Sometime around the early 17th century, a Chinese writer named Zhang Yingyu published a book called The Book of Swindles, also known by a longer name: A New Book For Foiling Swindlers, Based on Worldly Experience: Strange Tales from the Rivers and Lakes. The text, thought to be the first Chinese collection of stories dedicated to fraud, included 84 short accounts of hoaxes, broken down into 24 types, from “Misdirection and Theft,” to “Fake Silver,” to “Government Underlings,” to my favorite, “Women.”
Zhang wrote the book after a boom of international commerce concentrated extreme wealth in the hands of a few merchants in the late Ming dynasty, boosting crime along the bodies of water where goods traveled. Per the title, he chose the stranger, more unusual stories, but each was an emblem of sorts, representing the strains of subterfuge at play in Zhang’s world. Hoaxes are as old as humanity, but the specific scams people devise say something about their particular moment. In the English translation, published by Columbia University Press in 2017, you can scan Zhang’s table of contents and find entries, both universal and distinctly timestamped: A Buddhist Monk Identifies a Cow as His Mother, or A Eunuch Cooks Boys to Make a Tonic of Male Essence, or A Father Searching for His Wastrel Son Himself Falls into Whoring.
The compendium functioned both as an encyclopedia of crime and a kind of crook’s handbook. In describing the hoaxes, Zhang couldn’t hide his grudging respect for the swindlers, whose ingenuity helped them survive an unequal economy. As our decade comes to an end, we find ourselves in a similar situation: extreme wealth disparity, a pervasive sense that any solid-seeming fact might give way to grift, and a moral confusion about just who, exactly, the bad guys are, the hoaxers or the hoaxed. In that spirit, here’s a highly scientific and absolutely definitive list of the swindles––in some order of influence, depravity, and being funny or stupid––that shaped our time like Zhang’s shaped his.
In early 2011, in the midst of the Syrian Uprising, a blog appeared called A Gay Girl in Damascus, written by a Syrian-American lesbian named Amina Arraf. Arraf wrote posts about the government’s crackdown on Arab Spring protesters, and quickly found readers across the globe. She made online friends everywhere and even began seeing some lesbian activists, one of whom claimed to be her long-distance girlfriend. A few months into Arraf’s blog however, the posts cut short. A message appeared from Arraf’s “cousin,” claiming she had been abducted. Online forums erupted with concern. When the U.S. State Department opened an investigation, they discovered that Amina was no kid at all, but a 40-year-old man from Georgia named Tom McMaster, who had crafted the persona to “have a discussion about the real questions” in the Middle East.
McMaster had used his sockpuppet profile to infiltrate areas where he wouldn’t otherwise be welcome (or at least, not welcome in the same way), an impulse the internet has only made easier. The scheme bore similarities to catfishing, the now ubiquitous word for creating deceptive online accounts, usually for romance or financial scams, but which gained traction after the 2010 documentary, Catfish. The practice is now widespread: a study of online romance scams from the Better Business Bureau found one in seven online dating profiles are fake, and that catfishing scams had increased by 50 percent in just three years. To be sure, there were real-world impersonations as well—take the story of Natalia Grace, who allegedly pretended to be a Ukranian orphan and lived with an adoptive family for five years; or of Brian Michael Rini who claimed to be missing boy Timmothy Pitzen; and or of Dan Nainan, a former Intel engineer turned truly terrible stand-up, billed as the 30-something “Millennial comedian,” who actually proved to be 55 years old.
Innocent kids were huge this decade, not just in adults pretending to be them, but in paranoia that the ever-expanding internet was out to get them. In 2011, for example, a Slovenian tech studio released Talking Angela, an app where users could chat with an animated cat. In February of 2014, an article on Huzlers.com, which has since been seized by Homeland Security and the IRS, claimed that the app ask kids odd questions, like “What are you wearing right now?” Though the article was labeled “satire,” the rumor spread across social media, prompting concerns that Angela was run by a pedophile ring, while pushing the app to the top of the iPhone store. The company denied any wrongdoing, and the theory was debunked by Snopes and a British security company, Sophos. But eventually the chat function was removed.
Talking Angela got swallowed into the archives of the internet, but the same fear appeared in other forms. Most famously: the Momo Challenge, a made-up viral game that kids shared on messaging platforms which, for an unhinged and extremely long amount of time, some parents believed was pushing their kids into violence and suicide. In fact, the game was nothing more than a scary picture of a grotesque, big-boobed chicken woman that looked like a Tim Burton character.
There was some precedent for internet-related child violence. In 2014, two 12-year-olds were arrested and charged with attempted murder, after taking a friend to the woods, stabbing her 19 times, and leaving her for dead, in the name of another fictional internet character named Slenderman. The girls claimed Slenderman, a figure that had floated around forums since 2009, was a wicked supernatural creature who lived online. In 2017, however Snopes argued that to see Slenderman as a “cautionary tale for parents [about] allowing children unsupervised access to the internet” was to misunderstand fiction and folklore.
Social media made writing at once easier to do in public, harder to do at news institutions, possible to edit once published, and easier to disprove. The 2010s poked holes in the written word left and right. In 2011, Jon Krakauer uncovered deception in Greg Mortenson’s 2007 book, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time, proving that Mortenson had made up many of its claims, mismanaged money from the non-profit he wrote about, and forcing the author to repay $1 million in restitution for misspending some $6 million of their money.
In 2015, Facebook boasted about new statistics about video viewership, causing a massive “pivot to video” across journalism, and costing legions of writers and editors their jobs—in spite of the fact that the social network knew their numbers had been grossly inflated, and covered it up for years. And in 2018, a trio of conservative academics, frustrated by what they perceived as a left-wing, ideology-driven trend in academia, teamed up to write 20 fake papers, in a field they called “grievance studies,” and submitted them for peer review. By the time the group, dubbed “Sokal Squared” in homage to Alan Sokal’s famous 1996 hoax, came clean with their trick, seven of the papers had been published in journals, four online, and three were in review. Among the accepted papers: a “feminist re-write of a chapter from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.”
Not long later, reporter Ian Parker profiled the best-selling novelist Dan Mallory, revealing that the mystery writer had told extremely specific and gorgeously outrageous lies throughout his career. Mallory’s deceptions ranged from claiming his mother, father, and brother had died in his Oxford admissions essay, to pretending he had brain cancer over a span of several years, boasting that he had edited Tina Fey’s book, to writing in a college essay that, at age nine, he had once “slammed the keyboard cover of [his] grandfather’s Steinway onto [his] exposed penis.” In Mallory’s words: “As I beheld the flushed member pinned against the ivories like the snakeling in Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, I immediately feared my urinating days were over.”
In mid-December, The Washington Post published a mind-boggling report that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had secretly hoarded roughly $100 billion under the guise of collecting for charity, while using the funds to prop up business interests. The leak had come from a Mormon portfolio manager at the church’s investment company, who argued in a federal complaint that the IRS should strip the company of tax-exempt status, to recover billions in unpaid taxes.
It was the latest in a string of scandals at religious institutions, where officials twisted scripture and religious laws for personal gain. In 2010, the Christian multi-level marketing company Amway settled a class action lawsuit over deceptive business practices. In 2018, televangelist Jim Bakker, who did five years in prison for fraud in the 90s, drew fire for hawking his high-end condos as an escape from the apocalypse. Just this year, Chicago pastor James MacDonald was fired from his megachurch, after putting the institution tens of millions of dollars into debt. The dismissal came after a local radio DJ aired clips of MacDonald criticizing outlets that reported on his financial mismanagement. In one tape, he called Christianity Today an “Anglican, pseudo-dignity, high church, symphony-adoring, pipe organ-protecting, musty, mild smell of urine, blue-haired Methodist-loving, mainline-dying, women preacher-championing, emerging church-adoring, almost good with all gays and closet Palestine-promoting Christianity.”
A close relative to the religious hoax might be the wellness hoax, a modern revival of the quack medicines of Medieval Europe. In the past decade, both sides of the political spectrum have produced an outpouring of wellness products promising impossible results, built on faulty science and priced at exorbitant rates. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop creams infused with, as one article put it, “energy from music, chants, and blessings,” were going for $100 at one point. Her infamous jade vagina eggs ($55-$66) promised to prevent depression, regulate hormones and menstrual cycles, and improve bladder control, until a lawsuit from the California Food, Drug, and Medical Device Task Force, forced her to pay $145,000 in penalties and refrain from making health claims without scientific evidence. Meanwhile, Alex Jones, of gay frogs and Infowars fame, spent the 2010s hawking basic natural products like bacopa, chaga mushrooms, and cordyceps, as supplements with names like “Brain Force Plus,” “Caveman True Paleo Formula,” and “Wake Up America Immune Support Blend 100% Organic Coffee.”
American corporations have been stupid for a while, but they got stupider in 2014, when a storefront appeared in Los Angeles, selling itself as Dumb Starbucks. It looked a lot like Starbucks—the mermaid motif, the green trim, the fact that it sold coffee. The key difference: wherever you might normally see the word “Starbucks,” this store also wrote “Dumb.” After Dumb Starbucks went viral, it became clear that the joint was an elaborate prank, thought up by comedian Nathan Fielder. On his comedy show, Nathan For You, Fielder would help small businesses by proposing profoundly demented marketing strategies. Dumb Starbucks was one of those—an attempt to boost a failing coffee shop by offering something familiar, made possible through the legal loophole of parody law.
Not long later, in 2016, a spurt of scam calls hit fast food chains across the country. Callers claiming to be fire department officials convinced workers their chain had been compromised by gas leaks, and egged them into outrageous stunts. Employees at a Wendy’s in Arizona, two Jack in the Boxes in Indiana and again in Arizona, and three Burger Kings in California, Minnesota, and Oklahoma smashed out the windows of their restaurants, causing each thousands of dollars in damages.
The stupidity stretches way back. In 2011, a photo of a sign, ostensibly hung in a McDonald’s, appeared online, announcing notice that, “As an insurance measure due in part to a recent string of robberies, African-American customers are now required to pay an additional fee of $1.50 per transaction.” The poster listed a number which, if called, took you to the KFC Customer Satisfaction Hotline. The photo had lived on 4chan for several years, but suddenly, it spread across the internet under the hashtag, both ernest and amused: #SeriouslyMcDonalds? The chain responded with a statement: “The sign is obviously a hoax.”
As influencers became a thing this decade, they also started swindling. Some took money from advertisers, but failed to disclose that their content had been bought. Others pretended to have sponsorships, even when they didn’t. And tons sold flagrantly fake products, promising things like miracle weight loss, which really made people crap in the Reformation bikinis they bought off Instagram ads. Detox and weight loss teas, like Skinny Mint Tea, Boo Tea, or Teami Colon Tea, had a celebrity moment, with endorsements from Lindsey Lohan, Kourtney Kardashian, and Kylie Jenner. But instead of “cleanse,” or “detox,” or helped drinkers lose weight, the teas were pretty much just laxatives.
Celebrities were also swindling people outside of Instagram. In the past decade, the rapper Soulja Boy built an empire of scam stores, buying knock-off goods from AliBaba, slapping his name on them, and peddling them at a markup. To name just a few: the SouljaPad, SouljaPods, SouljaPhone, SouljaWatch, a console called SouljaGame, and a hoverboard, the SouljaBoard. Plus, there was the whole thing about how, in 2013, Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o invented a 22-year-old girlfriend, claimed she got into a tragic car accident in California, pretended she had been diagnosed with leukemia, and then announced she had died.
Photo and video editing are really good now. We’ve seen that in mildly disturbing contexts, like celebrities FaceTuning themselves into alien clones or in an unnecessarily CGI’d Lion King reboot. But the sophistication of digital doctoring has also had much more serious effects. In 2017, Motherboard discovered a Redditor named “deepfakes,” whose pet project entailed using open-source AI tools to edit the faces of famous actresses into porn. The fake porn wasn’t especially good or believable, but it presaged a time when it actually would be and coined the term “deepfake.” A subreddit dedicated to deepfakes gained thousands of members in a matter of months (the page was banned in 2018), and a copycat released an application based on his algorithm “FakeApp,” allowing users to make doctored videos of their own. The term has since entered the lexicon and political landscape on a massive scale. Earlier this year, a deepfake of Nancy Pelosi circled the internet, which had been edited to suggest the House Speaker was slurring her speech. Shortly after, the President of the United States tweeted another edited video of Pelosi, this one selectively chopped to throw focus to any speech errors. He captioned the video: “PELOSI STAMMERS THROUGH NEWS CONFERENCE.”
Perhaps the most insane photo fake, however, came in August, not long after the death of billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein by alleged suicide (which some argue may be the biggest hoax of out lifetime). The photo in question concerned Epstein’s longtime partner, British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, whose whereabouts had been unknown. Following a report from the Daily Mail, claiming the heiress had been hiding out in Massachusetts with her boyfriend, Scott Borgerson, the New York Post published photos of Maxwell sitting with a fluffy dog outside an In-N-Out Burger in Los Angeles, an advertisement for the movie Good Boys visible on a bus shelter behind her. But within a few days, the Daily Mail came out with a stunning defense of their reporting, proving that the photos had been staged by Maxwell’s lawyer, Leah Saffian. The dog, they claimed was Suffian’s pet. The photo’s metadata traced it to Suffian’s company, Meadowgate Media Investments Inc. And the Good Boys ad? That bus shelter had displayed a hospital advertisement for at least a month before the photos came out. “We think it was Photoshopped,”a spokesperson for Outfront Media, a firm that records bus shelter advertisements across the U.S, told the Daily Mail. “We do not have any records of this [‘Good Boys’ poster] being posted there.”
On May 28, 2018, writer Jessica Pressler published an article on The Cut called “Maybe She Had So Much Money She Just Lost Track Of It.” The piece detailed the life of Anna Sorokin, a Russian 28-year-old who moved to New York City in 2013 and re-invented herself as Anna Delvey, German socialite, event planner, and heiress to a trust fund of some 60 million euros. The story of how she came into her cash changed often. In various tellings, her dad cycled through powerful positions: oil magnate, diplomat, solar panel executive. She lived in high-end hotels, ate at award winning restaurants, traveled to far flung places, and often paid in cash. She borrowed money from her friends, thousands of dollars at a time, promising to pay them back. They believed her, and it was no big deal. They were rich too. In 2017, Sorokin was charged with six counts of grand larceny over scamming several hotels and business partners, and eventually sentenced to four to 12 years in prison. While at trial, Sorokin stayed at Rikers Island, where she gave several interviews, once telling the New York Times: “I’m not sorry.”
Pressler’s article took over the internet, not just for a day, but seemingly for months. In October, the piece was optioned for a 10-part Netflix series produced by Shonda Rimes, slated for sometime in the next two years. The story painted Delvey’s scam at once as a criminal endeavor of unreal proportions and as intensely sympathetic—a vicarious reenactment of someone who had screwed over the global elite, all while getting to live exactly like them. Delvey was a perfect antihero, but she wasn’t alone. The past few years have brought an onslaught of hot girl hoaxers, most less likeable than Delvey, but who nonetheless bullshitted their way into the ranks of America’s upper echelons.
In 2015, for example, Pressler published another article about a group of New York strippers who successfully schemed to drug and rob finance guys who frequented their club. The story returned this year as the movie Hustlers, starring Jennifer Lopez. Around the same time, Stanford drop-out Elizabeth Holmes was lowering her voice, sporting Steve Jobs turtlenecks, and selling her scientifically impossible blood-testing device to Brooks Brothers-wearing V.C. chuds, and scoring endorsements from war hawks like Henry Kissinger, Hillary Clinton, and James Mattis. The whole thing collapsed in 2018, when the C.E.O. was charged by the S.E.C. for “massive fraud,” (Holmes maintains her innocence). And don’t forget Maria Buttina, the Russian spy who infiltrated the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party, alternately describing herself, according to The Daily Beast’s reporting, as “a Russian central bank staffer, a leading gun rights advocate, a “representative of the Russian Federation,” a Washington, D.C., graduate student, a journalist, and a connection between Team Trump and Russia.” Buttina was arrested in 2018, charged with acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
The notorious Fyre Festival, arguably the biggest hot girl hoax of the decade, technically came from the minds of C.E.O. party boy Billy McFarland and forgotten rapper Ja Rule. But the appeal of the disastrous island music festival hinged on the participation of prominent influencers like Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, Hailey Baldwin, and Kendall Jenner. And much like Delvey, Fyre Fest spawned a sense of national schadenfreude, as the off-spring of the ultra-rich made do with Kraft singles sandwiches, minimal water, and FEMA disaster tents. Anyway, maybe Zhang Yingyu was onto something with the “Women” chapter.