scammed so easily while searching for love is quite terrifying. Leviev’s manipulative behavior creates an easy villain for viewers to root against. The women coming together to publicly confront the culprit is one of those increasingly few situations where justice is served. While many did make fun of these women for their naïveté, many found themselves relating to their situation and feared for their own vulnerability in online dating because of it. However, the documentary was able to reassure these viewers. Even after the horrors these women experienced, they were still online dating and searching for love. Dating horror stories can go from simply awkward to life-threatening, and most people have lived through at least one. But instead of scaring viewers away from online dating and romance, the victims of Leviev show an inspiring level of strength and resilience. Those who watch the documentary leave not only with a bit of caution, but also the optimism that an unfortunate romantic past will not define your future.
The Tinder Swindler also is a key example of how compelling righteousness can be. Internet scammers are hard to catch and can typically continue their cons for years without ever facing consequences. The fear of being targeted is heightened by this reality, but The Tinder Swindler shows a rare case of justice being served. The women involved were able to not only find out they were being scammed on their own, but were pivotal in exposing him to the world and saving others from his scheming. They were able to work together against him while he still believed they were under his grasp. One of his victims was even able to scam him out of money after learning the truth of her situation. This time it was not only the scammer who used their intelligence and manipulation to get ahead. Instead of portraying a villain and completely helpless women, The Tinder Swindler showed audiences that victims still have the ability to rise above.
The Dropout (Hulu) tells the story of Elizabeth Holmes dropping out of Stanford to pursue her dream of changing the world by starting a company to develop a medical testing device that allows blood to be tested from only a prick of a finger. The show follows Holmes from her short time at Stanford to the fall of her company, after journalists and regulators uncovered that the device did not work and that she had defrauded her investors and the public. As The Dropout has aired, the real-life Holmes has been awaiting sentencing after being convicted on one count of conspiracy and three counts of wire fraud.
Holmes has been in the public eye as a known fraud since 2015. She’s been mocked for her style of dress and her unsettling deep voice. She is also the subject of deep scorn as the victims of her dishonesty were vulnerable medical patients. The Dropout makes sure to include both these sentiments. The character’s manner of speech and dress are points of humor in the show, and the real consequences of lying about medical test results is acknowledged consistently. But unlike most other scam stories, The Dropout also brings to light how the relationship between women and ambition can be incredibly complicated and can lead to unforeseen consequences.
The Dropout begins with a look into Holmes’ background, right around the end of her senior year of high school. It is clear during this part that she was very driven to accumulate wealth and fame during adulthood, and she speaks bluntly about these goals. It also makes it clear that she did not set out with the intention to provide false medical results and defraud investors. She set out to be a Silicon Valley star. She strove to break the glass ceiling by becoming a successful CEO on the same level as Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. She also believed that the only thing she needed to achieve this was a good idea. The belief in Silicon Valley in the era of Apple and Facebook was that young people can make radical change. The idea was that they can move fast, think big, and abandon the old ways of getting things done. Holmes was clearly excited by this notion and looked up to the young people who changed the world as the kind of person she can be as well. She makes distinct efforts to emulate their characteristics in the show, and even defends some of her behavior by comparing herself to them. Throughout the show, she continuously clings to this idea of an outlandish idea making a radical change. She just doesn’t seem to understand why hers won’t do the same. In the context of this Silicon Valley era, the show frames Holmes as partly a product of a bad culture. The trend of college dropouts becoming CEOs influenced her choices that disregarded education and ignored scientific facts. If she started from the same place at a different time, the fundamental flaws in her idea and company would have been more concerning to people. But instead of listening, she and her colleagues were able to defend themselves by saying that older people just wouldn’t understand.
The Dropout shows Holmes succeeding, but not in a way that is typical of a scammer. Her practices were constantly questioned. She was confronted by those within her own company, her investors, and the public. She did lie to get around these concerns, but she was not believed because of confidence or trickery alone. She was believed because people were pushing for young, female CEOs. In the age of Silicon Valley superstars, Holmes was seen as a golden ticket to a progressive future. Investors believed that times were destined to change, so they wrote off their hesitations as things of the past. She was able to make a deal with Walgreens without showing them her labs, but not because of pure manipulation. While Holmes did have to practically beg her investors to stick with her, their turning point was that they didn’t want to miss a chance to work with someone like her, regardless of the idea’s practicality. Holmes' company and the dishonesty that built it would not have been nearly as successful if people didn’t want desperately to believe her.
As much as Holmes desires to be like Jobs or Zuckerberg, there is a crucial difference between them. Elizabeth Holmes is a woman. The barrier of her being young is not lifted because of the youth-centered mentality, but rather heightened by the fact that she is young and female. Throughout the show, there are many moments where she doesn’t understand that she is not perceived the same way. She is often told by other characters that she must do certain things in certain ways in order to gain this level of respect that she deeply strives for. She is told to dress more like a CEO, and reacts to this with confusion as Mark Zuckerberg is known to wear slides at work. Her naïveté about her position as a woman in this industry creates roadblocks for her that were unexpected. Once her character begins to conform to the standards set for her, her reputation improves while her company’s internal function declines.
Holmes’ frustration and eventual assimilation to these standards represent a specific mentality for women in the modern workforce. “Girlboss” culture had a strong influence on corporate women in the 2010s. The popularity of Lean In and Settle for More inspired mentalities promoting the idea that the only thing women need to do to get ahead is work harder and believe in themselves. The idea that one couldn’t accomplish their goals because they faced hardships as a woman in their industry was written off as completely false. The messaging was that if women stopped feeling outnumbered and unheard, they would be listened to and take up more space in positions of power. This not only meant believing in oneself, but conforming to the corporate standards and approaching work like a man would. For followers of “girlboss” culture, this meant everything from dressing more professionally to prioritizing work above friends and family. This cultural notion has recently crumbled. The acknowledgment of the influence of privilege and the impacts of marginalization denounced the idea that women who are not successful only have themselves to blame. But for many years, this mentality was incredibly popular and its effects are still being felt today. In The Dropout, Holmes shows multiple times that she has a similar “girlboss” mindset, and is driven to do the most she can to get ahead as a woman in her industry. The shift between Holmes resenting the obstacles she faces as a woman to believing that she alone can knock them down shows a distinct change in thinking for her. At one point in the show, she even states explicitly that women just have to believe in themselves in order to succeed. Her obstacles, however, were not born out of misogyny alone. Her invention did not work, her employees were losing faith, and her investors were questioning things she was unable to provide answers for. Instead of viewing these as fundamental concerns for her company, her “girlboss” mindset led her to write these problems off as people’s hesitance to trust a female leader.
Because of the nature of Holmes’ character, I have a hard time characterizing The Dropout as just a scam show. Her character, while compelling, is not typical of a scammer’s personality. She is quite awkward and although she is confident in her ideas, she does not carry herself with high self-esteem until the latter half of the show. Even then she still doesn’t quite fit the role. Although she carries herself more professionally, she has a hard time in social situations and is still perceived by her peers as quite weird. The show depicts her awkwardly dancing, screaming alone in her car, and licking green juice out of a cup. She doesn’t have the charisma or conniving intuition to be a con artist. Her character is one who is defrauding others, but not one who I would label a pure fraudster. Holmes wanted her invention to work so badly that she made efforts to distance herself from the reality that it didn’t. She was still aware of the truth, but she also believed that eventually it would work and all she needed was more time. Her fraudulent behavior was a consequence of her ambition, but not her original intention. Instead of acknowledging her failure, she manipulated her company in a way that put her far away from the reality of their product. Her desire to be a successful woman in her industry prevented her from accepting that her idea was not going to get her there. The Dropout’s aim in humanizing Holmes was to show how modern work culture and Silicon Valley can shape these traits in a person. Holmes is an example of how being a woman in the biomedical technology industry can have drastic consequences, to a point of blinding and delusional ambition.
The audience reaction to The Dropout has shown that humanizing a character does not naturally lead to sympathizing with them. Holmes is still perceived as odd, and to most, quite crazy. Her actions still hurt incredibly vulnerable people, and the show did not shy away from this truth. The juxtaposition between how Holmes presented herself to the public and the reality of her company was frustrating to watch and angered people. Her character is simply not very likable, and her actions were seriously despicable. However, labeling her as a pure scammer would be ignoring the whole of what happened. Her goal was to make a name for herself in biomedical technology, but by refusing to let go of her ambition, she found a name for herself in fraud instead.
The Downside to Scam Media
Scam media has enough exciting factors to draw audiences and enough true stories to work with to keep its momentum for years to come. This genre is standing out in the industry as a highly successful, niche kind of true crime. Scam media, however, is not flawless, and there is something significantly concerning about the industry’s connections to the scammers themselves. When true crime is made about violent criminals, they are usually long gone, unknown, or already imprisoned. Scam media is often made while the scammer being portrayed is still a free citizen. In order to use the individual’s life story, production companies typically have to pay them. Anna Sorokin of Inventing Anna was paid $320,000 by Netflix, which she used largely for legal fees. Even if they don’t get directly paid, the scammers can benefit greatly from the recognition. The adage that all press is good press rings true. Simon Leviev of The Tinder Swindler is using the documentary’s success to charge $20,000 for club appearances and between $75-999 for personalized videos. Leviev’s victims are still paying the debts he accumulated for them. Some people involved in scams can use media like this to redeem themselves. Netflix’s Fyre was co-produced by Jerry Media, the same company that was responsible for the promotion of Fyre Festival and faced backlash from deleting concerns on social media. The Dropout did not directly involve Elizabeth Holmes, and it seems that she did not profit financially. Regardless, there is a real possibility that the humanizing of her character and the popularity of the show will lead to more sympathy during her upcoming sentencing. Scam media’s unique ability to divide the criminal from the crime also allows audiences to ignore the fact that a criminal may be actively benefiting from their viewership. The rising demand for these stories and the fact that they are almost always rooted in truth is worrying. Scammers are all around us already, and we may be encouraging them with our fascination with their behavior. If scam media continues to rise, it is important to consider these potential consequences. Before you find yourself captivated by another fraud-based show or movie, you may want to ask yourself: are scam shows teaching us to be more cautious, or simply…don’t get caught?