What is it about scams and the deeply awful people behind them that fascinates us so much? Ever since the insane ride that was the Fyre Festival documentary on Netflix, the public’s interest in new documentaries and podcasts about scams and con artists seems insatiable. This year, Netflix’s Operation Varsity Blues about the college admissions scandal and the HBO Max documentary Generation Hustle focusing on millennial scammers have kept us enthralled.
Part of this morbid fascination probably is the persona of the con artist: slick, charismatic, audacious, and strangely magnetic, despite usually being a pretty awful person. Just think of Billy MacFarlane, the main culprit behind the Fyre Festival scam—watching him in interviews, completely free of any remorse and still shamelessly lying despite already having been caught just kind of makes you speechless. I actually knew such a person once, someone who would lie and cheat just because she could, and it was a very strange experience to see her insist on her lies even after being exposed. Your brain tries to make sense of the cognitive dissonance, tries to almost find ways to make the lie sound more truthful than the actual truth, because how could someone be so calm and relaxed while doing and saying such obviously false things?
Part of this morbid fascination probably is the persona of the con artist: slick, charismatic, audacious, and strangely magnetic, despite usually being a pretty awful person.
For me, scams and con artists are endlessly fascinating because I simply cannot fathom the motivation behind these types of behaviors. The amount of energy needed to juggle all the false narratives, the elaborate schemes, the disregard for the wellbeing of others—I personally would rather use my time napping or reading a smutty fantasy book. Or, well, listen to a podcast about scams and con artists!
The five podcasts listed here are all about that scamming lifestyle. From comedy recaps of the most brazen schemes to journalistic deep-dives into the rise and fall of particularly audacious con men (and women), these podcasts will satisfy your hunger for new scam narratives.
If comedy is your genre and you really just want to laugh at the ridiculousness of con artists and their messed-up schemes, then Scam Goddess is your podcast of choice.
Podcast host Laci Mosley presents two scams per episode that share a similar theme, describing them to her comedian guests who provide hilarious commentary throughout. The more absurd the scam is, the more likely it is to appear on this podcast: fake Nigerian princes, orphan girls that turn out to be full-grown adults after adoption, and a noticeably high number of European con artists posing as posh royalty are only some of the crazy personas appearing here. Laci also shares scam stories from listeners at the beginning of each episode, so you can stay up to date on what latest scheme you need to brace yourself for when surfing the net.
The podcast episodes can sometimes get a bit chaotic, and depending on the guest, the comedy is hit and miss. But Laci is always on point with her biting, entertaining commentary, and I kind of love that she never judges the scammers themselves, often even expressing admiration for a well-done scheme while also highlighting the silliness of the cons. I think Laci gets very close to unlocking the secret to why we are so fascinated with scams: On the one hand, it is absolutely awful how people get hurt and exploited by them. But on the other hand, if we are honest, there is something so strangely silly about the amount of work con artists put into their schemes, and in the end you can really only laugh about the whole awful mess.
There is something so strangely silly about the amount of work con artists put into their schemes, and in the end you can really only laugh about the whole awful mess.
This podcast is hosted by an anonymous “concerned citizen” and has a somewhat mysterious atmosphere that draws you in immediately. The host can sometimes sound a bit robotic, but you can still feel his righteous anger when he maps out the anatomy of a particularly devious con. Each episode introduces two related cons that share some overarching theme, be it a Wall Street adjacent ponzi scheme or two hipster socialites scamming their way through different American cities. You will be surprised how many criminal minds will think of the exact same angle for their scams without knowing each other!
I like that this podcast doesn’t just focus on the usual big name con artists, but also introduces many smaller names and schemes. It also never glorifies the scammers, but rather shows a great deal of empathy towards the victims. So, this one might be more suitable for those who don’t feel comfortable with our glorification of scammers. There is a lot of very scathing and condemning commentary, and the host effectively connects us to the victims’ suffering.
I remember reading about Elizabeth Holmes and her Silicon Valley startup Theranos when her by-now infamous scam wasn’t even fully revealed, at a time where people were suspecting what was going on but were still unsure. Holmes founded Theranos as a tech startup presumably developing a revolutionary handheld device that could perform a multitude of blood tests with only a drop of blood. What sounded like a medical tech miracle was basically all just smoke and mirrors, a scheme so elaborate that it will dumbfound you how the culprits could have gotten away with it all for years.
The Dropout tells the story of Holmes, who was only in her 20s when she founded Theranos after quitting her studies at Stanford and hailed to be the next great inventor after Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Her fascination with Jobs and her obsessive desire to invent something world-changing, her strange persona that—even stranger—seemed to appeal to so many wealthy men ready to back her bold plans, the weird fake voice she put on, all of it makes for a very compelling story, meticulously researched and well-presented.
Anna Sorokin—who renamed herself Anna Delvey during her scamming career—became a social media phenomenon in 2019 after being convicted of a number of charges, among them theft of services and defrauding a number of banks, as well as many New York City luxury hotels and restaurants. Calling Anna Sorokin a “social media phenomenon” would probably make this German-Russian fraudster very happy indeed, since fame and recognition as a celebrity of sorts was her main motivation for trying to defraud numerous people over the span of roughly four years. Posing as a German socialite and trust fund babe, Sorokin tried to set up an art foundation under her (fake) name, trying her hardest to draw multiple banks, businesses, and rich individuals into the scheme.
The BBC-produced podcast Fake Heiress tells Sorokin’s story in an interesting mix of fact and fiction, interweaving victim interviews with fictional scenes written by playwright Chloe Moss. The voice actress playing Anna is fantastic, a perfect mix of delusional and strangely naïve that seems very close to the real person. Journalist Vicky Baker does an amazing job teasing out the psychological motivations this young woman may have had to do all her brazen scamming over so many years, and highlights especially the glaringly obvious reason she got away with it for so long: As a white, conventionally attractive woman pretending to belong to the elite, very few people questioned her status and wealth until the con became glaringly obvious.
Chameleon: Hollywood Con Queen
If you have watched the Generation Hustle episode about this particular scam, you probably were left with more questions than answers. It is kind of hard to describe the “Hollywood con queen scam,” because it was such an elaborate, complicated scheme. But in short, the scammer targeted entertainment industry professionals such as videographers, personal trainers, minor actors, and photographers. These unsuspecting victims were lured to Indonesia under false pretenses of planning to shoot a movie there, usually thinking they were working for a large name female Hollywood producer who contacted them via phone. In Indonesia, a driver would pick them up from the airport and collect a service fee, driving them to increasingly strange locations while pressuring them to pay more and more money.
The reason this scam continued for as long as it did was in large part due to the strange genius of the person running it, and we really get a deep dive into the psychology behind this twisted, strange individual throughout this podcast. Seeing their strange schemes unfold over the course of 10 episodes is an often surreal but fascinating ride, with many of the victims given a chance to tell their stories without shaming or looking down on them.