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Why scammers are everywhere now — and why we love them

Con artist expert Maria Konnikova explains our fascination with grifter stories.

A man riding a jet ski.
Billy McFarland in the new Netflix documentary Fyre.
Netflix
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

One of last year’s top-selling books was a takedown of Elizabeth Holmes, the now-disgraced founder of the fraudulent Silicon Valley startup Theranos. A story about Anna Delvey, a fake German heiress who swindled money from banks and ritzy hotels, remains near the top of New York magazine’s most-read list despite having been published more than six months ago. And this week, not one but two documentaries were released about the disastrous Fyre Festival, a promised paradise of booze, beaches, and influencers that ended in a six-year prison sentence for its architect, Billy McFarland.

All of a sudden, scammers are everywhere. 2018 was dubbed “the year of the grifter” and its high season “the summer of scam.” 2019 is looking no different, with film adaptations of the Delvey and Holmes cases in production (Jennifer Lawrence is playing the latter and has been rumored to be playing the former as well).

What is it about grifter stories that make them so compelling? Perhaps no one understands our collective obsession better than Maria Konnikova, a psychologist and the author of the book The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It ... Every Time.

During a recent phone call, I spoke to Konnikova — who also happens to be a talking head in the Hulu documentary Fyre Fraud — about the allure of scammers, the ones she’s most fascinated by, and what Billy McFarland has in common with other con artists (spoiler: pretty much everything).

How did you become interested in con artists?

The true story is pretty silly. I was watching David Mamet’s House of Games, which is about a long con, but the thing that really intrigued me was that the protagonist was this brilliant woman, a clinical psychologist, someone who studies people and should really see what’s going on. She thinks that she’s in on it, but it ends up that she’s actually being conned the whole time.

The victim was so different from your typical victim of cons — someone who’s intelligent, who’s savvy, someone who knows human nature. It never occurred to me that victims could be really smart people.

I started researching a little and realized that no one had written about how cons actually take place in the human mind — no one thought about it from the victim’s perspective either. Most of the stories I found were just these cool stories of con artists, rather than diving deeper into the mechanics or the psychology or anything about what was going on, and so that became my next book.

Why do we hear about scammers all the time now?

[Scamming is] something that’s always been true, except right now, just like with so many things, social media really amplifies a lot of effects. Social media makes con artists much more likely to thrive because the barrier to entry has gotten lower. In the past, we’ve been able to protect ourselves a little bit just because people are private. But now that’s no longer the case, and so things that used to take months, now it takes just days, if that, sometimes hours, because we’re just sharing so much.

Ultimately, the appeal of con artists is the same reason we like mobsters — I actually wrote a piece for the New Yorker about the appeal of mobsters. It’s easier for us to be fascinated by them because human beings are always fascinated by crime, but when it’s con artists or mobsters, you feel like you have permission because you don’t think of it as violent crime. Instead, you can say, “Oh, look, someone’s living by their wits. They’re fooling people. This is so cool!” It’s also easier to discount the victims when it’s a matter of con artists because you can always say, “This wasn’t really so bad.” Or you can actually just downplay the victims’ humanity, which happens a lot.

Con artist Anna Delvey at a party with friends.
Anna Delvey, far right, at a party in 2014.
Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

Think about the sayings that we have about the victims of con artists: “You can’t fool an honest man,” things like that. Right away, it’s almost like victim-blaming. You’re saying, “Well, if you weren’t gullible, you wouldn’t have fallen for it.” Victims can be incredibly smart, honest, not-greedy people. And con artists really do ruin lives and hurt people a lot.

But there’s a reason they’re called artists. There’s something very inherently appealing about seeing how tricky people can be. It’s like, “Wow, look at what they were able to do. How cool is that?” You have a grudging admiration for them. You have to be careful, though; it’s really easy to fall down the rabbit hole of admiring them too much. I definitely did that. I ended up having to stop interviewing the con artist I was writing about halfway through the process of writing the book because I realized that when I met with them, I’d become too sympathetic, because they’re really charismatic.

You’re like, “Oh, this makes total sense. Maybe she did have it coming.” And then you’re like, “Holy shit, what am I even saying? What am I even thinking? This is awful!”

It seems like sometimes, especially if it’s women conning men or people conning rich people, the media almost portrays them as heroic. Do you think that sort of mindset is dangerous?

Yes. Just one word: yes. Absolutely. It’s dangerous.

You’ve written about how when a con artist is a really compelling storyteller, people are more likely to believe them and therefore rationalize away any warning signs. Do you think that’s what happened with the people who were involved in the Fyre Festival?

Con artists have a lot of different approaches, and storytelling is always part of it. This story was, “You get to be close to celebrity, you get to be close to powerful people, you get to feel big and strong yourself by virtue of association.” Power by association is a huge element of why a lot of cons work. This is one eternal fraud narrative. This is why you have, throughout the centuries, people who’ve impersonated royalty and powerful people. Some of the most famous frauds were people who were fake Rockefellers or fake Carnegies. How many Anastasias did we have from the Romanovs? It wasn’t like, “Look at me, look at how compelling I am.” It was more of, “Look at what I have access to, and you too can be part of that.”

What was your initial read of Billy McFarland, the organizer of the Fyre Festival? Was he special to you at all, or was he just an average con artist?

He was such an average con artist. Oh, my god, just everything about him. He is just so textbook, it’s not even funny. He even has the dark triad of personality traits. I think he definitely has narcissism and Machiavellianism. He might also have psychopathy, but it’s hard to know without talking to him further.

The narcissism part, I think, is really important to con artists because it allows them to not only say, “I’m the center of the universe,” but to also claim that they deserve everything. It’s a really good way for them to rationalize what they’re doing. They don’t see that they’re doing anything wrong; they’re just taking what’s rightfully theirs.

What do you think makes the Fyre Festival in particular so enticing? There are two documentaries about it; people can’t get enough.

I think it’s the same thing that drew people to the Fyre Festival in the first place, which is that people who are rich and glamorous got caught in this, and so you can look at them and be like, “Oh, look, you guys were the victim.”

It’s easy to be like, “Well, serves you right for shelling out however many thousands of dollars for this obviously bogus thing just because you wanted to hang out with all these models.”

Does victim-blaming make us feel better about our own choices?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s like this fake moral outrage, which just completely pisses me off. That’s a different interview and conversation. But yes, we definitely have this righteous, moral reaction to this.

Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Silicon Valley startup Theranos.
Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of the Silicon Valley startup Theranos.
David Orrell/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Since you wrote the book, do you have a favorite con artist that’s operated within the past few years?

I hate to use the word “favorite” because that implies that I actually approve of anything they did. But I think the one that encapsulates a lot of the social media age and a lot of our insecurities and a lot of the things that make us vulnerable to con artists is Anna Delvey.

She really struck a note for me because she is also a prototypical con artist, and you can actually see tons of parallels between her and Billy. If you really look at what happened there, you would realize how much of this you do yourself, in terms of her victims and how often we rely on things like someone’s social media to verify that this is a legit person. Social media is so easy to fake. How do we actually use that as real proof of anything? And yet here we are.

She’s definitely a 21st-century story, yet someone who is timeless.

This past week, we’ve seen stories about scammy workshops led by Instagram influencers; have you been following this stuff at all?

Yeah! What con artists do is take advantage of people’s insecurities and show them a vision of the world that they want to believe in. That’s the essence of it, really. All of this social media influencer stuff, that’s exactly that. It’s like, “Let me show you how to be great.” The entire thing, in a way, operates on con principles. Right now, social media’s heightening a lot of these insecurities to a level that we haven’t quite seen before.

Cons always thrive in moments of transition. All the golden ages of the con throughout history have been during times of social upheaval: the Industrial Revolution, westward expansion and the gold rush, those are some of the big moments where cons completely took off. I think something similar’s happening right now, with not just the technological revolution but the social media revolution. It has really ushered in a new golden age of the con.

What do you think the future of conning is?

There have always been con artists; there will always be con artists. Like I said, the barrier to entry has gotten lower, so we might be seeing more of them than we have in the past. That said, to be a really good con artist still takes a certain amount of — I hate to say “skill” — but a certain amount of skill and talent. It’s not like we’re going to suddenly see more successful con artists, but we are going to see many more smaller-time con artists who, in another generation, might not have done it but now can because it’s so easy.

The one thing where I would focus my energy if I were an investigative journalist right now is Silicon Valley and venture capital. I mean, Theranos is just the tip of the iceberg. Like, holy shit, that just encapsulates so much about everything that’s wrong with Silicon Valley. She’s just so brilliant, Elizabeth Holmes, in figuring out what people want and selling them the story they want in the way that they want it. Between her and Trump in the White House — we have a con artist president — con artists have really gone mainstream. I would focus on trying to see how many more Theranoses are out there, because I’m willing to bet there are lots.

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