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Why 2018 Was the Year of the Scam

In society, politics, and technology, it increasingly feels like we’re being swindled. What’s going on?

Colin Horgan
Jan 3, 2019 · 8 min read
Protesters gather in Long Island City to say “No” to the Amazon HQ2 decision on November 14, 2018, in Long Island City, New York. Photo: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

Three days after Christmas, Twitter user Kilgore Trout (with over 51,000 followers) tweeted a link to a GoFundMe fundraising page, writing, “hello I am catching the crowdfunding wave but also being extremely honest please contribute today.” The reason for the GoFundMe page? “I Am Just Taking Your Money. There Is No Reason,” the fundraising page put it. GoFundMe eventually took the page down, but not before it raised $69 (“the perfect RIP,” Trout tweeted).

The page was clearly a joke, but one that resonated in the waning days of 2018, a year in which it seemed like just about everything was being exposed as a scam.

Kilgore Trout’s GoFundMe, for instance, appeared only days after another fundraising attempt on the site was revealed as a $400,000 scam. In autumn 2017, a young couple from New Jersey set up a page to raise money for a man they claimed was a destitute war veteran who they said gave the woman his last $20 so she could refill her gas tank. Before the story was exposed as a complete fabrication, the couple had been featured prominently by major media outlets that attached themselves to a heartwarming viral tale.

But that was hardly the largest alleged scam to hit the news.

There was the story of Anna Sorokin (aka Anna Delvey), who New York magazine profiled in May. For many months, Sorokin duped Manhattan’s young high-flyers into believing she was one of them — a mysterious heiress with untold inherited financial resources. Under her assumed identity, Sorokin (who had, in reality, been raised in a middle-class German family and had no trust fund to speak of) ran up hotel bills in the tens of thousands, dined with celebrities, and attempted to secure millions in financing from major international banks to create what she described as a “dynamic visual-arts center” in New York City.

Then there was Facebook. The site’s seemingly unending list of scandals combined to suggest one thing: that it is not what it has portrayed itself to be. Rather than a space to build relationships, or even a better world, exposé after exposé gradually revealed the social platform to be a rapacious data mining machine that, for years, profited on user data in ways few might have imagined. The platform relentlessly pursued its own growth — trying to squeeze itself fully into every crack and crevice of our lives.

We are at the edge of a new frontier. And a frontier is a perfect place for scam artists.

Meanwhile, in November, after toying with the expectations of cities across North America in its search for the location of so-called “HQ2,” Amazon chose the most obvious spots (New York City and Northern Virginia) for its new offices. In retrospect, many critics wondered whether the entire exercise was partly designed as a massive continent-wide data-gathering operation, netting Amazon valuable information about cities it would not have otherwise known, or would not have otherwise compiled on its own. For example, New York City’s (successful) proposal ran 253 pages, and included valuable information like “outcomes from the city’s educational institutions” that is not otherwise publicly available, the New York Times reported.

“They’ve duped more than the bidders. They’ve duped all of us. They can’t even live up to a promise that wasn’t fair to anyone but Amazon,” Robert B. Engel of the Free & Fair Markets Initiative (a group openly critical of Amazon), told the New York Times. Alex Shephard at The New Republic agreed, noting the dashed hopes of the smaller cities vying for new HQ. “The dozens of desperate bidders, from Detroit to Stonecrest, were nothing but pawns in a rigged, zero-sum game they’ve been losing for decades,” he wrote.

Those who promise you can make a living selling items on Amazon are also increasingly under suspicion. “In the first nine months of 2018, 48 consumers filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission about ‘business opportunity schemes’ regarding Amazon,” The Atlantic reported. One couple the magazine spoke to sank $40,000 into a failed attempt to earn a living from selling cheap goods on the site. The couple had followed the advice of two men who’d claimed, on a podcast, to make thousands doing the same thing — a “scam,” they now claim. (The podcast creators stand by their product.)

And as far as the rest of the internet goes, it’s all fake.

All of this played out against a backdrop of the Trump presidency, arguably the biggest grift of all. Even Trump’s staunchest former supporters finally realized the depth of his ongoing con when he seemed to renege on his demand for $5 billion to fund the building of a wall along the southern U.S. border. This happened after Trump admitted that he would allow the government to shut down if the money wasn’t approved. Right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, author of a book called In Trump We Trust, called Trump’s decision “gutless.” “Either Trump never intended to build the wall and was scamming voters all along,” she wrote in a column, “or he has no idea how to get it done and zero interest in finding out.”

As the funding hung in limbo and government offices closed, the only logical thing that could happen, did. Military veteran Brian Kolfage quickly launched a GoFundMe page — “We The People Will Fund The Wall” — which, at writing, had collected over $17 million of its $1 billion goal. It remains an open question just how, exactly, that money would actually be used to build a wall, and Kolfage’s reported ownership of “Right Wing News,” a site that was removed from Facebook for what it called “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” has led some to question whether it’s, well, just a scam.

If this feels like a moment when we are surrounded by scams and setups, one in which we are all at risk of being duped, why might that be?

It’s become a cliché to say that we live in a time of great change. Still, it’s worth re-emphasizing the unprecedented rate at which change is occurring (and the unprecedented number of things that are changing). There is simply no blueprint for living in a time when even the most trivial of human pursuits have become not only digitized, but connected via an intricate, invisible communications network. This unprecedented hyper-connectivity means new habits are formed, new expectations are set, and a new establishment is created just about everywhere and all at once.

We are at the edge of a new frontier. And a frontier is a perfect place for scam artists.

As confused as we are by those who surround us online, what we are really most confused about is ourselves.

Set on a Mississippi riverboat, the Fidèle, on April 1, 1857 (the same day it was published), Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man involves a con artist who encounters an array of Americans aboard the ship — all of whom are trying to navigate an era of extreme cultural change, technological advancement, and societal disruption. Theirs was the period in which the American West was still being colonized, railways were expanding at an incredible pace, the telegraph was beginning to revolutionize communication, manufacturing was transitioning to increased mechanization, and the U.S. was experiencing a massive influx of immigrants. At varying pace, similar changes were taking place all over the world, in many cases amid serious political upheaval and war (which would soon happen in America, too). It was a time of profound change.

Mid-19th century America is not an exact analogue for our own time period, but we live in its echo. As literary critic Tony Tanner wrote in his 1989 introduction to The Confidence-Man, of the disruptive era in which it is set: “Movement and expansion can mean progress and development, but when ‘the whole of society is in motion’ it can become increasingly difficult to orient, or focus, or even locate, yourself.” That is to say, during times of intense societal upheaval, the most important question people seek to answer is not so much where they are, but who they are.

Tanner continued:

In a society made up completely of strangers and perpetually stirring itself, problems of communication, recognition, identification, and, above all, trust and confidence become particularly acute… It may be difficult and confusing trying to work out who, or what, your neighbor, or contiguous stranger, is. But what if you should find that you have become a stranger to yourself? Such a society was, of course, peculiarly liable to produce “confidence men.”

This assessment of America in the 19th century resonates anew in the 21st.

The scams that make the news these days are only a few scattered amid the untold numbers that pop up every time we pull our mobile phones from our pockets and pull down to refresh our feeds. Is that ad for a new clothing line on Instagram a legitimate business, or are we about to be hooked into buying dirt-cheap merchandise for a premium markup? Is the person we’re arguing with on Twitter actually someone who holds those views, or just a bot designed to sow division and amplify controversial material? Is that article we read on Facebook an accurate account of what’s happening, or completely falsified — and were the likes and shares that made it viral created by real people or by a computer program? Is the head of state speaking in that video actually saying those words, or are they being spoken by someone else, and merely transposed onto an existing clip (or just manipulated in a simpler way)?

More to the point, however, is that we cannot personally engage in this shifting landscape of digital information accurately and authentically. We are not the people in real life that we are online; the latter is always just a representation — an avatar — of the former. And so we are constantly grappling with that inherent division, and always asking ourselves which one of us — the online or offline version — is the real thing. In a landscape filled with so much potential opportunity, when it seems all you need to get rich and maybe even famous is a great social media presence, it’s difficult not to test your limits — especially when someone comes along with advice to help you stretch those boundaries.

As confused as we may be by the people who surround us online, what we are really most confused about is ourselves. In a state of confusion about who we are, we are willing to accept new, assumed, identities — either our own or those of others.

As the new year dawned, another purported fraud made headlines. A Russian researcher, Nikolai Zak, reportedly questions whether the oldest woman to have ever lived, Jeanne Calment — who died at age 122 in 1997 — was really who she said she was. Zak suggests that Jeanne died in 1934, and that her daughter, Yvonne, assumed her name. If true, it would mean Yvonne died at the age of 99, far from a record-breaking age.

It’s a fitting tale to begin what will likely be another year filled with scams: alleged frauds, not regarding money or politics, but about who people are and who they are sometimes trying to be.

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