Anna Sorokin: Why do con artists and fraudsters fascinate us?

By Helier Cheung
BBC News

image copyrightReuters
image captionAnna Sorokin swindled hotels, banks and her friends

The story of Anna Sorokin, the German woman who pretended to be a billionaire heiress, swindling hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process, has intrigued people across the US.

Despite being convicted, and sentenced to at least four years in prison, Sorokin's story has inspired a line of T-shirts - and at least two TV series about her story are rumoured to be in the pipeline.

One Elle Magazine journalist even dedicated an article to Sorokin's make up, with an article titled "How to get a summer scammer look, without actually scamming anyone".

So why do high-end scammers intrigue so many of us?

Dangerous charisma

Conmen - and women - have always fascinated people.

The 1970s film The Sting featured Robert Redford and Paul Newman as professional conmen, while more recent films including Catch Me If You Can, Ocean's Eleven and Can You Ever Forgive Me? have all featured A-list actors as charismatic - or at least sympathetic - fraudsters.

Jerri Williams, a former FBI agent who focused on fraud investigations, admits that even she is "fascinated by con men and women.

"The main characteristic is that they're very outgoing, very gregarious, and they know how to say the right thing to make people like them.

"The public sometimes admires their ability to use nothing but their charm in order to persuade people - especially in this country, where we like wealth and success."

But this charisma is also dangerous.

Ms Williams argues that the depiction of con artists in films and the media can be "problematic" when they aren't portrayed as criminals.

"The crimes they commit are much worse, and much more significant, than someone who robbed a bank or stole a purse. We need to understand that the harm they've done to people and their retirement funds is much more significant and long-lasting."

image copyrightMichael Schweisheimer
image captionJerri Williams worked in the FBI for 26 years and is now a crime fiction author

She recalls investigating the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy scam - a ponzi scheme that defrauded organisations of more than $100m in the 1990s - and says that some of the victims were almost "suicidal" when they realised that they had invested, and had encouraged others to invest, in the scam.

"When you're a victim of a con, you've engaged with this person - so not only are you a victim in the sense that you lost something, you may also feel ashamed and embarrassed because you didn't see what was happening."

The Robin Hood stereotype

Another reason behind the fascination with con artists is the fact that, in addition to appearing "intelligent and charismatic", they are also seen as "non-violent" criminals, says Dr Tim Holmes, a lecturer in criminology at Bangor University.

"There's still the idea that they're a Robin Hood figure, not a criminal," he says, adding that many films, like the Ocean's Eleven adaptations, portray the con artist as "a rogue stealing from someone who deserves it".

It also helps that "generally, con artists don't look threatening", he says, pointing out that Frank Abagnale, the con man whose story inspired Catch Me If You Can, was a teenager when he performed his cons.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionFrank Abagnale, who impersonated an airline pilot, was played by Leonardo DiCaprio

However, he criticises film and TV representations of con artists that "often suggest that the victim is in some way gullible or naive".

"There are so many aspects of our lives that just rely on trust, and strangers telling us the truth - it's not that people are stupid if they're conned, they were just doing what we all instinctively do."

Javier Leiva, who hosts Pretend Radio, a podcast that interviews "real people pretending to be someone else", has a similar view.

"Everybody thinks that it won't happen to them, but the people who think they can't get fooled are the ones that do."

He has interviewed more than 10 con artists, and says the challenge for victims is that "you want to believe them - they're very likeable".

"I've never met one who's an introvert... they're very warm and friendly," he says, although he adds that he's also found they are "narcissistic and very proud of their crimes".

He likens the interest in con artists to the desire to see a magician's trick.

"Just like with a magician, we want to be fooled - we want to get really close to it, just to see what happens - but we don't want to become the victim."

The American dream?

During the trial, Sorokin's defence lawyers described her as an ambitious entrepreneur who had been simply trying to make it in New York.

Many think that the notion of the American dream - where anyone can attain success - also contributes to the fascination with Sorokin's case.

image copyrightAFP
image captionBernie Madoff was convicted for fraud - and his case inspired the film The Wizard of Lies

The host of Swindled, a podcast about con artists and white-collar criminals, says that "in a capitalistic culture that's super competitive, people can feel a kind of pressure - that if you're not successful you're a nobody".

As a result, people find it "fascinating to watch someone try to pursue success at all costs, no matter how immoral", the host, who narrates anonymously and asked the BBC not to publish his name, says.

The irony is that the most successful modern fraudsters are the ones who don't get caught - and many of them will have lower profiles.

While the "classic con artist" is depicted as an "attractive, loveable character", most modern fraud is done remotely, says Dr Holmes.

"Now you can victimise thousands of people and don't have to have face-to-face contact - you don't have to charm them. Fraud has changed and become a lot more aggressive."

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