Summer 2018 may have been deemed grifter season, as new stories of con artists and schemes seemed to make headlines daily, but it’s clear the fascination with scammers and all fraud-related media remains alive and well.
In January of this year, people couldn’t stop talking about the two documentaries about Fyre Festival and its fraudster founder, Billy McFarland. In March, the release of HBO’s “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” reignited the public obsession with all things Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes. The same month, reports of an elite college admissions scam dominated the news cycle. And just last week, Anna Delvey made waves again as the fake heiress (and the subject of an upcoming Shonda Rhimes project) appeared in court to face charges of grand larceny, attempted grand larceny and theft of services.
Scammers have always been a topic of interest in popular culture, from “Catch Me If You Can” to “The Sting” and beyond. Today these stories are the stuff of viral memes, tweetstorms and water cooler chat. So why are we all so obsessed with these tales of fraud and con artists who orchestrate scams? HuffPost spoke to some experts to find out.
With scammers, it’s easier to ignore the victim
While true crime stories about murder and assault generate a great deal of interest, people tend to feel a sense of shame or unpleasantness about their fascination with these events and criminals because of the (typically gruesome) outcomes. That isn’t the case with scammers.
“Con artists are not violent criminals. These are not people who murder anyone. They’re often not even people who break the law in traditional criminal ways because the origin of the term ‘con artist,’ of course, is in the word ‘confidence,’ as in faith, belief, trust ― have you the confidence in me to do this?” said Maria Konnikova, a psychologist and the author of The Confidence Game. “So oftentimes what ends up happening is certain con artists don’t ever break the law. They ask for things, and people give them.”
Rather than directly robbing people, Holmes and McFarland found people eager to invest in their projects by misrepresenting themselves. According to Konnikova, that makes it easier to grudgingly (and sometimes even not grudgingly) admire them.
“We want to learn every detail because it also helps us gloat and say, ‘I wasn’t the victim. I didn’t fall for this. Ha-ha, look at all these smart people who fell for it. But not me.’”
– Maria Konnikova, author of “The Confidence Game”
“You can really ignore the victim and just focus on how clever and charismatic and charming and audacious the con artist is,” she said, adding that the ability to ignore the victim removes the guilt associated with admiring people she sees as “despicable human beings who ruin lives.”
We feel superior when reading or watching scam stories
“We want to know more about these stories because we want to have this feeling of ‘Oh, my God, look at what they did now, and look at what they did now!’” Konnikova said.
“We want to learn every detail because it also helps us gloat and say, ‘I wasn’t the victim. I didn’t fall for this. Ha-ha, look at all these smart people who fell for it. But not me,’” she continued. Watching others get scammed gives people a sense of superiority and a (generally false) belief that this never could have happened to them.
Watching how otherwise successful people became the victims of a scam can also make less-well-off individuals feel better about their own lives, according to Sharon Packer, a New York–based psychiatrist.
“Those people were fabulously wealthy and had tremendous amounts of money to invest, so the regular person can say, ‘Well, maybe my situation in life isn’t so bad if these people who are so high up there can fall prey to these kinds of things and not even suspect anything,’” she said.
We can learn lessons in prevention
With debacles like Theranos and Fyre Fest, there’s a natural curiosity about how they could have happened. People want to learn how these scammers managed to dupe so many for so long. This stems from a desire to learn how to avoid becoming victims ourselves.
“I believe we are preprogrammed to tune into things that can harm us ― scams, cheaters and especially murder. I really believe that’s why Investigation Discovery is so popular and also shows like ‘American Greed’ and even fictional crime like that on ‘CSI,’” said Marissa Harrison, an associate professor of psychology at Penn State Harrisburg.
“Social psychological research shows that we have a negativity bias. If I told you my boyfriend had a great job, a wonderful family, a rash and a fantastic sense of humor, my guess is you’re going to focus on that rash,” she continued. “If we tune into the things that can harm us, we can take steps to avoid. In the case of a con artist like McFarland and the Fyre Festival and the others, I can watch and learn from others’ mistakes. It’s learning hard lessons by proxy.”
“Social psychological research shows that we have a negativity bias. … If we tune into the things that can harm us, we can take steps to avoid.”
– Marissa Harrison, psychology professor, Penn State Harrisburg
Amanda Vicary, a social psychologist and professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, echoed Harrison’s theory and noted that people are more drawn to crime stories that include how to prevent or survive a crime. In her research, she has found that people are more likely to want to read a crime book if they think it contains information like what set a killer off or what to do if you are kidnapped.
“In other words, it’s possible people are drawn to true crime stories, podcasts, TV shows, etc. because they are learning ways to prevent or survive a crime happening to them,” she said. “The same phenomenon could be going on with the new interest in scams. If people learn how they work or who is more likely to be scamming them, they are going to be able to avoid being a victim themselves.”
The scammers are incredibly compelling
Figures like McFarland, Holmes and Delvey make for very interesting character studies, particularly given their relative youth.
“It’s almost like they’re child prodigies of sociopathy. Instead of being a maestro violinist, you’re a maestro scammer,” Packer said. “They don’t have the experience of having a proper job and getting promoted. Without rehearsing much, they just concocted these scams and soared up to the sky. That adds to the intrigue and this perverse appeal.”
John Oldham, a professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, said they also weave compelling narratives that feed into the get-rich-quick fantasy.
“It’s the appeal of lucky breaks ― winning the lottery, the Cinderella story, casinos, horse-racing, fortune cookies, this lifetime preservation of magical childhood fantasies,” he explained. “There’s a curiosity, envy and intrigue around people who are larger than life and pull off the fake-it-till-you-make-it strategy. It’s sensation seeking, entertainment seeking.”
We may envy their brazenness
Scammers tend to be narcissistic, grandiose characters pursuing greatness, with no regard for the harm they may inflict on others, and that can be a source of envy ― even when those schemes fail.
“There’s this feeling of `Wasn’t that a cowboy adventure? I wish I could be that brazen, not so saddled by my conscience, worries and inhibitions,’” Oldham said. People are drawn to their confidence and king-of-the-world attitude.
“Con artists are really good at telling these origin stories, telling people exactly what they want to hear and telling people that they are exceptional and that you are going to be so incredibly honored to have anything to do with them.”
Still, as Konnikova noted, these scammers aren’t actually wunderkinds or extraordinary people.
“Con artists are really good at telling these origin stories, telling people exactly what they want to hear and telling people that they are exceptional and that you are going to be so incredibly honored to have anything to do with them, to socialize with them, to be able to be associated with them, that you really need to take advantage of this,” she explained.
“We like to be affiliated with people who are in power, which comes from a lot of different areas,” Konnikova continued. “With Anna Delvey, it’s aristocracy. With Billy McFarland, it’s celebrity. With Elizabeth Holmes, it’s this gravitas of Silicon Valley and an idea that no one else has.”
But it’s important to strip their mythmaking from the facts. Holmes was a Stanford dropout who didn’t seem to understand the basic science that made her idea unworkable. McFarland also dropped out of college, and as Konnikova put it, “There’s nothing that distinguishes him, apart from his creativity with the facts.” Delvey similarly didn’t seem to have any special ability other than making herself seem like someone people would want to associate with.
The schadenfreude is real
People also take pleasure in seeing these brazen, larger-than-life characters get their comeuppance. While popular media accounts of Holmes, McFarland, Delvey and others often focus on the characters and their scheming, the documentaries, podcasts and books detail the unraveling of those schemes as well.
“So many people face low self-confidence, feelings of inadequacy and the fear that they don’t deserve more in life or deserve to feel good about themselves,” Packer said. “But these people are the opposite, in a way. They have such chutzpah, such confidence that they think they can get away with these things. So it’s nice to see them get a reality check or their just deserts.”
Basically, because so many of us struggle with imposter syndrome, there’s something kind of therapeutic about seeing these overconfident figures outed as imposters. It’s an example of schadenfreude, or pleasure derived from someone else’s failure.
Social media elevates scammers
“I’d say we’ve always been obsessed with con artists,” Konnikova said. “There are stories of con artists, movies about con artists for years and years. Except social media has made it much more visible, and right now, a lot of these stories are just getting more press than they have in the past. And I don’t think they’re ever really going to go away.”
“With social media, perception is reality. It isn’t, but it is in a way, because you see what you want to see.”
– John Oldham, psychiatry professor, Baylor College of Medicine
Oldham pointed to the popularity of the film “The Sting,” which was inspired by stories of real-life con men in the 1930s, as an example of the fascination with con artists. “I think if that vehicle of social media had been available at the time, we would’ve seen even more of that phenomenon,” he said.
He added that Instagram feeds into the desire to live an impossibly fabulous life, which then makes people more susceptible to these scams. “With social media, perception is reality. It isn’t, but it is in a way, because you see what you want to see,” he said.
Packer said there’s something refreshing about the Holmes, McFarland and Delvey stories in that they deviate from more familiar scams and scandals like insider trading, which aren’t as interesting to people outside the world of finance.
“These stories have more variety, more pop culture interest,” Packer said. “And it’s simply a way to have more people to talk to about something. If you’re talking about something that everyone is watching or everyone knows about, you’ll have more camaraderie. Popularity begets popularity.”