The Rise of Scam Culture: Should our Industry be doing More?
“Hello?” a sweet-sounding female voice answers before the connection turns to static and the call drops.
“I’m sorry,” a followup message reads. “My phone’s mic is broken. It’s better if we use WhatsApp.”
In Ghana, victims of romance scams will be familiar with this kind of interaction.
There is never a sweet-sounding woman on the other end of the call. It’s a fraudster playing a recording of that voice. After that dropped call, the person on the other end of the chat will continue to earn the trust of the victim, continue to nurture a romantic relationship, until they convince the victim to send them money.
Romance scams like these have captured the world’s attention in recent years, especially since Netflix released “The Tinder Swindler.” There are currently more than a dozen films and series on Netflix that tell the story of some outlandish act of fraud or financial crime. These true-crime stories explore everything from romance scams and identity fraud to Ponzi schemes and government corruption.
But in Ghana, fraudsters known as Sakawa boys have been running these familiar scams for at least a decade. They’re easy to spot on the street, the BBC’s Sammy Darko reported in 2015, because they flaunt their ill-gotten wealth. “Sakawa boys are so renowned in Ghana that a primary school pupil can point one out – their lavish lifestyle gives them away,” Darko wrote.
From Accra to New York to London to Singapore, scams have become a spectacle. There is a hunger for this kind of storytelling, too. People love to hear these stories.
Below, we explore how this culture of scam storytelling emerged and what responsibility those of us in anti-fraud professions have to the victims in those stories.
Why Scams in Particular Capture People’s Attention
General interest in scam stories predates the pandemic. In 2018, we had The Summer of Scam, when the Anna Delvey story broke. The Netflix film about Delvey, “Inventing Anna,” came out four years later.
In that particular story, Delvey served as a kind of anti-hero who resonated with some audience members. “Rooting for a crook whose crimes include scamming the rich can be seen as a winking protest of the status quo; a way for Americans to nod at glaring societal unfairness in a way that’s a little more nuanced than just ‘eat the rich,'” Cady Drell wrote for Marie Claire in 2018.
“Also, scammers got their designation because, somewhere along the line, they got busted, which makes cheering them on a little less guilt-inducing.”
There are two things going on here.
First, there’s the outlaw-as-anti-hero angle. Those kinds of stories have been popular for generations. Ice Cube, Waylon Jennings, Mario Puzo and Clint Eastwood all achieved fame by telling memorable outlaw stories. Not all scam stories have an anti-hero, though. In “The Tinder Swindler,” for example, the story centers the victims and vilifies the fraudster.
Second, there’s the crime-as-entertainment angle. Remember listening to true crime podcasts in the mid-2010s? Scam stories belong to that genre. “But as we’ve distanced ourselves from murder-as-entertainment, that new breed of the true-crime story has emerged: the catfishes, the frauds, the scams,” Kristen Amiet at Junkee writes.
These kinds of stories resonate with people in ways that murder mysteries, for example, do not. It’s easier to empathize with someone who wants to bend (or break) the rules for the sake of personal gain.
It’s easy to empathize with the victims, too, especially for anyone who has experienced the gut punch of knowing they’ve been swindled.
Which is probably most of us.
The Larger Context of Scam Culture
In a New York Times editorial, author and UNC Chapel Hill professor Tressie McMillan Cottom introduced the term “scam culture,” of which scam storytelling is only a part. Her bigger point is that most of us share a sense that we belong to a system that takes advantage of us.
“Corporations, platforms, politicians, friends and relations have sown so many tiny seeds of distrust that of course we do not trust our social institutions or one another,” Cotton wrote in December 2021. “That is more than a bad investment deal or a shady business practice. That is an indictment of a culture.”
We see ourselves in the victims of scams. We see ourselves in the scammers sometimes, too. That’s what makes this conversation so complicated.
Take the Sakawa boys, for instance. It might be easy to write them off as petty criminals. But they’re celebrated in Ghana by some, just as gangs and crime families have been celebrated in the United States.
In 2021, researchers Abdul-Razak Kuyini Alhassan and Abukari Ridwan published an article in the journal “Arena of Identity” that explored the sociological aspects of Sakawa. In their own interviews with more than a dozen fraudsters, Alhassan and Ridwan found that “Sakawa boys are aware of their place in society as persons whose activities are disapproved [of] by the general public.
“But to them, the condemnation is pharisaic and double-dealing, as the same persons who condemn them for their activities also come to them sometimes, when they need financial help to solve problems.”
In other words, the Sakawa boys were rationalizing their scams as being another link in a long chain of fraud, theft, corruption and colonialism. They see themselves as products of a larger scam culture.
This is exactly what Cottom meant when she wrote that the seeds of distrust are so thoroughly sewn into our relationships with one another that hustling, fraud and fake-it-til-you-make-it merely seem like rational responses to systemic injustice.
Our Moral Duty to the Victims of Scams
Whether we are losing faith in our relationships and in our institutions is a question beyond the scope of our industry.
Our focus is to combat scams, which are on the rise worldwide. We must ensure that tools are in place to anticipate and prevent fraud, and that authorities have the resources they need to prosecute more of the 99.5% of cybercrime that goes unprosecuted.
In doing so, perhaps we can engender greater trust and push back against the rise of scam culture.
At the narrative level, too, there is work to do. In so much of the scam storytelling taking place today, the crimes can get framed as almost frivolous, or at least far less grave than gory murder mysteries.
“… where once shocking and graphic tales of murder consumed pop culture, spanning fiction and non-fiction, documentaries, podcasts, Netflix specials, novels and even academic thought, now it’s the seemingly victimless crimes of the likes of [Theranos Founder Elizabeth] Holmes and Delvey that dominate group chats, long reads, and Hollywood adaptations,” Amiet at Junkee writes. “But do we get to feel better about it, just because nobody’s dying?”
That’s the kind of question anti-fraud professionals should be stepping up to answer because there are always victims in a scam. As fun as it is to center a story around a fake German heiress or a Sakawa boy, their actions harm innocent people.
Part of our job should be to advocate for those innocent people – even if it’s just to remind friends who are binge-watching a Netflix documentary that someone somewhere along the line likely had their financial life ruined by the spectacular scam they’re watching unfold.