The Year of the Scammer: It’s Not Just Con Artists Anymore

Hustlers have always tried to get over on the powerless—in 2018, though, the tables began to turn.
Beth Holzer

Quran Preston considered it the “story of the century” —and in a way, it was. In late October, the college student proudly confessed to being a MAGA-obsessed black Republican who, as tweets detailed days later, had been disowned by her parents and was now unable to pay tuition. She recounted one painful exchange for followers: “my mother literally woke me up out my sleep and screamed at me ‘how could you support this monster’ she doesn’t even know him so how can he be a monster.” As Preston’s story went viral, she set up a GoFundMe with a goal of $150,000 and asked fellow Trump acolytes for support. In what felt like an instant, she’d earned enough money to, as she wrote, “afford my tuition, rent, and 17 iphones now.”

In a twist utterly emblematic of our times, it turned out to be a scam. “Trump is a racist, homophobic, transphobic, bigot AND YOU THINK MY BLACK ASS WOULD SUPPORT THAT ROTTING CARROT??” Preston later tweeted . “[A]ny black person can put on that ugly ass hat and say #MAGA and yall will instantly be up their ass cuz you wanna prove so hard you’re not racist.” But the reality was that very little money changed hands; she instantly contacted the site and asked that all payments be refunded. Days following the hoax, Preston uploaded a video to YouTube where she talked about her love of “playing a role to get reactions” out of people—especially conservatives who “don’t think critically on Al Gore’s internet.” She only wanted, she explained, she “to throw in their little Republican faces that I ‘stole’ their money—and baby, it was glorious.” Preston obviously isn’t the first, but she does shine a light on perhaps one of the most well-known and long-running narratives of our time: scamming.

In one configuration (Charles Ponzi) or another (online phishing emails from so-called Nigerian officials), getting over on other people has endured since the earliest days of the American experiment. Its pop imprint, though—as a label, a lifestyle, a celebrated art—didn’t take shape until recently. Meme-propagating social media platforms were crucial in transmuting scamming from crime to entertainment genre: made-for-Instagram personas like Joanne the Scammer popularized and romanticized such cunning acts of deception on Instagram and Twitter.

In recent years, and especially so in 2018, scamming seemed to persist as the one chief tenet of American life. On TV, in magazines and video clips, babbling from the White House lawn during a press conference, were unabashed hustlers trying to get over on the powerless. Anna Delvey . Billy McFarland . Tyrone Hankerson . Artur Samarin . Anthony Gignac . Marge and Jerry Selbee . Even Donald Trump registers as one of the greatest con men of our age, and triply so: as a real-estate tycoon, a rising political showman, and, now, president. These anti-heroes—some revered and mythologized, others quickly cast aside—puppeteered lives of spectacular deceit, and often to great ends.

Part of scamming’s appeal as a pop narrative is how it can function as a corrective in a system that has time and again conned vulnerable populations.

Part of scamming’s appeal as a pop narrative is how it can, in the right hands, function as a corrective in a system that has time and again conned vulnerable populations of people. Earlier this year, in light of the political climate and news of tricksters like Hankerson—he’d become a strange kind of folk hero on Black Twitter where his story only seemed to grow in its legend— a friend asked my stance on the idea. I shared with him that, on the whole, I found the act pretty nauseating. There was nuance, though; for people of color, and particularly those who come from disadvantaged communities, I thought of it as a form of reparations.

I explained how, years ago, I was tapped for a job that I felt mostly unqualified for, with a substantial salary bump and more power than I knew what to do with. I was convinced that I had somehow swindled my way into the situation—that I was an impostor, a cheat—but never admitted to it. “That’s just survival,” my friend suggested. We agreed that scamming won’t soon dissolve into the ether—that it will simply evolve, living and breathing under unconventional iterations. The me-first charlatanism of 2018 portends, I told him, a new manner of post-scam American value that was creeping into our national vernacular: the finesse.

America is a capitalist system built to benefit the powerful (at the very least, it’s a system the powerful have learned to manipulate better than others). From the onset of our so-called independence, systems have scammed the marginalized: black people; queer people; women; the poor. But just as the system works to scam the powerless, so too can the system be scammed. Scams, at their core, reveal openings, cracks. Reversals of scamming work because we suspect the system’s failings, and at some level believe that they should be exploited.

But maybe we need to extend this theory—people of color scamming exploitative systems as a form of reparations—even further. What if I said that some of our most beloved celebrity figures are also unapologetic tricksters? Is Donald Glover a scammer? Probably. But so are Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, and Virgil Abloh. Is that fine? Absolutely.

Want more? Read all of WIRED’s year-end coverage

Consider this: as we have hurtled to our apocalyptic present the scammer has evolved from its static emblem of snake oil salesman—the proto-grifter working to cheat a mark and take advantage of loopholes—to just about every bizarre iteration : the bro-entrepreneur; the Fake Saudi Prince; the Manhattan socialite.

As the antithesis to scammers like Trump, who are favored by the system and only seek to rob, diminish, and flatten, creative swindlers like Glover and Murphy enact schemes of enlargement. Atlanta and Pose provide opportunity and voice—to actors, to writers, to communities—where none existed before. Even Abloh, the Chicago-born streetwear designer who attained Louis Vuitton’s top creative post as chief artistic director, despite a common belief that he has more business acumen than actual talent, functions as a beacon of necessary representation in a fashion world that, historically, benefits white people.

Scammers aren’t just cultural blips anymore; they’ve infiltrated every crevice and crook of society.

Then there’s someone like Rhimes who, with her nine-figure Netflix deal, will, sneakily enough, have a platform to capitalize on the scarcity of female empowerment narratives on TV and in film. With Showtime’s Who Is America ? Sacha Baron Cohen once again molded scamming into a cinematic artform, duping conservatives into acts of pure idiocy by preying on political bias (and often outright racism). Scammers aren’t just cultural blips anymore; they’ve infiltrated every crevice and crook of society, and some, thankfully, with justifiable reason. And if you don’t consider these instances of scamming, consider that maybe it’s something post -con, something more deeply and necessarily American: finessing.

Perhaps that’s what Quran Preston was getting at all along. It wasn’t really about defrauding MAGA-drunk Republicans of their money—it was about exposing flaws in our fractured American system. It was about reclaiming control, if only for a moment, to show that hate and division and racism, and the people who subscribe to those beliefs, cannot fuel the country’s drive forward. “I just want everyone to think I’m the finesse queen, which I am,” Preston told New York ’s Intelligencer.

Even for me, in taking that job I felt unqualified for, I was entering an industry that remains afflicted by problems of racial and gender inclusion. But in staying on, in using that post the best way I knew how, I was able to upend the system’s failings against itself, working to transform the space and the platform into a more encompassing one. This year, looking at the work of creatives like Glover and Murphy, reading stories like Preston’s, I realized that sometimes a scam isn’t just the only option, but the best one.

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