Scam Culture Is Our New True Crime Obsession, But What About The Victims?

Should we feel okay about it, just because nobody's dying?

scams true crime photo

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“My piece is about the swindle that is the American Dream in the 21st Century. I’m talking about the theft of our ideals, the stealing of a presidency, the fetters on female ambition. It’s about why scam culture is here to stay. My story has a place.”

That impassioned diatribe comes from Inventing Anna’s Vivian Kent, a fictional reporter based loosely on New York Magazine journalist Jessica Pressler. She’s fighting to keep the story of New York City con artist Anna Delvey alive after it’s scooped by Vanity Fair.

No surprises here, but the real article Inventing Anna is inspired by did run. It went on to become a global sensation, attracting millions of views from around the globe, inspiring the Shonda Rhimes-led Netflix adaptation, and ultimately seeing Delvey (whose real name is Anna Sorokin) convicted of several counts of fraud for scamming a handful of New Yorkers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In the series’ final episode, when the story sends Manhattan Magazine’s traffic through the roof, Kent’s editors explain their phones have been ringing off the hook, the callers on the other end desperate to hear take on the other patron saint of scammers, Elizabeth Holmes. They’ve never seen anything like the millions of unique impressions it’s racked up and giddily start brainstorming a follow-up.

So Kent was right: scam culture is here to stay, and it’s heralded a new age in our never-ending obsession with true crime.

True Crime, New Crime

The evolution of true crime as a genre has been reasonably slow, with its creators — the good ones, at least — trading the voyeurism and salaciousness that defined it in those early years for a more victim-centric style of storytelling. It’s seen family and friends enter the fray as advocates for their missing and murdered loved ones, though it’s debatable whether they should have to relive their horror over and over, simply to ensure their stories are told with humanity and compassion.

Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark — hosts and creators of the wildly popular true crime-comedy podcast My Favorite Murder — start their live shows with a disclaimer that they don’t consider murder a punchline. Comedy, they say, is the foundation of their friendship; their shared mechanism for coping with the horror of “the worst thing that could ever happen to a person.”

In 2018, when the show was gaining traction and the pair started touring, they briefly came to represent the ways in which true crime as a genre is fraught and increasingly uncomfortable: they were heckled at a Melbourne live show by a person who accused them of capitalising on murder for laughs. And so the disclaimer was born.

Six years on, My Favorite Murder still regularly tops podcast charts, and while they’ll be the first to admit their six years behind the microphone has been something of an experiment, they do attempt to audit the language they use to describe victims of crime and marginalised groups, vowing to do better and often backing it up with donations to organisations dedicated to serving those groups.

And true crime “fans”, for want of a better word, have experienced a similar reckoning.

But as we’ve distanced ourselves from murder-as-entertainment, that new breed of the true-crime story has emerged: the catfishes, the frauds, the scams.

And so, where once shocking and graphic tales of murder consumed pop culture, spanning fiction and non-fiction, documentaries, podcasts, Netflix specials, novels and even academic thought, now it’s the seemingly victimless crimes of the likes of Holmes and Delvey that dominate group chats, long reads, and Hollywood adaptations.

But do we get to feel better about it, just because nobody’s dying?

Where The Bodies Are Buried

At face value, these are entertaining stories with at-times unbelievable details. Even better, there are no lives hanging in the balance.

But the fact is, we’ve all been doing this for long enough to know there are always victims, and they’re typically from the marginalised groups true crime ignored the first time around. And when the crimes are financial, fraudulent, or romantic in nature, the potential for larger and more widespread groups of people to be victimised is arguably higher than that of violent crimes.

“Just because there’s no body, it doesn’t mean there isn’t someone who’s been psychologically damaged…”

“Just because there’s no body, it doesn’t mean there isn’t someone who’s been psychologically damaged or harmed financially or had their reputation damaged,” Dr Lili Pacquet, a lecturer in writing at the University of New England, tells Junkee. “It’s just that, a lot of the time, the way the story is told, you might not feel sorry for them.”

Take, for example, Rachel Deloache Williams. The former Vanity Fair photo editor and one-time friend of Delvey was left more than $60,000 in debt after the scammer left her high and dry on a lavish Moroccan holiday. Williams was the author who scooped Inventing Anna’s Kent (and the real Pressler) with her personal account of the ordeal. She was integral to the sting operation that saw Delvey finally apprehended and later more than made her money back by writing a best-selling book titled My Friend Anna and selling the TV options to HBO.

It’s easy to write Williams off as an opportunist who turned, what some would view as a minor inconvenience, into the flourishing career she coveted. No one is more aware of this than Williams: “I understood that stepping into the spotlight came with certain risks — I would only have so much control over how I was portrayed. But this Netflix description…stripped me of my agency, accomplishments, and truth,” she recently wrote for TIME. It’s worth noting that Delvey was found not guilty of defrauding Williams.

Victims of Tinder Swindler Shimon Hayut (AKA Simon Leviev) also enjoyed some temporary vindication when the man who’d manipulated them into funding his “billionaire” lifestyle was arrested. But while he’s a free man once again, the icon status bestowed upon them by some parts of the internet risks being overshadowed by a barrage of hate from others.

And that’s part of what makes this new wave of true crime so complex: a lot of the time, victims are shamed, humiliated, or villainised themselves for daring to seek justice or recoup some of their losses. But at least they’re alive, right?

Flip It And Reverse It

Of course, if scam culture can make villains out of victims, it’s certainly capable of twisting the other way: valorising and even meme-ifying perpetrators. Last year, for example, we all watched on with some amusement as Holmes’ supporters (dubbed “Holmies”) attended her trial decked out in black pantsuits and messy blonde buns. It was the stuff of Comic-Con, not an agenda-setting fraud trial.

But where we’d never condone or congratulate the actions of a murderer, it almost feels like we can’t help but be a little impressed by what these scammers — and particularly female fraudsters — have the balls to try.

The risk is in rewarding them for it in the ways we tell and consume their stories.

nventing Anna. Julia Garner as Anna Delvery in episode 107 of Inventing Anna. Cr. Aaron Epstein/Netflix © 2021

Credit: Netflix

Where To From Here?

If we’re learning anything from this new wave of true crime, it’s not that the genre is running out of steam — quite the opposite. Dr Paquet says true crime has had an audience since before the Victorian era, and we’re not realistically about to give it up, especially if it means we get to gleefully watch a few rich guys get fleeced out of their millions.

But the irony is that this perceived lowering of the stakes could see us devolve into a less sophisticated true-crime consumer — one who laps up all the mind-blowing details for their entertainment value. Just last week, I reviewed Inventing Anna for Junkee and concluded it’s a well done, entertaining piece of pop culture. I’m a long-time consumer of true crime and, looking back, it’s possible this new low-stakes mindset contributed to my assessment of it.

Dr Paquet agrees that this entertainment value means there’s likely more creative licence being taken in the way these types of stories are told, too.

“It’s always important to remember that there’s an author who’s piecing it together to make you feel a certain way,” Paquet says, noting that true crime borrows mechanisms like narrative structure and characterisation from crime fiction in an attempt to reach a conclusion. “But people aren’t really like that in real life. People are extremely diverse, with good sides and bad sides.”

So we may not get to have as much fun with scam stories as we thought, we can apply some of the critical thinking that got us here to ask bigger questions about the society that produces hustlers, scammers, and grifters, and ensure their victims receive the compassion and justice they deserve.

Kristen Amiet is a writer and editor who lives and works on Gadigal land. She writes about everything from pop culture to food and personal finance.

Photo Credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images