Cheat sheet: Which scam series to binge on, and which to avoid


Who doesn’t like a good scam? The people being conned certainly don’t. But for everyone else, it can make for a great story. Loopholes hide in plain sight. Someone works up the nerve. Traps are set. There’s seduction, misdirection and calculated confusion. And always, there’s the thrill of watching someone get away with it all (at least for a while).

But even great con jobs can flounder when they’re retold on screen. Check out these films and TV shows featuring real-life con artists who single-handedly pulled off audacious frauds. See what the best ones have in common and what it takes to pull off a hit about taking a hit.

Inventing Anna, about a woman who posed as a German heiress and faked her way into New York City’s most exclusive social circles, loses its way in its many side plots. (Netflix)
Inventing Anna, about a woman who posed as a German heiress and faked her way into New York City’s most exclusive social circles, loses its way in its many side plots. (Netflix)

First, pick a side. The villain is often more interesting than the victim. Netflix hasn’t learnt this yet. Its new show, Inventing Anna, follows the case of Anna Delvey, a 20-something woman who posed as a German heiress and faked her way into New York City’s most exclusive clubs and social circles, duping banks, hotels and stores out of millions of dollars between 2013 and 2017. But the show keeps shifting focus: past and present; Anna’s web of lies and tales of people she scammed; the journalist uncovering Anna’s story and the lawyer defending her; Anna’s incarceration and trial; posh hotels and prison cells. Everyone is self-righteous at once. And there’s no one to root for.

Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can reels you in expertly, as it recreates how effortlessly Frank Abagnale Jr (Leonardo DiCaprio) faked his way through careers as a doctor, a lawyer and a Pan Am pilot.
Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can reels you in expertly, as it recreates how effortlessly Frank Abagnale Jr (Leonardo DiCaprio) faked his way through careers as a doctor, a lawyer and a Pan Am pilot.

Give in to the magic.What makes Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002) a master of the genre two decades on? Sure, it’s partly the retro costumes and sets, the heady 1960s vibe. But it’s also the excitement of watching Frank Abagnale Jr (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) beguilingly pose as a doctor, a lawyer and a Pan Am pilot even though he’s barely finished high school. The scenes follow the small cons early on, reeling you in, showing how effortlessly he did it all. By the time Frank is forging cheques and faking his pilot’s licence, you’re right there with him, enjoying the fraud.

Delve deeper. The story of Elizabeth Holmes, the Stanford dropout and founder of Theranos, a blood-testing company once valued at $10 billion despite no working machines, has been all over the news. That’s why The Dropout, released on Hulu on March 3, takes a different approach. The series focuses not on the dodgy science or Silicon Valley’s fake-it-until-you-make-it culture, but on Holmes’s own ambition. It’s not just a scam, it’s a story of how desperately we can believe our own lies.

In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Melissa McCarthy is masterful as Lee Israel, a broke but talented writer who fakes letters from famous literary figures as she struggles to stay afloat.
In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Melissa McCarthy is masterful as Lee Israel, a broke but talented writer who fakes letters from famous literary figures as she struggles to stay afloat.

Think beyond good and evil. The best con artists start off with just enough truth to make the later lies seem plausible. This is how Lee Israel, a talented but struggling writer, got away with forging letters from famous literary figures – the first letter was indeed real. But in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), Lee (played by a masterful Melissa McCarthy) is not defrauding banks, embezzling stock or cracking open champagne on a sunlit yacht. She’s portrayed as broke, lonely, making just enough money to stay afloat. It’s what makes the scam so heartbreaking and so much more than a morality tale.

Scam 1992 retells the Harshad Mehta story with flair, and exposes the gaping holes within India’s financial systems that made it possible. (Sony Liv)
Scam 1992 retells the Harshad Mehta story with flair, and exposes the gaping holes within India’s financial systems that made it possible. (Sony Liv)

Expose the system. Harshad Mehta is certainly the protagonist of Scam 1992 (2020), which tracks the rise, rise and eventual fall of the stockbroker. But the show is as much about him as the murky ways in which financial institutions operate and enable fraud. As with Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Mehta relied on the trappings of wealth and power to amass actual wealth and power. Neither could have done it without the encouragement of bankers, greedy underlings and a system willing to look the other way.

Find the real crime. A woman has murdered her mother. Surely it’s an unspeakable evil. But as the tale of Dee Dee Blanchard and her daughter Gypsy unfolds in The Act (2019), it becomes horrifyingly clear where the villainy lies. Dee Dee, for decades, had forced her daughter to pretend she was younger, mentally deficient, in a wheelchair, and plagued by serious medical issues, to extract sympathy and charity from the communities they moved into. The show is melodramatic. We never know why a mother would inflict such a life on her child. But it makes one thing clear – in some scams, there are no winners.

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