Artwork by Lex Trickett

The Rise of the Con Stars: Why Grifters are So Hot Right Now

Last year, the SABC released the documentary ‘To Catch A Con Star’ about local scam artist Tracy Morrison. For several decades, Morrison had posed as a wealthy American, even claiming to be Al Pacino’s daughter. She won the trust of people throughout Jo’burg, convincing her duped targets to invest in elaborate business schemes where she pocketed all the money.

Bizarrely, she convinced the South African police that she was a visiting FBI agent, conducting vaguely defined ‘private investigations’. The official access allowed her to brazenly run scams directly out of the Sandton police station. And while all this was going on, she hatched a convoluted scheme which involved kidnapping a 7-year-old child and pretending to be its mother. Speaking to the Mail and Guardian, one of her victims summarised the modus operandi of the professional grifter “She lives this lavish lifestyle and she wants you to see that she has all this money. What you don’t realise until it’s too late is that this is your money she’s spending”.

In 2019, it’s safe to say that we are living in the era of the con star. Streaming services and true crime podcasts have a voracious appetite for the stories of people who pretend to be rich so that they can pocket other people’s cash. Netflix and Hulu each released feature documentaries on the disastrous Fyre festival. Both films show how young scammer Billy McFarland (with some help from his business partner Ja Rule) fleeced investors by convincing them he was creating an unparalleled luxury experience in the Bahamas.

In reality, the event was a complete disaster, with wild dogs running around a campsite terrorising the audience of EDM bros and social media influencers. Despite currently being in jail, McFarland has promised a second Fyre Festival, along with his eagerly anticipated memoir ‘Prometheus: The God of Fyre’. Clearly, this is a man who will not quit.

Meanwhile, HBO and ABC both released detailed investigations on Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. Self-consciously modelling herself on Steve Jobs, down to wearing the same kind of sweaters, she became the toast of Silicon Valley for a blood testing start-up that was soon revealed to be a fraud. Before her downfall, she counted the likes of Hillary Clinton among her social circle and fleeced investments from Rupert Murdoch.

And two competing series are in the works about my personal favourite rouge Anna Sorokin, who fleeced the New York art world by pretending to be a European aristocrat named Anna Delvey.  Sorokin specialised in getting ‘business loans’ from wealthy collectors and socialites, which she would immediately blow on shopping sprees and instagramable travel adventures. Staying true to the grifter spirit, her trial has revealed a complete lack of remorse. In no uncertain terms, she said: “I’d be lying to you and to everyone else and to myself if I said I was sorry for anything”.

The popularity of these scam tales reveals our complex feelings about rising income inequality and our rapacious, winner takes all capitalist society. On the one hand, these stories are morality tales where we can participate in exposing and condemning the sleazy greed and pathological lying of people like Billy McFarland. But on the other hand, the successful scammer has a certain outlaw cred. As the global super-rich become ever more powerful and detached from the concerns of the vast majority, there is a powerful schadenfreude, a delight in seeing the powerful and pretentious get taken advantage of. It’s a small thrill for us plebians to know that, while we struggle with anxiety about rent and work, some hustler is ripping off a plutocrat like Rupert Murdoch.

Although I would hold off of romanticising scammers as anti-capitalist Robin Hood’s. They aren’t robbing from the rich to redistribute the wealth – they are trying to fake tycoon status for their own greed and ego. And if you read the grim media accounts of scam victims in South Africa, it seems that it’s mostly the poor and working class who are getting tricked out of their meagre savings.

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