Stop Celebrating Scammers
This year saw the rise of the story of Anna Sorokin, better known to those she deceived as Anna Delvey. The society It Girl told the world she was a German heiress with cash to spare, blowing it on boutique hotels, chic personal trainers and Instagram friendly luxury holidays. In reality, she is a Russian woman who is currently residing on Rikers Island as she awaits her trial for grand larceny and theft. The woman who tossed around hundred dollar tips as if it were confetti had used false documents to apply for multi-million dollar loans, written bad cheque after bad cheque, and conned supposed friends into footing the bill with claims she’d pay upwards of 5-figures back to them. Her victims included her own family, a Vanity Fair staff member, and her personal trainer.
Two profiles, one by the Vanity Fair staffer and one in The Cut, have ignited a fascination not only with Delvey, whose story will be adapted by none other than Shonda Rhimes herself, but with the nature of scamming. It seems to be the defining theme of the Summer: John Carreyrou of the Wall Street Journal just released his book, Bad Blood, about the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes’s faulty Silicon Valley start-up Theranos; Rolling Stone recently reported on the story of an ‘extreme travel’ specialist who conned eager tourists out of thousands of dollars; A British woman nick-named the Portofino Pirate garnered minor infamy this month after she tried to steal a €150,000 in the Italian Riviera (and almost succeeding); The biggest film in cinemas this week is Ocean’s 8, part of arguably the great cinematic franchise of scamming; And you can’t swing a cat around Twitter without hitting a Joanne the Scammer gif. The Cut have decided to capitalize on the excitement with a ‘Summer of Scam’ t-shirt.
I love a good drama and I am an absolute sucker for stories about heists, art theft and effortlessly cool rogues. The Ocean’s films thrive on the unabashedly giddy thrill of a well-executed scam, with all the best scenes happening during the intricate planning. Even the most morally upstanding individual has dreams of doing bad things and getting away with them. Delvey makes sense as a mascot for our era, but every time I see someone fan-casting a movie of her life or declaring her a hero, I want to scream.
It’s not hard to understand the scammer appeal. We live in tough times. If you’re a millennial, in particular, you have to face the daily think-piece barrage declaring your every action to be the embodiment of lazy entitlement, be it asking for your unpaid 40-hour-a-week internship to be paid or lamenting the never-ending rises in rent. There is no justice in our current economic system, and much less in the White House. Trump and his family are scammers to the core, and the blatant callousness with which they exact their schemes is enough to make your stomach churn.
So much of the adoration around scammers that seems to have permeated the internet these days is rooted in a false narrative of a Robin Hood style icon. These celebrations roar around the idea that these straight-up crooks are righting some kind of injustice. The act of tricking banks into giving you mass amounts of money to spend on expensive holidays and designer clothes is positioned in heroic terms: Robbing from the rich to give to the poor, and the poor just happens to be them. Much of the mythologizing of Anna Sorokin is cut from this cloth, with some buying heavily into the notion that her actions are something we’d all do, given the chance. Those she stole from, including her own family, are either ignored or dismissed as an amorphous blob who must have deserved it somehow. That Vanity Fair staffer Sorokin conned is now stuck with credit card debt that exceeds her annual salary. There are small businesses who were contracted to work for her and were never paid what they were owed. Sorokin’s family have been greatly impacted by the cons she exacted on them. It makes for a greater fantasy to pretend these people are Trump-style snake-oil salesmen, or gormless targets in a glossy heist movie who have mattresses full of hundred dollar bills. The shimmery dream of the victimless crime is seldom the reality.
It should also be noted that these new scammer heroes are almost exclusively white. A woman like Sorokin could create the illusion of Anna Delvey - well-bred, quirky, enhanced by European flair - because her whiteness gave her the benefit of the doubt to the world. People of colour, but particularly black people, are never given such a luxury. In a world where young black men can’t even sit in a Starbucks without the police being called on them, I have a hard time pretending the celebration of criminals who skate by through white privilege is anything other than sorely misguided.
The truth of scamming is that glamour seldom enters the equation. Sorokin kept up a lavish lifestyle that seemed tailor-made to pander to the Instagram aesthetic, but it relied on the labour and finances of others. Real thieves don’t conduct their affairs in Armani suits with the debonair charisma of George Clooney. The business of art theft is a grimy underworld of crime-lord exploitation and the beautiful paintings cut from their frames tend to end up ripped, rolled up and dumped in a rotting basement as collateral or future bargaining material. Elizabeth Holmes spent years gracing the covers of magazines with the moniker of the new female Steve Jobs, all while her company put real lives at risk thanks to their fraudulent blood testing systems. The sad truth is that the people who we position as the ideal targets for a good old-fashioned scam never face such twisted versions of justice. The more likely victims are those who will truly feel the pain.
According to Variety, Anna Sorokin has been making calls from Rikers Island to various talent and producers so that everyone involved with the series of her life can be aware of who she herself would like to play the starring role. Even the most damning portrayal of her will be a positive in her eyes because she’s been repeatedly told by many surrounding her that her actions are those of a scrappy underdog. We’re all in need of a hero right now, but perhaps we can set our standards a little higher.
(Photograph of Anna Sorokin, a.k.a. Anna Delvey - on the right - courtesy of Getty Images.)
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