Long a popular subject in fiction—The Sting, Paper Moon, The Grifters, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Six Degrees of Separation—fraud and con games have become a true crime staple. From early entries like the 2005 film, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and the 2008 book, The Billionaire’s Vinegar, we now have television series (the Stacy Keach-narrated “American Greed” on CNBC), more films (Sour Grapes in 2016, competing Fyre Festival documentaries in 2019), books (King Con, Bad Blood), and podcasts (Drilled, Swindled, American Greed, The Dropout, Dirty John, The Dream).
Podcasts, in particular, have embraced the art of the con as a rich source of material. Some, like the American Greed podcast, a spin-off of the CNBC show, offer a brief report of a specific case, similar to a news brief that might pop up in your Facebook or Google newsfeed. Others, like Swindled, offer a deeper dive into each crime, giving listeners more background on the perpetrators and victims along with some analysis of the case. Still others, like Drilled, The Dream, and The Dropout, devote an entire series to a single con, like climate change denial (Drilled), multi-level marketing schemes (The Dream), and the Theranos scandal (The Dropout). These tend to be Big-with-a-capital-B cons, with cheats and cover-ups spanning years, involving hundreds or thousands of people or entire industries, and costing billions of dollars. The schemes are so complex and complicated they won’t fit into a 30-minute or 60-minute podcast format. The limited series format allows the podcasters to conduct in-depth investigations, interview dozens of people, review hundreds of documents, even do a bit of undercover work. These extended investigations remind me of old-school investigative newspaper reporting. The Post or the Times or the Globe would run a series of articles on a scandal the journalists had unraveled after months of digging into records, interviewing confidential sources, and chasing leads. Readers would rush to grab the next day’s edition of the paper and devour the next installment of the story. I admit to the same excitement when I see the weekly installment of The Dropout is available in my podcatcher.
Why are we drawn to true crime fare about fraud? Is it because we’re suffering from serial killer overload? Weary of the blood and gore and brutality that often accompany tales of murder, rape, robbery, and assault? Or is it because listening to and reading about the parties involved in cons, perpetrators and victims, teaches us something about human nature, gives us some insight into human vulnerability? Consider these quotes from Fyre Fraud (Hulu) and Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Was (Netflix): “And then you see these wonderful, beautiful people in places that you’re not, doing things that you can’t afford to do,” “Many of these influencers are people that you follow, that you aspire to be,” “The power of influence is real,” “People want to construct their own reality with the dream of being successful enough that you’re beyond accountability,” “[Fear of missing out] is this underlying anxiety where, if you don’t continue to escalate your visibility, your identity will start to crumble in pieces,” “If you’re not relevant…if you’re not talked about, you don’t exist,” “We’re selling pipe dreams to the average loser, your average guy in middle America,” “One of the safest ways of making money in America is to get really good at exploiting people, to treat everyone like a mark,” “It’s a great time to be a con man in America.” Maybe these stories shared through film and book and podcast serve as modern day cautionary tales, warnings that help us identify our own foibles and provide us with armor to protect our own soft underbellies from predators on the prowl for their next victim.
Do you watch, read, or listen to true crime stories about fraud? What format do you prefer? What draws you to stories about fraud? What fraud-focused books, films, podcasts do you recommend? Comment here or join the discussion on Facebook.