Scam or Die

The New Inquiry editors discuss last year’s so-called “Summer of Scam” and its endless aftermath

Ain’t life a big fucking scam? It sure feels like it. In a world like ours, where almost everything is fraudulent or at least unfair, cheating is a way to survive. When an Inside Edition video recently went viral for “exposing” fare-beaters on New York City subways, the only people who looked stupid were the reporters. These are the scams we love. Liberal media might celebrate whistle-blowers, those heroic figures who steal data and secrets for some greater good, but there are also quieter scams at work that can never be fully revealed. Like the cunning navigation immigrants do every day as they move faster than the slow bureaucracies that will never be able to catch up with the pulse of life. And then there’s everything the creator of the Fyre Festival, Billy McFarland, stands for: conspicuous consumption, white privilege, access to investors, capital accumulation. The public felt less empathetic to his “victims,” or those who were eulogized as his victims, because they were all just versions of himself: young, comfortable, delusional, and addicted to social media. And it was only after the festival’s event producer, Andy King, achieved viral fame that the GoFundMe campaign of Bahamian restaurant owners Elvis and Maryann Rolle, who were not paid by Fyre for their work, began raising any amount of money. In the end, reading something as a scam has less to do with breaking laws and more to do with breaking norms.

The New Inquiry editors Maya Binyam, Lou Cornum, and Tiana Reid talk about the politics, ethics, and aesthetics of scamming.




LOU.— Who are the good scammers? What makes them “good”?

TIANA.— I think the “iconic” scammers tend to scam “The System,” or people who represent that system but haven’t completely disavowed it (who can?). I was into Branden Miller’s Joanne the Scammer persona for a little bit. This was in 2016, before the 2018 “Summer of Scam.” Her current Twitter bio is “THE owner of Bank of America.” And I feel like that slightly gets after a “good” scammer vibe: not quite a heroic outlaw like Robin Hood (less organized, less masc, more individualized, more funny). The other side of your question gets after the raced/gendered/classed problematic of who gets to be perceived as a “good” scammer and who is just an everyday criminal.

LOU.— I also had a Joanne the Scammer fan moment. I guess everyone I know on the internet did, but many also were suspicious of how her character functioned in a transphobic tradition of humor. And of course she invokes the figure of the gold digger, women put down as greedy and manipulative but also sexualized and by some revered. People are generally titillated by women who scam, similar to serial killers who are women. And while I don’t think Anna Delvey is a hero or a good person, I am perhaps convinced that the only potentially “good” scammers, as icons, are women. Men like the guy Leonardo DiCaprio plays in Catch Me If You Can just come off as creeps in the end, relishing manipulation of their already assumed authority and entitlement as men. And the way heterosexuality is set up seems like such a rip-off for straight women; I’ve very rarely met a straight boyfriend who was hotter and more interesting than his girlfriend. So I like seeing girlfriends scam the totally rigged straight world. I’m thinking now of Bound, where Jennifer Tilly—perfect performance as Violet—tries to pull off a heist on her terrible mob boyfriend with her hot next-door handy dyke, Corky, played by Gina Gershon. It’s cool how gay sex and stealing became twinned deviances.

MAYA.— I think I still feel confused by what we mean when we talk about “good” scammers. Like, the scammers who are doing “social good” are rarely the scammers who provide “good entertainment,” and the scammers who provide “good entertainment” are rarely the ones who are particularly “good” at the scamming itself—they always get caught. The scammers that have most recently captivated the public imaginary are fun in a cinematic way (Shonda Rhimes landed a Netflix TV show based on Anna Delvey’s life just one week after the Cut article was published, Billy McFarland’s life has now been immortalized by two documentaries, and there are probably more to come)—but I don’t find them to be particularly cunning. People believed Anna Delvey was rich simply because she paid in cash, which speaks more to what people wanted her to be than to what she was able to convince them of. Cash is evidence of nothing or everything, depending on who’s carrying it. A few years ago my cousin was arrested for carrying $20,000 in the trunk of his car. The cops confiscated it, and he wasn’t able to convince them of anything, least of all his innocence, which in this instance meant his claim on wealth. It seems to me that scammers, or at least the ones whose lives get turned into profit, are just white people who know how to take advantage of the illusion that they act with good intent. Anna Delvey was a grifter because she didn’t need to be; her well-being wasn’t contingent on the success of her scams, which is evidenced by how she narrativizes her time in Rikers: “This place is not that bad at all actually. . . . People seem to think it’s horrible, but I see it as, like, this sociological experiment.”

LOU.— The famed and infamous figure of the scammer in particular is usually white (Joanne insists she is Caucasian), they play on their position as the hallowed innocents of this world, and their recuperation post-scam also displays the maintenance that is being done to keep them clear of the category of criminal. White women, whether playing scammers or heads of state, get to be both victims and villains at once, celebrated by some and still simultaneously categorized according to a larger hatred of women. “Con artist” always seems reserved for white men, who can be criminals but of a higher order. The summer of scammers had its most visible flares as a cultural moment when the scammer could evoke this clickbaity irony of innocence: There was of course Delvey as the wide-eyed ingenue grifter and also the literal nuns who embezzled money.

TIANA.— Men are scams; women are scammers. In Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, the main dude character, Marc, based on Nick Prugo, is a shy, cringey guy—not cool at all. When Emma Watson, based on Alexis Neiers, says in her perfect English-turned-California-girl accent, “I wanna rob,” I sense something of a vexed agency or intentionality that I find attractive, which is maybe where some of the “good” lies. What’s amazing is how easy it is for people of a certain race and class to scam or become symbols of a “scamming lifestyle.” It’s no surprise that hip-hop sets the soundtrack. And now IRL Alexis Neiers is a sober mom, married to someone she met in AA. The Bling Ring becomes not only an index of the rock bottom in her recovery narrative but also a somewhat destined event that set her on the path to a beautiful heterostable life.

MAYA.— And as is true of all modes of living that—through advertising, etc.—get turned into lifestyles, you don’t even need to scam to live like a scammer. In November, VICE, inspired by Anna Delvey, published a “Holiday Grift Guide,” which features a Supreme gift card, $400 eyelash extensions, an $823 cake. The idea, I guess, is that with enough wealth, anyone can feel like a poor person pretending to be rich, which I think locates the popular appeal in a lot of these accounts. Rich people love stories in which people who seem rich are revealed not to be, or are revealed to have come by their wealth in a manner other than birth. In order to maintain the illusion that they are better people by virtue of their wealth, rich people have to believe that other, poorer people are desirous of their lifestyle and are therefore willing to do anything to acquire it. This is why communities that convene around wealth maintain the irrational fear that they could, at any moment, be “taken advantage of”; the possibility of transgression is necessary to the fantasy that wealth begets happiness. For people who aren’t actually rich but successfully pass as such, their transgression, if revealed, is said to be par for the course of the American Dream. But for those who don’t pass—usually because of their race or immigration status—their transgressions are chalked up to parasitism.

LOU.— The Grift Guide should be a guide on how to steal these things! It is kind of a twisted irony, though, isn’t it—turning stolen items into an ad for buying them, their theft value feeding into their exchange value. I watched Ocean’s 8 on one of the several flights I’ve been on recently and, wow, what a perfect airplane movie. I thought Sandra Bullock’s character’s opening monologue was such good reasoning for why people scam, because the non-scamming life she describes as desirable is TERRIBLE. She is delivering her justifications for release, claiming to have been corrected to normal desires (in a way no one has ever been permitted to monologue in a parole hearing). She says when she is out she wants to be like everyone else, she wants to go to her job, and she wants to pay her bills. As if this is the good life! Paying bills! And then she marches out and stomps over the absurd premises of her speech and rips off a bunch of clothes, perfume, and a hotel room. And all the theft is in this really zippy montage that just makes it look like a lot of fun.

TIANA.— I watched this Japanese movie on the plane to Tokyo called Shoplifters. A New York Times review has a headline called, “A Family That Steals Together, Stays Together,” which is not true! They get torn apart! But it’s a beautiful movie and the adoptive parents/guardians/caretakers are not only petty shoplifters, teaching the kids to steal as well, but also people living under different names, running from the authorities after a murder and also a low-key kidnapping, though we only realize some of that later on. The film walked the line between a lot we’ve been discussing—who scams and why, who can get away with it and how. It was devastating in the end, because you feel for the family and see no wrong in the way they live (a liberal viewer is meant to feel this way, too), and then the bubble is burst and one kid is forced to live in an orphanage and the other has to go back to her biological parents, who you are forced to get the sense don’t really want her. The state promises a kind of protection even as that protectionism is just another excuse for sanctioned violence. You know, when are police called in and for what purpose? Why can’t people just be left alone?

LOU.— This movie is rough, almost in the opposite way of Oceans 8, which is the “perfect” movie, especially on an airplane, in terms of being a total fantasy. They get away with it!

Shoplifters was incredible and reminds me a lot of The Florida Project. Both lull you into the rhythms of these different non-nuclear family groups. So even though at some point you know in the end the fucking state is going to win, for a while their experiments in living, their projects of intimacy and their hustles show this beautiful co-constituted world.

Oh dang, also, upon returning to “Crushed...” I found this perfect description of The Florida Project, and again crushing and scamming seem aligned practices somehow: “This world is warped and vivid but it is also an everyday utopia because I played a part in building it as an alternative ordinary world.”

I’ve been thinking of shoplifting as a form of escape even as and probably because it is always so close to capture. Shoplifting, though, perhaps needs some disentangling from scamming, which we realized after watching The Bling Ring, which we approached because we thought it was a movie about these teen scammers of Hollywood, when really it was just more straightforward theft. Not a lot of grace to it except for the gall.

TIANA.— It was weird watching Shoplifters, because I wanted it to map onto the scammer conversation but in a lot of senses it fails. What’s the difference between shoplifting and scamming? Even if they can overlap?

LOU.— Shoplifting just seems so in-the-moment, whereas a scam is very close to a choreographed scene. I’m suspicious of metaphors, but maybe it’s like the contingency and excitement and thrill of a spontaneous public hookup and the planned, controlled rush of a particular S/M setup. Both operating at a fantasy level that takes us out of the humdrum of unbearable daily life. Which is related to why I thought of your crushes essay when I saw the Sandra Bullock monologue at the beginning of Ocean’s 8. The logic of obsession that comes with crushing or planning a heist, though I’ve only done the former, seem similar. There’s definitely something desirous about it, the kind of desire that works against sovereignty and law. And this kind of obsession sometimes short-circuits the other unconscious obsessions we’re supposed to have—to work, to produce, to accumulate, to own more and more.

TIANA.— There’s also perhaps a more nuanced relationship to the law wedged in that difference. Stealing is always illegal, whereas a scam must be worked out, proven, prosecuted in a different kind of way. In The Bling Ring, the video camera that captures them breaking and entering is what gets them thrown into jail. A scam has a different narrative of criminality, a longue durée, which is perhaps also what makes it so appealing for us to watch and judge.

MAYA.— I think a scammer is usually imagined to be someone who capitalizes (literally) on other people’s sympathies, which is why accounts of particularly cunning scammers so often recreate in the reader/viewer/etc. the condition of believing in the scam. So many of those profiles are sort of instructive, like: Here is how to avoid getting tricked! But they’re also deeply reverent. People who steal are usually coded as selfish, or bottom-feeders, which is probably because they’re reversing and capitalizing on the most pervasive scam of all: private property. Scammers also obviously steal, but they’re people whose thefts are so routine that they, once revealed, are said to belong to a strategy. So, in the case of the scammer heiress, her lies are presumed to say something about glamour, or the illusion of wealth, or being hot or something. And the lies of people who use “fake” passports or “fake” marriages to secure housing or green cards are presumed to amount to a scam that’s invasive, or worthy of punishment/control. I found it telling that the “Summer of Scam” was also the summer during which liberals began to call for the abolition of ICE, an organization that they (and popular news outlets) had previously regarded as the judicious arbitrators of America’s most villainized scammers: undocumented immigrants.

LOU.— Right, it’s still about a kind of social grace. Even hacker schemes, seen to be the crime of the asocial, also involved tips about “social engineering” to get compromising information by manipulating stray bits of data.

I’m thinking somewhat earnestly about the question we brought up before of whether there is something celebratory, in a collective-making way, about cheering on scammers. Is there still a possibility of a hero of the people? Again, with hackers, who are akin to scammers in my schematic, I always want them to be the ones who will swoop in and crash the World Bank or delete student-loan data, but then a lot of them just do dumb stunts or eventually join tech security companies or law enforcement. What forms of stealing or scamming build or are a strategy against private property? Because it seems like that’s what some commentators wanted from the summer of scammers, to believe both in the glamour of thieving and also that there was a potential for prole heroism in their model. Or a way of getting to luxury communism?

TIANA.— This reminds me of 90 Day Fiancé, where, in the arena of scamming, you can glimpse some promise of freedom but never grasp it. Of course it’s always the so-called Global South person who is constructed as the agent of the scam, never marriage, heterosexuality, borders, romance themselves as the actual scam. The Americans on the show are never rich, often struggling, and almost always ugly—in all senses of the word. My friend said it’s them who are the real scammers. I just said it, but I’m trying to get away from the “real scammer” language.

MAYA.— I have that impulse too—to be like, that’s a real scammer—but really I’m just identifying the kind of scammer for whom I feel the most affinity.

TIANA.— What else about the scammer you like most? What do they have? What do they do?

LOU.— I love seeing movies/stories about people “sneaking” into high-class society. Jack from Titanic is the dykon of this. He’s not even trying to scam though, the attraction to wealth is often a desire to actually disillusion the scam of property, he’s just crushing on a rich woman . . . and is accused of stealing!

MAYA.— I guess the scammers I like are the ones who profit (materially, emotionally) off of scams so pervasive they appear necessary. Like banks. Whenever I see someone has hacked my credit or debit card, I feel happy. They’ve figured out a loophole ingrained within the system. But because I make enough money to pay my bills on time without overdrawing my account, I’m also someone who can call the bank, tell them I didn’t spend $500 at Piggly Wiggly, and be believed.

LOU.— There is also a cute scene that can develop around stealing and scamming. Maya, do you feel like shoplifters are in a league with scammers, a kind of affinity group perhaps? My friend used to give a skillshare on basic shoplifting tips and some intro scams like getting free rides on Megabus. These are both practical things for making life easier, i.e. cheaper, but also I like the idea of helping each other break the rules together and cultivating small acts of illegality as rehearsal for larger-scale refusals. So often scams are represented as the choreography of a mastermind vision rather than a collaborative of outlaw friends, but the latter would be my ideal.

MAYA.— But any kind of scam that becomes a communal effort raises the question of how to make “tricks” legible to people who might benefit from them without also making them legible to the governing bodies dedicated to legislating, criminalizing, and persecuting scams. To answer your question, Lou, I don’t really feel in league with any class of scammers, because the material benefit shoplifting brings me is negligible, and the joy it elicits is irrational. When my pharmacy told me that my health insurance no longer covered my birth control, for example, I stole a ream of string cheese from the snacks aisle. I felt intensely proud of myself, but the feeling was fleeting. By the end of the day I had gorged myself on salt. And I still had to buy condoms.

TIANA.— The everyday pervasiveness you both are ascribing to scamming is appealing, like somehow scammers index a process of becoming. There’s an independent film that came out the year I was born, Chameleon Street, directed by Wendell B. Harris. I related to it most recently on a personal level because, well, my therapist has described me as a “chameleon” which is, apparently, a result of social anxiety, childhood trauma, blah blah blah. Whatever. But in Chameleon Street (based on real-life American con artist William Douglas Street, Jr.) the main character is basically bored and broke. He decides to impersonate people—becomes a doctor, lawyer, reporter, Ivy League student—and makes a living that way. He’s a cooler con man than the recent IRL 17-year-old ob-gyn Malachi Love-Robinson, but partially only because he was narrativized. I relate my own personal inner mess to this only because when we talk about what scammers we like most, I think this is part of the type that I do: people who never let their guard down, never let you in, never quite admit to the claim that they themselves are scamming because the world is so unfair. There’s a Frantz Fanon–esque argument to being a chameleon: that it’s a response to the psychic life of living under racism that’s both brutally violent and quietly murderous. It reminds me that the history of the black radical tradition is full of alleged scammers (Marcus Garvey’s charge of mail fraud or even W. E. B. Du Bois’s Peace Information Center trial), and how what is deemed a scam can change throughout history.

LOU.— One of the thrills of watching scammers, especially the ones we’ve mentioned throughout, is their skill in adapting and perhaps our desire to make what is a mechanism of survival into a skill! That can be a kind of sport. But is reliant on a kind of manipulation and, as you said above, Maya, operates on a basis of already-understood good intent available mostly only to white women. The thing I covet is the ability to make your adaptability into getting things you want, as opposed to what I do often, which is bending toward what others want or want of me. That can be the shitty insinuation of being a chameleon or the lingering sense it means being somehow disingenuous.

One last thing about imposters: I remembered this thing my friend Mike Mena was working on about how “imposter syndrome” was a bullshit change of phrase, because it makes it sound as if there is a sickness in the individual as opposed to a phenomenon created by social conditions. It used to in fact be called “imposter phenomenon” and in recent years shifted to syndrome, a shift that Mike was also suggesting had to do with increased numbers of people of color in academia and other white institutions. And one of the manifestations of all those anxious responses to affirmative action.

TIANA.— My Marcus Garvey example is less a “scam” if we understand it in the sense that the scammer is an individual who possesses agency or intentionality and more from the “other side,” i.e. the state determining who can get prosecuted as having committed deception for some sort of gain (this is kind of how the words scam, fraud, imposter, chameleon, etc. are related, to me). As Marcus Garvey’s version of Pan-Africanism was heating up, Garvey was charged with mail fraud re: stock sales in connection to the Black Star Line, a shipping line that was the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s (UNIA) business, and deported. The U.S. government’s deliberate suppression of black (financial) independence essentially aborted the movement. In a sense, the charge of fraud by the U.S. courts was an attempt to defraud black politics.

LOU.— The way we’ve been talking about representations and performances of scamming and this case of being defrauded through fraud charges as Garvey was by the U.S. government makes me think of orders of deception, deception which you’re marking, Tiana, as one of the central shared features of scamming. And that is always a part of representation, right, legal representation not excluded. Scamming gets us to the deceptive force of the law. How law is a fantasy of control revealed, in one way, by the scam. In many ways a different kind of fantasy, I hope a more powerful one. By the law I mean legal codes, yes, but also the social laws that bind people to certain acts over others and how scammers get people to act for them. And it’s a powerful narrative, also fun, like a daydream. Bloch should have (or maybe did??) write about the utopic function in scammer stories. We want to watch scammer movies and read scammer stories because they show us the stories people and the state are telling all the time to keep everything going—we either want to see some of the engineers of this go up in flames and pay (McFarland, various state agencies) or elaborate schemes that find a weakness in and then unravel the rules.