Good piece by Jia Tolentino on the nation’s endless parade of grifters and con artists:
This year, the last week in May marked the beginning of grifter season: the wind changed, the pressure dropped, and the scent of scamming was suddenly everywhere in the air. Anna Delvey, the young woman with messy hair and a vague European accent who allegedly convinced the superficial people and institutions of New York City night life that she was a millionaire heiress, was back in the public eye, thanks to an instant-classic New York feature by Jessica Pressler. (Delvey is currently on Rikers Island, awaiting trial on charges of grand larceny and attempted grand larceny.) Elizabeth Holmes returned, too, in the pages of John Carreyrou’s new book, “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup,” which tells the story of Theranos, Holmes’s biotech company, which boasted of a miraculous blood-test technology that lived only in its founder’s imagination. (The company raised nearly a billion dollars from venture capitalists and private investors before Holmes was accused of fraud; she recently reached a settlement with the S.E.C., which required her to pay a fine and relinquish control of the company, among other penalties.) Elsewhere, Thomas J. Mace-Archer-Mills, Esq., a frequent media commentator on the British monarchy, was revealed to be some guy from Albany named Tommy Muscatello, who had learned his British accent in a high-school production of “Oliver.” A twenty-five-year-old was accused of posing as an aristocrat explorer and scamming luxury tourists out of nearly seven hundred thousand dollars. A Colombian man pleaded guilty to fraud and identity theft after successfully pretending to be a Saudi prince for the past three decades. And Jill Stein, we learned, was doing exactly what we expected her to do with the seven million dollars that she raised for an election recount: spending the money, largely in secret, without any recount having ever taken place.
Grifter season comes irregularly, but it comes often in America, which is built around mythologies of profit and reinvention and spectacular ascent. The shady, audacious figures at its center exist on a spectrum, from folk hero to disgrace. The season begins when the public catches on to a series of scammers of a particularly appealing sort—the kind who provoke both Schadenfreude and admiration. Not long before Pressler’s feature on Delvey appeared, my colleague Naomi Fry attended a pop-up sale of Fyre Festival dead stock: it was a foretoken, the grifter-season equivalent of a robin in the back yard in March. Fyre Festival was the handiwork of Billy McFarland, who, last year, advertised an Instagrammable music-festival extravaganza full of luxury beach palaces and models frolicking in the sand. To the eager twentysomethings who ponied up large amounts of money to be a part of this, he delivered FEMA-style tents sitting on gravel and Styrofoam boxes of white bread and American cheese. It was a matryoshka doll of empty ambition: the attendees, like McFarland, seemed more interested in conveying a life style than embodying one. This is what made it so delicious, as a spectator. Previously, McFarland—who pleaded guilty to wire fraud this March—had scammed the same kind of customer base through his company Magnises, which charged social-climbing New York professionals a monthly fee for access to a clubhouse, a lead on concert tickets that kept mysteriously disappearing, and a signature black card, which was intended to telegraph high status, even though it was, fittingly, just the user’s existing credit card with a fancied-up face.
But we prefer a clean arc in our morality play: in the end, we like scammers most when they fail. The ones who seem like they’ve actually gotten away with something—such as Stein, who not only helped tip the election to the definitive American scammer of our age but who continued to profit from it after the fact—aren’t very fun. Like Stein, Holmes has not been the subject of much ironic idolatry, and this is partly, I think, because pleasure played no evident role in her extended scheming: she didn’t go on vacation, she ate like a robot, she overengineered her voice and comportment in service of the exceedingly dry goal of resembling Steve Jobs. (Delvey and McFarland seem to better recognize that scamming means putting on a good show.) But it’s also, I suspect, because her downfall exposes a nauseating level of vulnerability and stupidity in our current way of living: Holmes ran Theranos on bluster and deception for more than a decade, and had Walgreens, Safeway, James Mattis, Rupert Murdoch, Betsy DeVos, David Boies, and a nine-billion-dollar valuation on her side. We want the failure of our scammers to seem inevitable, but Holmes reminds us of how many are likely still out there—raising money, talking a big game at conferences, perhaps reading about Anna Delvey on a private jet.
Class strivers, of course, are often both effective grifters and ripe marks. Some marks, like many of the people who give money to Jill Stein, are easy prey out of misguided idealism. But the Theranos case is especially interesting because it shows the extent to which even successful professionals are vulnerable. That’s one reason Bernie Madoff’s scam stood out — he largely ripped off people who should know better. But it’s possible to be successful and not know enough about financial markets to be suspicious about consistent returns or to think that he could be bringing you double-digit returns investing in treasury bonds during a depression. And, of course, at least as relevant to the age of Trump is that a lot of Madoff investors presumably knew enough to know that Madoff was doing something really shady, but assumed that they were in on the con rather than being the marks.