As the high-profile fraud cases of Anna Delvey and Elizabeth Holmes are about to take over our screens and podcasts, Francesca Angelini investigates our latest obsession.
The trial of the season has come to an end. Last week, Anna Sorokin — you might know her as Anna Delvey — was found guilty and convicted in a New York court of attempted grand larceny, three grand larceny counts and a misdemeanor charge of theft of services. She is expected to be sentenced on May 9. The daughter of a Russian truck driver launched herself on New York's social scene in 2016 by posing as a Euro-minted heiress and scammed hundreds of thousands of dollars from individuals and luxury businesses.
Complete with royally sulky face, she arrived in court in a low-cut Miu Miu dress, black choker and ballet flats — fresh from a stint at Rikers Island prison, where she was being held awaiting trial. Sorokin denied the charges, claiming never to have intended to commit a crime. As one of her defence lawyers, Todd Spodek, has said: "Anna had to fake it until she could make it." As stories go, it's an outlandish tale of brazen deception, with a perfect tragic arc. No wonder both Shonda Rhimes and Lena Dunham are working on screen adaptations.
So far, 2019 has been a knockout year for cons and their dramatisations: from the two documentaries on Fyre Festival, the 2017 flop whose attendees were sold a vision of a luxe celebrity paradise, only to be greeted with disaster-relief tents and cheese sandwiches, to Dirty John, the hit podcast-turned-Netflix-series about an opiate-addicted middle-aged man who spun his way into the heart and purse of a glossy interior designer. And these are just the male examples: it's actually their female counterparts who are the most fascinating.
Take Elizabeth Holmes, the 35-year-old founder of the now-closed health tech company Theranos. Her scam story has permeated every corner of pop culture since it broke in 2015. The Stanford dropout was hailed as America's youngest self-made female billionaire after "inventing" a machine to revolutionise healthcare, only for her claims to be exposed as false. Her criminal trial on nine counts of wire fraud begins this month: she denies any wrongdoing, but, if found guilty, could face up to 20 years in prison. Already the unblinking Steve Jobs-Marie Curie hybrid has been the subject of a podcast called The Dropout; a bestselling book, Bad Blood, by the reporter John Carreyrou; and an HBO documentary (shown in the UK on Sky Atlantic) by the acclaimed film maker Alex Gibney. A feature-film version, starring Jennifer Lawrence and directed by Adam McKay of Vice fame, is in the works. All of which makes you wonder: what is the thrill for female grifters? And why are we fascinated by them?
"One of the hallmarks of a good con artist is to listen well, so they can take advantage of their marks. Women are good at picking up on those subtle cues that men might miss," says Maria Konnikova, a psychologist and author of The Confidence Game and host of the podcast The Grift. She thinks there are now more women at it than men: "They're better at it, and they've had to be."
There is a telling moment in Gibney's documentary about Holmes when Tyler Shultz, a medical researcher at Theranos (and grandson of Theranos director and former US secretary of state, George Shultz), turns to the camera, baffled, and says: "We were on a sinking ship ...nothing worked ... [Holmes] could still convince me. I look back on those conversations and think, 'How? How did she do that?" Did being a woman help Holmes? Could her duping of everyone even be seen as a radical feminist act?
Konnikova thinks not. "She decided she would create this myth about herself because she realised how persuasive she was and that's how a lot of female con artists operate. They use feminine charm, appeal to men's egos ... it's the opposite of feminism."
Indeed, social media and the internet have opened up new avenues for scheming. Internet dating, for example, is ripe for the con. Professor Mike Berry, a clinical forensic psychologist, tells of one case in which a television producer believed she had struck up a romance with a man she had met online. They talked for hours over the phone, and she ended up sending him money he said he needed. The twist? It was a woman all along, using a voice enhancer to sound like a man.
Insta-opportunism is rife, too. The Australian Belle Gibson, an influencer and early adopter of Instagram, cashed in by conning everyone into believing she had terminal cancer that was successfully treated by a healthy diet. She escaped prison, but in 2017 was fined £240,000 for false claims about charitable donations.
Hotels are another area ripe for deception, as Katherine Ormerod discovered while researching her book, Why Social Media Is Ruining Your Life. "I've spoken to several concierges who talk of people coming into the lobby for a coffee, staging photo shoots and then leaving after paying their £3.20 bill. Or lunch guests who ask to be shown rooms for a future booking, take pictures and then post them with a caption along the lines of, 'Such a gorgeous weekend at this amazing hotel.'" Where there's money to be made, people will take advantage. "Social media is the Wild West and there are a lot of cowboys out there. It provides a platform for con artistry," Ormerod says.
It's no wonder Konnikova calls this "a golden age for the grift". Times are bleak, we are looking for escapism and a successful swindle makes for great entertainment. And, at least at a distance, we admire the grifter's ability to pull the wool over their mark's eyes. They tell us a lot about the world we live in. Holmes's story encompasses the hubris of Silicon Valley, the defiance of the tech world (FYI, she currently resides in a plush San Francisco flat with her partner and dog). Anna Sorokin's scam reflects the ridiculousness of the age of the influencer and our willingness to believe in social media as reality.
It's not always about the money, though, especially with women, says Konnikova: the motivation is control, power, the thrill of being in charge of a game. "They often don't make much and could have made more doing something else, because they're smart. It takes a lot of energy to run a successful con," she says. "It's knowing you're crafting reality, controlling the story. You're kind of playing God."
Welcome to scam season: the cultural con adaptations to look out for
by Roisin Kelly
The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story
Produced by 'N Sync's Lance Bass, this documentary explores the life of boy-band puppeteer and notorious conman Lou Pearlman, who swindled superstars of the 1990s and early 2000s, including 'N Sync and Backstreet Boys. Streaming on YouTube Originals.
Rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway star as scammers taking down a tech billionaire. Hathaway plays a high-class grifter who takes the more rough-and-ready small-time scammer Wilson under her wing. In cinemas from May 09.
The anonymous host of the Swindled podcast tells real-life tales of white-collar criminals, the scams of con artists and corporate embezzlers, frauds, Ponzi schemes, corporate negligence and corruption. swindledpodcast.com
Anna Delvey documentaries
The Grey's Anatomy and Scandal creator, Shonda Rhimes, is working on an adaptation of the Anna Delvey story as one of her first projects for Netflix, while Lena Dunham has plans for her own adaptation of a Vanity Fair article about the same story for HBO.