science of us

Why We Can’t Get Enough of Scams

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In the month and change since the release of the first Fyre Festival documentary, and then the second, both of which I watched in a state of total, gleeful horror, I have become insatiable for all things scammy. I inhaled the viral Daniel Mallory story in The New Yorker, and eagerly await each episode of the Theranos podcast The Dropout as I do next month’s HBO documentary on Elizabeth Holmes, the defunct company’s CEO. I am also listening to this Australian podcast called Who the Hell Is Hamish? about a relationship scammer with several false identities, and when no new episodes of any of these things are available, I check in on Caroline Calloway, the Instagram influencer most famous for almost publishing a book. I also loved The Dream, Jane Marie’s podcast about mid-level marketing businesses.

I simply cannot get enough content in this category, and evidently neither can many of you: Bad Blood, John Carreyrou’s nonfiction account of the Theranos saga, became a national best seller. While neither Netflix nor Hulu typically release viewership numbers, the fact that there are two Fyre Festival documentaries in the first place reflects the story’s mass appeal. (The original story, of course, was massively viral in 2017.) The Dirty John podcast, about a con artist who swindles his girlfriend (to put it mildly), spent weeks at the top of the U.S. iTunes podcast charts, and had been downloaded more than 30 million times before the televised version aired on Bravo. With each huge success comes a rash of programs designed to woo the same audience, so it seems likely our extended summer of scam will continue. Only recently did it occur to me that, as I tear through each new podcast and docuseries like my life depends on it, I might want to think about what’s propelling my fixation.

Here’s my personal theory: With the biggest scammer of all well into his first term as president of the United States, seemingly invulnerable to being caught in any meaningful way, many of us are gagging to see justice (or even just shame) meted out elsewhere. It’s a temporary salve, a quick dose of serotonin that evaporates upon reading the news. Reminding ourselves that sometimes liars do get caught and sometimes thieves are punished makes it easier to believe it could happen again. What we like about stories about scammers, I think, is born of the place where envy meets outrage: It’s incredibly unfair, and definitely evil, but also, why didn’t I think of that?

Our collective pseudo-admiration for scammers is also a result of how little we think of their victims, says Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game, a book about con artists and how they succeed. Because scammer crime is, by Konnikova’s definition, inherently nonviolent, we find it harder to empathize with its victims, many (or most) of whom we may never see. (Consider, for example, Anna Delvey and her bamboozled fellow socialites.) “We really look down as a culture on the victims,” says Konnikova. “We think they’re greedy, and they’re gullible, and all these things that make it very hard for the victims to actually come forward and to feel that they’re being respected.”

Distaste for other’s greed is certainly part of it, but I think there’s a certain condescension at play, too: Sometimes, we just find the victims naïve. This may be particularly true when it comes to stories of online romance scams: Ingrained misogyny and ageism make it all too easy for many to scorn the often older, divorced women most visibly affected. I would never be swindled this way, I tell myself. You may not think you wouldn’t either. And yet, the the data suggest that many, many of us are: The Federal Trade Commission received more than 21,000 reports of romance scams in 2018, amounting to a whopping $143 million in losses.

This distancing only gets easier when the victims belong to a group of people you don’t especially like. I, for instance, do not feel particularly sorry for the sad young influencers who were briefly stranded on a Bahamian island to sleep in FEMA tents, because I think getting paid to hold objects on Instagram is dumb (unless anyone wants me to do so for them), and it pleases me as a non-rich, non-model, non-22-year-old to see people in those categories humbled by having to fly coach and eat dry sandwiches out of Styrofoam.

Of course, the Bahamians robbed of their wages by the Fyre Fest debacle are a different story. It’s easy to take pleasure in the public embarrassment of the mostly white, mostly wealthy influencer set, because it feels like punching up. To inflict the same scam on local Bahamians, several of whom describe financial ruin in the wake of the Fyre incident, feels like punching down. Were it not for the Bahamian victims, we might even admire McFarland, says Tiffany Watt Smith, author of Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune. “There is a great tradition of enjoying scammers and tricksters — like Brer Rabbit, or Road Runner — who get one up on their powerful overlords/enemies by cunning and misdirection,” she says. “Had the situation not been so awful for the locals on [Great Exuma], we might have felt schadenfreude at the expense of all the superrich kids, and let McFarland away with it, in our heads, as an evil genius.”

Schadenfreude, says Watt Smith, is an essential element of scam appreciation. The pleasure we derive from stories like these is so gratifying it can become addictive, she says, turning us into “justice junkies” who crave seeing “wrongdoers get their comeuppance.” The internet has made finding it easier than ever before. “If you walk down your street you’re probably not going to see that much injustice occurring, but if you walk around online for ten minutes you’re going to see terrible things happen and so much unfairness,” says Watt Smith.

Schadenfreude comes more easily when we view the scammer as deserving her downfall, too, says Watt Smith, who’s quick to point out that in my description of Holmes (Watt Smith is British and was unfamiliar with her), “thin and young and pretty” are among the first words I use. There, again, is that envy element — these are people who have too much: money, privilege, beauty, and access, and we’re all too aware of how far those things alone can get you. “It’s really exciting and pleasing when there’s a mistake made, or when there’s a failure, because these people appear capable of not doing any wrong,” says Smith.

What is most enjoyable about schadenfreude is also, I think, what is most enjoyable about scams: They bring people together. “We use schadenfreude a lot to bond our own group, and secure our own allegiances, and also to denigrate the other side,” says Smith. And isn’t the same true of scams? In the wake of a public spectacle like Fyre Festival, it is us versus them, where the “us” is everyone who wasn’t personally affected. Perhaps this, then, is what I find so enjoyable about those scams that do manage to horrify universally: their ability to join disparate groups in delicious, shared disdain, a brief and unequivocal “what the fuck?” before we return to our sides. In that sense, the most fascinating scams are like the weather: comfortingly nonpartisan and cruelly unfeeling, perpetually reminding us we’ll never have our world and its people all the way figured out.

Why We Can’t Get Enough of Scams