Elizabeth Holmes, founder and ex-CEO of Theranos. Photo by Reuters/Mike Blake.
The motto “fake it till you make it” is taking a serious blow of late. As tales of con artists proliferate, the advice to feign greatness just doesn’t seem sustainable. Grifters in business, the arts, literature, real estate, and wellness are being exposed at alarming rates; they’re paying fines and facing prison time or already in custody, which really takes the shine off imitation awesome.
In June 2018, the New Yorker declared the summer the grifter season. ”The wind changed, the pressure dropped, and the scent of scamming was suddenly everywhere in the air,” writes Jia Tolentino. And it wasn’t a pleasant smell—not sweet like the smell of rain, but sour, like turned milk.
After all, the scammers are not only deluded themselves—they rely on the facile desires of victims. We’re prone to wishful thinking about magical individuals who can defy all the odds and somehow shoot to the top with no knowledge of the business they’re in, plus take their friends (read: their victims) with them. Psychologist Maria Konnikova, author of the 2016 Book The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It…Every Time says the near-universal individual tendency to believe in our own superiority turns us into targets. We think some people are special and will recognize our specialness in turn—this is called the Lake Woebegone effect.
These tales may be disheartening on some level. But cons reveal something sweet about people, too. We’re naive. We believe that people are who they say they are—because we have to in a functional society. Mostly, that’s okay. But we’d be better off if we also accepted that success doesn’t come fast and easy—not to us, and not to people who seem special and are actually just trying to cut all the corners.
2018 Grifter Hits
Societally, we’re fascinated by lies and the lying liars who tell them, turning stories about their scams into a cottage industry unto itself. It seems we can’t get enough con content.
Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos is a prime example; explaining her massive billion-dollar blood testing swindle is its own business spawning numerous articles, books, and films. On Thursday, Aug. 2, Holmes has a hearing on criminal fraud charges in a San Jose federal courthouse—a bitter reality for the technologist, perhaps made more sweet by the knowledge that the scene will surely someday be fictionalized and played by a star. Jennifer Lawrence is already slated to take the role of Holmes in the upcoming film Bad Blood, and there will be more dramas to come as the saga unfolds.
Similarly, Anna Sorokin, aka Anna Delvey, a Russian immigrant to Germany who feigned European heiress status in the US and was intent on creating an innovative New York art space, is currently sitting in jail in Rikers Island on fraud charges. She captivated imaginations when New York Magazine in May publicized her high-society lies. This prompted other publications to do their own takes on the fake noble—including a dissection of her split ends. Soon after, Shonda Rhimes announced that Delvey’s deceptions will be the subject of a Netflix creation.
For Delvey, who wanted most of all to be known and discussed, the bad press may be a warped version of her dream come true. Who knew you don’t have to hand out $100 bills to hotel staff in Soho to get people to pay attention to you? You can just lie and do time.
In July, Vice recounted “the insane saga” of 47-year-old Anthony Gignac, born to a poor family in Bogota, Colombia, who has spent most of his adulthood pretending to be a Saudi prince in Florida. He’s repeatedly finding new prey among the rich and famous of Miami, the US’s “capital city of fraud.” Gignac has been in and out of custody on various fraud charges. In May, he pleaded guilty in Miami federal court to impersonating a foreign government official, identity theft and fraud. The charges arise from a scheme defrauding 26 investors of nearly $8 million.
Also in July, the Los Angeles Times published the travels and travails of Anna March, aka Nancy Lott aka Nancy Kruse, a literary liar who’s wowed bookish types in multiple US cities with “fabulous parties” and fantastic tales about her deals and powerful connections. Despite various run-ins with the law, since 1993, she is apparently still selling spots to writing conferences that often don’t happen in fancy locales that she hasn’t booked.
Meanwhile, Australian wellness blogger, Belle Gibson of The Whole Pantry cookbook fame—who claimed to have had brain cancer and premised her health advice on recovering from this fake disease she never had—owes $420,000 Australian dollars in court fines for her deception. The money was due last October. In June, she still hadn’t paid and was facing contempt of court charges.
For a time, people believed all of these liars. Maybe the grifters even believed themselves. Then, when their associates stopped being credulous, the rest of us got terribly curious, longing to know all about their incredible cons.
Liars Reveal a Sweet Truth
Scams happen because we take people at face value—we don’t scrutinize every Elizabeth, Anna, or Nancy who swans by and tells us she’s amazing. Though we may fib and fudge, the vast majority of us aren’t audacious liars. Society relies on the idea that we can trust each other, more or less—and we can, more or less.
Trust is how we forge new relationships in life and work. It’s the secret element underlying every deal, including the greater social contract. Sure, a liability clause is useful in an agreement, but the goal is to never need the law’s protections. We make decisions premised on the assumption that people must be trusted, and that’s not bad, actually.
Trust is good for our health and makes us happier, more functional humans. It is “the more beneficial evolutionary path,” according to psychologist Konnikova. And cynicism isn’t a sign of smarts. Cynics foreclose genuine opportunities by doubting good things are possible.
Con artists rely on the optimism and good faith that fuels so many of our relationships. And we, in turn, are fascinated by their audacity, perhaps even jealous of their confidence until it gets them in trouble. But if we’re delighted when they fall, it’s not just schadenfreude, an ugly pleasure in their misery.
It’s also because this small justice reaffirms the less efficient and more difficult underlying system that determines most of our lives. We are stuck being ourselves—not geniuses or superstars, not nobility or heiresses, not glittery literati or miraculous healers—just regular people who go to school to learn professions, take small steps in our careers, and often struggle to get jobs, or book deals, or investors for our ideas.
Every grifter who is taken down reaffirms the beauty of this mundane struggle. Being authentic sometimes sucks, but at least it’s real. It also rarely lands you in prison, which is a big plus.
Keeping it Real
The other upside to authentic struggles is that they’re a great protection against grifters. Experience makes it easier to spot fakes.
Surely there were numerous doctors who doubted that Holmes, a college dropout, could revolutionize medicine—a profession that demands four years of medical school after college, followed by a three-year hospital residency, plus licensing tests to qualify for practice. Our culture loves to turn young technologists into gods, especially those who seem to get to skip ahead in life thanks to innate talent and vision. But while Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates show that it’s possible to achieve wild success after dropping out of school, it’s generally harder to hit upon a big idea—let alone execute it—without some grueling education and training, plus professional connections.
The whiz kid entrepreneur is a myth, as recent research shows. An analysis of the ages of entrepreneurs who started companies in the US from 2007 to 2014 revealed that the average age of a founder who went on to hire at least one employee was 42. The average age of founders of the most successful startups—those with growth in the top 1% of their industry—was 45. What that shows is that success relied on time, work, and experience, not wizardry.
Likewise, throwing big shindigs didn’t turn March into a writer. Ultimately, she has yet to convince a single agent or publisher to back one of her books, and that’s because throwing parties isn’t the same thing as improving one’s craft. It should comes as a relief to the world’s countless aspiring novelists to know that no amount of swagger can replace a solid draft.
As for the wellness bloggers, we should be taking them all with a grain of salt. Whether it’s Gwyneth Paltrow promoting bee sting treatments or a woman who claims you can cook your way out of cancer, be ever mindful of the long history of quackery and health claims. No one benefits more from goopy ideas than the people who promote them.
Just because these grifters have shown us the errors of our magical thinking doesn’t mean we should trust no one. We just need to trust ourselves and our authenticity more, respecting the hard work we put in to do us every day.
When someone purporting to be magical comes along and makes promises that seem too good to be true, it may well be because they’re not telling the truth. Anyone who has ever done anything knows it’s difficult to get things done—and so our awe of the seemingly awesome should be harder won.