As you’re probably aware, online dating isn’t for the faint of heart. Sure, those apps make it easier to meet people, but oh boy, it’s so often not worth it. Yes, there are success stories, but I can’t even count the number of horror stories out there. No one is immune to investing chat time, only to schedule a meet and find out that someone’s been hiding a marriage (or three) or has multiple restraining orders on their record. Fortunately, a lot of that stuff usually surfaces early on, but sometimes, a sociopath is afoot, and that person is really good at mirroring what their date wants to find in a mate. That’s where shows like the dramatized Dirty John act as cautionary tales, and in the case of Showtime’s Love Fraud, the warning factor is cranked up to eleven.
There’s also, unavoidably, a Tiger King feel going on here, which just goes to show you how 2020 is going because Love Fraud came first. The series debuted at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim, but the rise of Joe Exotic’s dubious allure on Netflix has proven that people’s appetite for trainwreck-style trashiness cannot be quenched. Other weird and ridiculous documentaries now have an opportunity to seize some of those eyeballs, and Love Fraud is able to satisfy that craving and more.
Love Fraud is also here to showcase the truly wild feat by one man, who managed to swindle dozens of women and leave them in financial and emotional shambles. That stands in contrast to Dirty John‘s deep dive into one of John Meehan’s marriages, and that one only drew attention because it grew deadly. Whereas Love Fraud‘s central villain, Richard Scott Smith, left a much quieter trail as he grifted his way through dozens of relationships, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake. The level of deceit he pulls off — time and time again, the rushed sense of connection and commitment and the emptied bank accounts — are the work of a master con-man.
Strangely, Smith is using these expert-grifter skills in a rather lightweight way. The financial stakes are relatively low; he’s not pulling off bank heists or anything, which leaves questions that Love Fraud digs into on a deeper level:
– What is Smith’s true motive? He’s not walking away rich. Yes, he’s emptying bank accounts here and there, but he doesn’t zero in on wealthy women. In many cases, he’s going for single mothers and women living paycheck to paycheck. He’s also convincing women to purchase property as a sign of their commitment and simply walking away, leaving them wondering the hell happened. He moves onto the next city and the next target, almost like he’s truly in it for the thrill of ruining people’s lives.
– Why is Smith, a perfectly average looking guy who seems utterly unremarkable, so good at coaxing these women into love? He’s certainly nothing like John Meehan, whose unmistakable good looks and reportedly charismatic ways managed to convince a handful of women that he was a doctor, not a drug addict with a violent side. Smith, who we do hear speak at length, seems like an annoyance to endure in the same room, let alone during a romance. Yet he still managed to prey upon the affections of countless women who appear to have their heads on (mostly) straight.
– How broken is the justice system to essentially ignore these crimes for decades? It’s infuriating to see only weakly issued warrants for Smith’s arrest but nothing else, other than the suggestion that these women signed up to be manipulated and discarded.
– What’s going on with the strange things afoot at the Krab Kingz seafood restaurant in Wichita? You’ll find out in Episode 2, but be careful. You’ll be hooked.
Smith’s trail runs vast and wide. It’s almost mind-boggling to hear these women’s accounts pile up. Eventually, they figure out that they’re not alone, and they band together to help each other and, hopefully, stop Smith before he can rack up more victims. They seek the services of a “lady bounty hunter’ named Carla, and, well, it is on. She’s easily the best part of the series.
The most haunting part of the show, though, is how Smith represents a lot of what women are up against in society. He knew exactly how to cue-in to their wants and needs and fears (often of being alone), and then he’d deliver throw their fears right back into their faces. Truly, the cautionary tale aspect runs strong because, yes, this could happen to anyone. The series shines a mirror back toward the audience for every time a woman’s been left to hold up the fort or raise the kids or otherwise soldier on with responsibilities while their supposed partners dance away to the next adventure.
With Love Fraud, though, there’s a strength to be found in this ragtag group of women. Individually, each of their stories could have been viewed as simply tragic, but together, they’ve assembled into an army. They’re exhausted but unwilling to give up if it means stopping an insidious huntsman, and directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing do a fine job of illuminating the cause. The show feels like it’s got one episode too many in the middle, but overall, it’s a compelling glimpse into a bizarre long game from a predator.
Showtime’s ‘Love Fraud’ premieres on August 30 at 9:00 pm EST.