Why You Can't Stop Reading About Scammers

Photo: Matteo Prandoni/BFA/REX/Shutterstock.
The summer of 2018 gave us a lot of beautiful, beautiful things: Pete and Ariana, Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again, and grifter season (aka the summer of scams) — which is arguably the most fascinating of them all.
There was, of course, Anna Delvey (aka. the Soho Grifter), who conned New York City's social elite out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. And then there was the Vogue ex-staffer who was accused of stealing $50,000 from her former boss, Grace Coddington. There was the ex-cop who rigged a McDonald's Monopoly game to win millions of dollars. We could go on and on.
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And we've been devouring these stories. The Soho Grifter's story has already inspired a Netflix show, and through their respective production companies, Ben Affleck and Mark Wahlberg have both secured rights to potentially adapt the McDonald's scammer's story onto the screen. So what is it about these scams that make them so fascinating? Is it that we wish we could get away with a con ourselves? Or does it have more to do with the people who are getting scammed?
"I suspect it's less about wanting to get away with the con in the sense of wanting to rip people off, but more the idea of winning/duping as a way of feeling a sense of superiority or power," says Matt Lundquist, LCSW, a psychotherapist based in New York City.
Lundquist adds that part of our fascination with these stories has to do with a sense of Schadenfreude (where we laugh at someone else's misfortune): we get to feel better than other people by hearing about them getting duped, and think, that would never happen to me.

I suspect it's less about wanting to get away with the con, but more the idea of winning as a way of feeling a sense of superiority or power.

Matt Lundquist, LCSW
In particular, the Delvey case (in which the supposed German heiress swindled people close to her out of money) was one that reflected a lot of our feelings about class and who "deserves" to get scammed.
Lundquist suggests that there are two things at play in this scam. For one thing, it's easy to feel like the social elites Delvey tricked already had it easy (seriously, who among us is well-off enough to just "forget" about lending someone "two or three thousand dollars"?). So because of that, we might feel like these people got their comeuppance for falling for the scam.
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"There's an ability to dis-identify or disassociate from the victim — we are able to allow ourselves to revel in their demise, because we see them as different from us and somehow morally less worthy of protection," Lundquist says. "[Like,] 'it's just a rich guy,' or 'she was probably a jerk anyway.' That allows us to give ourselves permission to entertain a sort of deviant set of thoughts we wouldn't otherwise."
After all, it wouldn't be the same if Delvey had conned, say, a poor, single mom. But whether it's Delvey or the Vogue grifter, part of the fun for us as summer of scam spectators is that these people have already been caught, giving us the full show of what went down.
"When we hear a story about a scammer who hasn't been caught, we get drawn in to mystery and the chase," Lundquist says. "It's the first 90% of the detective story. It's only once the scammer has been caught that we can connect the person to the scam, so we have the narrative, the complete story."
But that's not all. In her 2016 book, The Confidence Game, Maria Konnikova puts forth the idea that scammers often thrive in times of transition, or unrest — and Lundquist says that theory most certainly rings true to him. It's certainly hard to argue that the U.S. and the world at large isn't in a time of unease as temperatures around the globe heat up and we seem to be more politically polarized than ever. As Konnikova wrote in her book, scammers work best in times of societal transition because people more likely to believe them when it seems like all bets are off. And that's at least a small part of why we're so baffled by the bullshit, even when we're not the ones getting scammed: When it seems like the system we're in doesn't work anymore, there's some excitement in trying (and even failing) to cheat that system.
There's no telling whether or not grifter season is merely a blip in our timeline that we'll soon move on from, but either way, we'll always have the summer of scams.
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