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Sweet Little Lies

Our love affair with scams

These days, scams seem to be everywhere. Our spam folders are full of advice about losing weight and improving our credit. Our social media accounts are flooded with messages from people who claim to be waiting for us, often in bed. Our phones buzz incessantly with calls from area codes we don’t recognize, or from contacts identified as spam risks, or from numbers that look uncannily like our own.

We can imagine what might happen should we respond to these emails, messages, or calls. Somewhere down the line, a human will appear at the other end and ask for more information: a social security number, a date of birth, our mother’s maiden name, or the name of our first pet. These we know to be risks; they are common security questions hackers can use to access accounts or open lines of credit. But these days, all of our information seems like a liability. The mistake, cybersecurity experts say, was to put crucial information on the web in the first place. They predict that someday everyone will have their identity stolen or their bank account drained—regardless of whether the hacker gets there via Bank of America, Ensure, or CVS.

So we delay the inevitable, blocking one number after another. Within seconds of putting down the phone, we have forgotten that a spam call happened at all. We hardly pause to reflect what this means: that our passwords cannot protect us, that we live in a fantasy of security, and that the system in which we live and which lives through us does not work. Every step added to the verification process only binds us closer to another screen. Sometimes our ignorance fools even us. We feel a twinge of hope playing back the voicemail that claimed we qualified for student loan cancellation. “How nice that would be,” we think, and calculate how much that would save us. Enough to buy a home, perhaps? Then our better judgment reminds us that no caller from these United States would forgive our debt voluntarily.

Meanwhile, we pursue our own small scams: running avocados as bananas at the self-checkout line, printing personal documents at work, and stealing batteries from the supply closet. A friend tells us about a loved one who has joined a megachurch that seems to exist solely to satisfy the lead pastor’s appetite for helicopters. We recall that some of our own friends have begun selling Herbalife or investing in Primerica. They are far from alone. It has been estimated that between March 2020 and March 2021, 59.49 million Americans lost money just from phone scams. The sum of those losses is $29.8 billion. Many recent scams have utilized the Covid crisis as a hook. And this only scratches the surface, with many more scams relying on sex-based extortion.

Tales of cons minor and intercontinental have become their own segment of the culture industry.

There’s money to be made in the trade, and not just by the scammer. Tales of cons minor and intercontinental have become their own segment of the culture industry. There are podcasts about notorious rip-offs, as well as documentaries on Hulu, Netflix, and HBO Max. (Perhaps also on the documentary series American Greed, but we don’t know—we’ve long since kicked the habit of channel surfing.) Some real-world scams have been adapted from the headlines into fictional series—Inventing Anna, The Dropout, and WeCrashed—with famous actors playing the con artists. As Elizabeth Holmes enunciates in low-toned syllables in the podcast Bad Blood and wide-eyed music enthusiasts are interviewed in documentaries about the ill-fated Fyre Festival, we lean forward. We rest our elbows on our knees, fit our chins into the crooks of our palms, and place a finger on our lips. “Now this,” we think, “is a story.”

All popular genres tell us something about consumer tastes. Some scam stories play on our subliminal fear of being hustled by a friend or acquaintance. Others celebrate the scammer, offering a transgressive fantasy of running a successful con. But when these stories end—when the screen goes black and the audio cuts off—so does the scam, suggesting that the viewer can rest easy. Ironically, this assurance makes us perfect marks.

Just Because You’re Paranoid

Ours is not the first era to be enamored with scams. Hustlers loomed large in the nineteenth-century American imagination. As Karen Halttunen demonstrated in Confidence Men and Painted Women, publishers did a tidy business in pamphlets that informed the wealthy on how to spot the devious poor hiding in their midst—people who dressed like them, spoke like them, and could even hold the appropriate knife in the appropriate hand to cut the fish just like them. All you needed, the pamphlets suggested, was to spot the difference between the reproduction and the genuine article. If you mastered that, you’d never be conned into investing in a nonexistent corporation or into marrying a street-urchin who painted on her wealth with rouge. Unsurprisingly, publishers also printed manuals on etiquette and fashion that showed the poor how to maneuver in high society.

Herman Melville wrote the book on scam anxiety. If Moby-Dick delved into the visceral horrors of the commodity supply chain, his final novel, The Confidence-Man, is its twinned specter, and its lattice is our financialized world-system. The novel is set aboard the steamer Fidèle on April Fools’ Day (which may also be Easter Sunday, whether or not you think the Resurrection is a scam or the antithesis of all earthly confidence tricks). As it sails down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans, Melville narrates a series of deceptions. An atmosphere of ambiguity pervades the drama: it’s hard to tell whether the ship’s passengers are hustlers or folks earnestly plying a trade. The confidence men may be a singular man donning various disguises or a multitude of hucksters in a world swarming with them. Is the beggar really disabled? Does the peddler believe that the tonics genuinely work? Will an investment in the Black Rapids Coal Company yield returns, or is it a paper fiction? Is the World’s Charity a utopian scheme to solve global poverty or flimflam on a grand scale? And might the man preaching trust be the most deceitful of all?

Melville’s text revels in suspicion. The profit motive has clearly suffused all social relations, so we wonder if the stranger who seems intent on striking up a friendship is really a thief in disguise. Charity, goodwill, and faith may be no more than naivete, the pretext for yet another fleecing. The paranoid skeptic fares little better. Being in a state of constant suspicion leads to the alienation of having no one left to trust and, consequently, no community. The Confidence-Man may owe something to a scam seven years prior to its publication. In 1850, the New York Journal reported a “Curious Fraud.” Apparently, a man “in remote parts of Georgia and North Carolina” had taken to passing himself off as one Herman Melville, leading inquiring minds to reach out to Melville’s publisher. He was a charlatan, yes, but also a devoted reader, as the best scammers often are.

The Fidèle’s trip down the Mississippi allegorizes a Dante-esque descent into Inferno. The novel’s horror is in the parallel between sly games of cons and another prominent river traffic: the slave trade. Slavery was one of the greatest sources of scams in nineteenth-century America. We read, in antebellum histories, of people tricked into enslavement. Once captured, they were told they could buy their freedom. Except the slavers kept upping the price. Some “slave stealers” enticed enslaved people to run away and promised to carry them to freedom, only to sell them back into slavery. After the war, slavery was said to have ended, even as similar structures of oppression lived on. If the law authorized great domination, the scam was essential to its being enforced.

Melville may have written the book on confidence tricks, but Harriet Jacobs lived it. Doctor Flint, whose relentless sexual aggression is one of the most horrifying parts of her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, was, among other things, a huckster. To deny selling Jacobs her freedom, he claimed that she belonged to his underage daughter, thereby ceding the legal right to sell it back to her. After she fled, he intercepted her letters home, then forged new ones and signed her name under them—all in order to discover Jacobs’s hiding place. When force would not do the trick, Flint turned to the scam.

But the script could be flipped. Subterfuge, evasion, and dissemination could be retooled by enslaved people in their fight for freedom. The system of slavery, Jacobs tells us, encouraged enslaved people to resort to cons. “When a man has his wages stolen from him, year after year, and the laws sanction and enforce the theft,” she writes near the end of the narrative, “how can he be expected to have more regard to honesty than has the man who robs him?” Her own story is as much about being conned as it is about conning. Knowing that Flint will never free them, her children’s father, a white man, arranged to have a slave trader purchase Jacobs and her kin on his behalf; eventually, he frees them. When she finally reaches free lands, Jacobs lies about her fugitivity. The scam, she suggests, was one of the few tools by which the enslaved might eke out “something akin to freedom.” Not quite freedom itself—that is not possible—but an opening onto something like it might be finagled out of the clutches of those who seek to deny it.

Wooden Nickels, Silver Spoons

Political scams continued well into the twentieth century. Think of Jim Crow, which was rife with such cons as the literacy tests for voting, and of Richard Wright’s dissection of the system in his autobiographical writings. Of both Red Scares, and of leftist texts that proclaimed that the real danger came not from hidden communist cells but from a government subjugated to capital. Of the moral panic over crime, and of the domestic wars on Black and brown people. And of countless mafia frauds. Throughout all this chicanery, the American Right deployed the fear of being taken for a sucker to distract from their plundering. Beginning in the 1970s, Reagan spun tales of the welfare queen, who supposedly defrauded the social safety net and taxpayers, when he was busy selling off those same public programs himself. And two decades later, George W. Bush swindled his way into office through a vote-counting fraud.

In the twenty-first century, scams can no longer be understood as merely an accident of state intervention or a side effect of capitalism. Rather, they are a defining feature of contemporary economic life. After nearly half a century of global stagnation, the scam has become essential to capital’s reproduction, an attempt to recapture no-longer-attainable profit rates. Leasing out property in the metaverse to receive cryptocurrency payments, which are used to purchase a poorly-drawn JPEG masquerading as a speculative asset, is nothing more than a con. The same goes for every empty pitch to bring back industrial labor. Capitalists keep trying to restart the growth engines. Instead, all they produce are empty promises.

People recognize this, even if unconsciously. It underpins the scam genre’s rise to prominence. Consider the HBO documentary series Generation Hustle, whose title suggests that scamming is the only viable way to survive in today’s economy. In episode after episode, we see famous and little-known hustlers work long nights to acquire investments—performing the same work as any startup founder—for their Ponzi schemes. A man draws up itineraries as a travel agent for extreme travelers, devising trips that never take place. Another man pretends to be a film executive, a director, and a producer—all in an effort to lure aspirants into paying him to give them a job. Perhaps the most striking story is that of Khalid bin al-Saud, né Anthony Gignac, a Colombian-American man who posed as a Saudi prince. As al-Saud he offered his targets a “friends and family discount” for investing in Aramco, the Saudi state’s oil company, just prior to it going public. The idea was that they could then sell the shares after Aramco’s IPO to net a huge profit. None of this was true, of course, though Gignac claimed that he legally changed his name to Khalid bin al-Saud—which suggests he was probably conning himself as well. In any case, his scam wasn’t selling them Aramco shares, but banking on their dreams of a different economic system, one in which even middle-class strivers might benefit from abstruse financial deals.

In the twenty-first century, scams can no longer be understood as merely an accident of state intervention or a side effect of capitalism. Rather, they are a defining feature of contemporary economic life.

Scam shows prey on our sense that the economy is a shell game. And they promise that the system can be rectified. This is why they are so often narrated by cops and prosecutors, who lend the stories the appearance of a whodunit. A case in point is McMillion$, a documentary miniseries about the McDonald’s Monopoly promotion scam, which was run between 1989 and 2001 to the tune of $24 million by one Jerry Jacobson—the head of security for the agency that ran the sales promotion (essentially a sweepstakes modeled on the Hasbro games). The show centers on Doug Mathews, an FBI special agent in Jacksonville with an alluring southern drawl. As Mathews walks us through the inconsistencies in the lottery game, we undertake our own investigations, trying to piece together a plausible account and figure out who was controlling the game, and how. In effect, the show forces us to play detective and ends with legal consequences for the scammers (including, in this case, the mafia). The same is true of the two 2019 documentaries on the Fyre Festival and recent exposés of Theranos and WeWork. They gave us the pleasure of seeing a scammer receive just desserts.

While the stagnating economy is one driver behind the scam narrative’s boom, the other is the increasing proliferation of technology and our legitimate anxieties about it. Twenty years ago, we balked at putting our real name in email addresses. Once we got over that hesitation, however, our addiction to attention-giving and attention-seeking became a source of immense profit for tech giants. As we grew more dependent on the web, so we grew more vulnerable to internet-based scams. Emails from princes gave way to social media bots claiming to sell cheap iPhones, eventually to be replaced by companies selling fake N95 masks. Investments soared in any number of faddish pump-and-dump schemes. Often, we learned to distrust the internet from the very same companies that monetized data: ads mirroring our browser history have shown up adjacent to more than one article about internet scams from the New York Times.

The forerunner of recent internet-based scam stories was the 2010 film Catfish, about a young man who developed a romantic relationship with a woman he met on Facebook, a platform that had only been accessible to the public for four years. The woman turns out not to be real. Her photos were lifted from a professional model’s online presence, and her messages were written by someone who did not look as she claimed to. The documentary gave us the name for that all-too-common scam—catfishing—while managing to foment a panic.

Another story of such an enterprising imposter centers on one Anna Delvey, who Jessica Pressler wrote about in The Cut in 2018. Born Anna Sorokin into a working-class family in Russia, Delvey pretended to be a wealthy heiress from a European royal family and used that appearance to persuade others to give her money for a business. The perfect angle and the perfect location seen by the perfect followers gave Delvey the perfect image. This, Pressler suggested, was the kind of scam that could only happen in the age of the smartphone. On top of fake bank statements and the occasional hundred-dollar bill, Delvey’s con depended on social media.

But the Delvey stories did not enlighten so much as contribute to a new deception. When Delvey was finally caught, it was revealed that she had no money to finance her business, and she couldn’t even afford to pay the hotel bills she endlessly deferred. The technological fears drummed up by the many pieces about Delvey’s case distract from her story’s content: she was born working-class and refused to accept it. In the fantasy that she turned into reality, she mainly victimized banks. Those same institutions, less than a decade prior, pushed the country into a recession they were never held accountable for. Certainly not in the way that Delvey was when she was sentenced to four to twelve years in a state prison for larceny. The same structures that protect the institutions responsible for dispossessing many people of their homes and savings also chastise the have-nots for living the life of the wealthy.

If the declining rate of profit, the unregulated spread of technology, and the borrowed authority of the detective are key sources of the contemporary scam genre, the three coalesced in the figure of Donald Trump. It’s no coincidence that Russiagate and QAnon both attracted adherents during his presidency. Long known in New York as a real estate fraudster, Trump lied with a huckster’s grin on his campaign—claiming he was a great businessman, that he would return mining jobs to Pennsylvania, and that Ted Cruz’s dad may have been involved in the assassination of President Kennedy. He failed to win the popular vote, but he declared his inauguration was the best attended in history. During his presidency, he pretended that he did not commit tax fraud or pay Stormy Daniels hush money, and that the head of the Boy Scouts of America told him that his was the greatest speech ever given to the Boy Scouts. And when his term ended in defeat, he said that the election was rigged.

Trump lied from the moment he announced his candidacy to the day he incited the January 6 riot. He was P.T. Barnum with none of Barnum’s self-awareness. Yet people kept buying the magical beans. They already suspected that the world was full of scams and thought their best bet was to back the man who promised to let them in on the grift. It is no surprise that the liberal media’s focus on fact-checking had little effect.

Trapped in a world where charlatans run the show, we turned to scam TV to tell ourselves that the shams would lose. We followed the stories obsessively. We did not want to be detectives and had never liked cops. But the shows were addictive, even if they turned to officers to expose the racket in question. We could not stop watching when they trotted out FBI agents for a moral compass. And we could not stop hoping that something would stop the scammer-in-chief, which the television was all too happy to tell us would be prison. Never mind that the genre was a lotus. We were all too happy to eat it.

Free Money

In response to the panic over grift, scam TV offers victims two happy endings: state intervention and conning. The former turns us into cops in service of the prison industrial complex. The latter lets us in on a secret and hands us the how-to manual. There is a backdoor to freedom, these shows tell us. There is another way of living.

The scam narrative, as presented by popular media, is neither adventure story nor a whodunit. It is a kind of horror story.

Where histories like Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop argued that insurance fraud—specifically, burning buildings down to collect fire insurance on properties in the South Bronx—formed the context for hip hop’s emergence, scam rap moved that backdrop to centerstage. It peeled back the curtain on the ins and outs of professional mendacity. No one does this better than Teejayx6. On his 2019 hit, “Dark Web,” he raps:

The government tried to ban me from the dark web
I downloaded TOR browser and got back in.
Went and got a VPN. Just bought another BIN.
I’ma keep searching these bitches on my site till I can slide a Benz.

What might appear as old-school braggadocio is, in fact, a primer on identity theft: download TOR and a VPN, use both to access the dark web, and search for Bank Identification Numbers. This simple recipe for committing credit card fraud, as he raps in the rest of the song, can access guns, women, and clothes. The scam is a shortcut to all the desirables of life.

“It’s just free money, just waiting,” Teejayx6 tells us in his Generation Hustle episode, and his life is simply taking what others leave on the table. Early on, Teejayx6 explains how to catfish “horny ass dudes” by populating a fake Instagram account with pictures of attractive women, friending people at random, and messaging them until they Venmo money for a plane ticket for a tryst. Later in the episode, Teejayx6 meets with fans in a store, where he airdrops them his Scam Bible: instructions on how to commit fraud. Midway through the episode, we watch him get escorted offstage by cops claiming to have a warrant for his arrest, only to learn that his manager paid two actors to play the role of officers as a publicity stunt. And at the end, he reveals that he signed his record label contract with a fake name, taking the signing bonus but supposedly freeing himself from contractual obligations. Should we have any qualms about the ethics of his actions, his manager asks the all-too pertinent question: “Who are you defrauding?” The people whose credit card numbers they steal will be reimbursed by their credit card companies, who will in turn be reimbursed by insurance.

Teejayx6’s penchant for scamming can be traced to deindustrialized Detroit, where poverty and violence offered little economic security. Should he ever get caught, as the ex-FBI agent working on cybersecurity insists he will throughout Generation Hustle, prison assuredly awaits. The life his music glorifies might be one of radical freedom—but it is still one without safeguards. If he reaches great heights, this only increases the distance from which he might fall.

The problem with the freedom the scam story affords, we think, is that that freedom is inseparable from the world it traverses. Even if we had the know-how of Teejayx6—and, it’s worth repeating, we do not—many of us do not want to scam to get by. Many of us want to be able to work normal jobs, have weekends off, and see our families at holidays. Many of us also do not want to risk harming others. That this may not have been available for Teejayx6 is not the fault of his scams but the fault of the same system that disinvested in Detroit.

In the wake of rampant assaults on the Black citizens of the city, the scam affords possibility without stability. It is only fitting that Teejayx6’s songs are filled with others seeking to harm or get one over on him while he chronicles the riches that conning accrues. One false step, the genre tells us, is the difference between putting one foot in a Maybach and putting both feet in the grave. That death may come at the hands of a civilian, but it may also come at the hands of the state. The passing of a counterfeit twenty in exchange for cigarettes provided all the pretense needed for the state intervention that resulted in Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd.

Dream a Little Scheme

The scam is big business, and big business is a scam by another name. The contemporary scam genre presents the internet as the primary culprit—trotting out monsters of the week like Delvey and Teejayx6—while distracting from the government’s failure to protect us from the scams that benefit the state. Civil asset forfeiture comes to mind. That so many of these scams rely on the scammer disguising themselves as an IRS agent or a Medicare representative is no mistake.

The scam genre tends toward the myopic, getting us to fixate on the wrong object. It insists that the confidence trick is an aberration rather than the norm.

The scam narrative, as presented by popular media, is neither adventure story nor a whodunit. It is a kind of horror story. “Once the hoax meant to honor, now it embraces horror,” Kevin Young writes of the scam in Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. “Once it sought to praise, today the hoax mostly traffics in pain.” What hurts the most is what is left out. We always hear the testimony of those whose trust has been so violently betrayed. And we’re familiar with the heartbreaking sight of people recognizing they have been scammed once the con’s hypnotic power has been broken and they’re at last compelled to face their real condition of life and their relations with their kind. The rub is that the scam’s breakdown is simply a return to the world as we feared it was. Possibly worse. Unaffordable rents in crumbling apartments, backbreaking labor, and aspirations endlessly deferred; the scam genre tends toward the myopic, getting us to fixate on the wrong object. It insists that the confidence trick is an aberration rather than the norm.

What exactly have the scam stories of the last five years been hiding from us? It’s hard to say. The con is only known as such after the fact, once we realize our wallets are lighter, and we can follow the trail of our lost earnings. There were any number of financial scams filling bubbles prior to 2008, but it was the subprime mortgage crisis that tanked the national economy. It’s not clear which one will bring the next crisis.

So we dream of another scheme. We stay a little longer in our reverie, steal a little more time on the company payroll. We think about what it would look like if we could collectively organize our world on our terms. If there was no material need to get one over on somebody, we could get on to knowing each other differently. If there was no more reason to counterfeit, we could take genuineness for granted. If there was no more hustle, there would be no more wage labor. If there was no more need to scrape by, we could start to scrape together what all of us have. We could not only stop playing detective, but we could also abolish the police altogether. In the back of our mind, we can’t escape the cynicism that suggests that even this vision might be a scam. Except, we remember, it’s only this vision which assures us that we have a whole world to win. And there, we’ll no longer have to worry about what kind of return the scrapyard will give us for our chains.