i scam therefore i am: why are we so fascinated with scamming?
If the exploits of author Dan Mallory, faux-socialite Anna Delvey and Fyre Festival organiser Billy McFarland say anything, it’s that we’re living in a golden era of deceit.
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One of the side effects of getting older is a vanishing capacity for astonishment. It holds as true for cultural consumption as it does for the vagaries of one's personal life. Books, art, TV, that 15,000 word true crime longread you meant to use as some blunt, commute obliterating instrument, but only managed a third of. The enthusiasm fatigue resulting from what can feel like an endless stream of content, to be mashed into an ever shrinking portal of free time.
That’s not to say there aren’t things that cut through, for whatever reason. On 4 February, The New Yorker published a lengthy, thriller-paced feature detailing the allegedly strange and sinister life of best selling novelist and transatlantic publishing high-flyer Dan Mallory, written by their brilliant staff writer Ian Parker. A Suspense Novelist’s Trail of Deceptions is a masterful profile, as scrupulous as it is skilful in painting a figure of an supposed con-artist full of an almost childish danger, spite and wanton ambition.
I can’t have been alone in devouring it in one, gleefully horrified sitting. All that chutzpah and deceit. It’s a compulsive read. The apparently phantom PHD, fabricated terminal illnesses and mournfully invoked dead parents, shown on inspection to be quite cheerfully alive. The whinnying self-pity and rat-like cunning that privilege can, it appears, help transmute to fame and fortune, multi-million dollar book deals and A-list film adaptations. All of this, and the brutal fact of the sheer, overwhelming neediness at the heart of it all.
It cut into my work day, as I found myself rereading when I should have been attending to emails and transcriptions. I sent it to family and friends, then yapped about it for hours in the pub later that night. How could he do all of that, to that many people, and have even prospered because of it? How could you live with yourself, without cracking under the self-imposed strain?
"Violence repels us instantly, but stories based in fraud or deception offer up a different kind of victimhood. Money lost is not life lost, even if its effects can often be ruinous for the dupes involved."
These are questions we seem to ask on an almost weekly basis at the moment. In truth, it’s been something of a burgeoning golden era for the scammer story. The last few years have witnessed a cluster of tales that have gripped transatlantic attention and produced a litany of comment, longreads and even a couple of much-hyped documentary films.
Some of them have spoken to, and about, the new kinds of weirdness thrown up by the internet. 2016 witnessed the tale of Craig Wright, the brilliant hacker who may or not be the mythical inventor of bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto. Then, there was the cautionary fable of Fyre Festival in 2017, a triumph of social media bravado and old fashioned wire fraud masterminded by tech visionary/convicted conman Billy McFarland, and immortalised in the recently released duo of documentaries. Or consider the recent Caroline Calloway saga, of the American Instagram influencer behind a hastily cancelled ‘multi-city’ tour, tailored for adoring fans and priced at $164/head for a four-hour session on ‘how be yourself’.
Our fascination with ‘scammers’, as both readers and viewers is nothing new. Dr Aliki Varvogli is a senior lecturer in The University of Dundee’s English department, teaching a course on American Crime Fiction, as well as holding an interest in crime-writing more generally. When I ask about the antecedents of scammer stories, she starts by pointing to one of the 19th century’s biggest names.
“Was Mary Anne Evans a scammer? Most people will of course know her as George Eliot,” she writes over email. “Giving herself a male name was a way of breaking into a world that excluded women, and we're fine with that. Or think of JK Rowling choosing to conceal her first name so she could appeal to boys, as well as girls. [But] these are transgressions we seem to accept and forgive.” It’s an interesting point. In part, some of the wider allure stems from the stakes involved. Violence repels us instantly, but stories based in fraud or deception offer up something else. Money lost is not life lost, even if its effects can often be ruinous for the dupes involved.
It helps when the targets (both intended and inadvertent) are filthy rich. Anna Sorokin could build a life as Anna Delvey -- just one more charming, frivolous Manhattan socialite with a vague grasp of credit commitments -- because the world she was infiltrating was stuffed full of similarly calculating shysters, who she correctly bargained couldn’t be bothered to do their due diligence. It’s undeniably fun to read about the wealthy getting a pasting. Only the stoniest heart couldn’t be moved by the pictures and footage that emerged from Fyre Festival. The stockbrokers and trust-fund kids promised an exclusive, luxury island retreat, only to be greeted with repurposed disaster tents, feral dogs and scenes more akin to a millennial Lord of the Flies reboot.
“Those whose fakery is motivated by greed, or a cynical desire to gain fame, fare less well: we feel cheated knowing that their deception had no noble motive.”
All of this wouldn’t work without a character to hook our sympathies, or loathing, on. This is crucial, as Dr Varvogli explains. It matters both who they are, and the nature of the scam involved. “Think about Michael Derrick Hudson, the white American who pretended to be Asian, calling himself Yi-Fen Chou in order to get his poetry published. He didn't get much sympathy [for his act of deception]. We love stories where the underdog triumphs against the odds, so generally the scammers that we forgive and celebrate are the ones who faked their identity in order to overcome obstacles."
It’s why the likes of Billy McFarland and Dan Mallory make such satisfying hate figures. The two are almost eerily similar, with testimonies to their base level ‘charm’, supposedly extravagant talents and lightly-stubbled good looks. Gilded lives, bound for success no matter how many colleagues or contractors have to be screwed along the way. Sure, McFarland might currently be serving a six-year jail sentence, but as one weary ex-employee intones on the Netflix documentary, they’ve “no doubt” he’ll be welcomed back into the world of American big business on release. As for Mallory -- who hasn’t actually committed any crimes, that we know of -- his second novel is already in the works, which “he hopes to turn into a TV series”.
I sent the Dan Mallory piece to my aunty on Sunday night, eager to gossip with her about it as soon as possible. She summed it up in typically incisive fashion. “What a fantastic read,” she wrote back the next day. “There are a lot of these fantasits about... how much you can get away with due to charm, good looks and chutzpah."
Towards the end of our correspondence, Dr Varvogli added a telling insight. “Those whose fakery is motivated by greed, or a cynical desire to gain fame, fare less well: we feel cheated knowing that their deception had no noble motive.”
True, there’s little nobility in the tales of Billy McFarland, or Dan Mallory. These aren’t men we particularly want to see redeemed, or figures you’d feel comfortable in the company of, or trusting with your wallet. But life is full of lies, of others and our own. Our collective obsession with these scammers and their webs of deceit has its roots in something very old: a desire to make that sad fact just a bit grander than it sounds.