We live in the era of the con. Everywhere you look, headlines scream the current controversy surrounding the latest scammer, pyramid scheme, or cult catastrophe. While there are many infamous scams that have dominated headlines throughout history, the world wide web and the rise of social media domination have allowed people to become masters of the con like never before. They run rampant in our communities, even in the context of personal relationships – gaslighters, love bombers, and other emotional abusers are their own kind of scammer that seems to lurk around every corner. Whether the swindler in question is someone you’ve dated or a straight-up cult leader from the history books, they all fall under the con artist umbrella, abusing their power to dominate unsuspecting victims.
With sensational media coverage and film adaptations of scammers like the Tinder Swindler gaining massive viewers, some con artists have risen to celebrity stardom. Anna Delvey is a perfect example of a scammer-turned-starlet after Netflix turned her story to the spotlight with Inventing Anna. With the line between manipulation and abuse becoming thinner than ever, dangerous con artists are more prevalent in society than many people may realize. Con artists walk amongst us, it could be your next-door neighbor, the clerk at the corner bodega, or your new social media mate that is behind the next con catastrophe making the news.
Con artists and cult leaders are at the center of the public’s ever-growing obsession with true crime and criminal manipulation. They use a variety of methods to deceive their victims and rely on deception, mind control, love bombing, gaslighting, and complicated schemes to manipulate their victims into doing their bidding.
These individuals utilize deceptive techniques that fall under the brand of dark psychology that is often associated with ill-intended coercion. “Dark psychology” describes the use of psychological tactics to influence others for personal gain, often at the expense of the victim. Techniques associated with dark psychology have been used in various contexts, including sales, marketing, politics, and personal relationships. Psychological studies of manipulation began to emerge during the late 20th century, with one of the earliest discussions on the subject appearing in Ruth Faden, Tom Beauchamp, and Nancy King’s widely influential book, A History and Theory of Informed Consent (1986). The term has gained popularity in recent years, presumably due to the fascination with conning and scamming techniques that has skyrocketed since the pandemic.
Below, we unpack some of the most insidious scammers and the plethora of film adaptations that have been made about their twisted, mysterious, and often disturbing stories. Alongside historical cult leaders such as Charles Manson and Jim Jones, these individuals have risen to infamy for being criminals, inevitably gaining exposure like never before. Con artists are fascinating to the public for a number of reasons. Often, they seem to operate fundamentally differently than others, so motivated by greed or status that feelings of empathy or consideration for others are overridden completely. These mysterious and conniving characters have mastered the art of persuasion, and they use their skills in a number of treacherous ways.
Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, a blood-testing company that claimed to have developed a revolutionary new technology, is one infamous example of a scammer using her privileged upbringing and Stanford education to commit crimes. In 2018, she was indicted on charges of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. In January 2022, a federal jury convicted Holmes to more than 11 years in prison, punishing her disregard of the serious moral implications involved in medical equipment development.
George Mickum, a con-artist that has made waves in the last few weeks, is a Manhattanite that was discovered February of 2023 for scamming wealthy socialites out of thousands of dollars by selling them counterfeit Hermes Birkin handbags. He earned his victim’s trust by feigning close association with British royalty, like Prince William of Wales.
He shows some similarities to another scammer who, at this point, has the celebrity status she always dreamed of – Anna Delvey. The Russian-born socialite, whose real name is Anna Sorokin, was convicted in 2019 of multiple counts of fraud and larceny for posing as a wealthy German heiress and swindling her way through New York’s elite social scene. In October of 2022, she made media waves again following some of her first sightings post-release from ICE immigration detention, and is currently making her mark by pursuing a career as a contemporary artist. You can read her side of the story in our exclusive interview from behind bars for the REBEL issue, by editor-in-chief Indira Cesarine.
Blake Kantor, also known as “Bitcoin Blake,” is a con-artist that utilized new developments in cryptocurrency to manipulate unknowing investors, showing how new and untapped markets have the potential to attract scammers looking for vulnerable newcomers. He was charged in 2020 with wire fraud and securities fraud for allegedly running a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors out of over $1.5 million. He will serve 86 years in prison.
These scam artists serve as a reminder of the importance of being vigilant and cautious when dealing with investments or putting trust into seemingly-credible individuals and organizations.
Cult leaders are another fascinating subset of manipulators. While they have a different connotation than con-artists, they utilize several of the same methods of dark psychology – lying, gaslighting, mind control, and deception. While they are usually skilled leaders, they use this characteristic to take control over others, bending the victim’s sense of reality to coerce them into acting in unconventional ways.
One highly infamous cult leader is Jim Jones, the leader of the People’s Temple. Jones used mind control techniques and fear to control his followers. Eventually, he convinced over 900 people, including children, to commit mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid in what is now known as the Jonestown Massacre. Marshall Applewhite, the leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult, similarly incited a mass suicide by convincing his followers that it was the only way to reach an alien spacecraft that was following the Hale-Bopp comet. By crafting a new world where his followers would become an enlightened alien species, Applewhite got them to believe in the unfathomable.
Charles Manson, another well known cult leader of the Manson Family cult, used a combination of charisma, drugs, and psychological manipulation to convince his followers to commit a series of brutal murders. Violent endings to cult behaviors is common, and often reinforced as a unifying experience that secures the cult’s followers to their leader for eternity. David Koresh, for example, used a combination of religious doctrine and physical and psychological abuse to control his followers of the Branch Davidians cult. This eventually led to a violent standoff with law enforcement that resulted in the deaths of Koresh and many of his followers.
These examples highlight the dangers of dark psychology and how it can be used to manipulate individuals and groups for personal gain, often with fatal or criminal consequences.
The shocking and disgraceful nature of these crimes garners intrigue from people all over the world, especially considering the allure of uncovering something meant to be kept hidden or secret. Naturally, these real-life accounts have inspired countless films and series, all which unravel the scandalous stories fueled by tactics of dark psychology.
Here are 11 notable movies and shows that delve into some of the most insidious ruses and schemes from cult leaders and con artists alike.
Bad Vegan (2022)
This four-part documentary series uncovers how Sarma Melngailis, the celebrity restaurateur behind the New York hotspot Pure Food and Wine, went from being a vegan celebrity chef to the tabloid-touted “Vegan Fugitive” when she enters a relationship with a man who takes over her finances and businesses.
The Tinder Swindler (2022)
This documentary film delves into the schemes of Shimon Hayut, an Israeli man who presented himself as the son of Russian-Israeli diamond mogul Lev Leviev. He used the dating app Tinder to contact women as Simon Leviev, manipulating them into lending him thousands of dollars that he would never repay, even driving some into bankruptcy from taking out loans in his favor.
This blockbuster movie features celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B, and Constance Wu, who reenact a real-life fraud ring led by strippers scamming their wealthy clients out of thousands of dollars, notably by slipping them drugs in their drinks. The real story became a hit after it was featured in New York Magazine’s December 2015 article, “The Hustlers at Scores.”
Bad Education (2020)
This movie is based on the true story of a corrupt Long Island school district superintendent, played by Hugh Jackman, who embezzled millions of dollars from the district. The film is a dark comedy-drama that explores the moral gray areas of white-collar crime.
Unveiled: Surviving La Luz del Mundo (2023)
This three-part series dives into the graphic and disturbing truth behind La Luz del Mundo, a religious sect based in Christian restorationist theology that named individual apostles as the only human connection with God. Using their influence, these apostles manipulated thousands of people all over the world into making their children vulnerable to a prolific sex-trafficking ring.
American Hustle (2013)
Directed by David O. Russell, this movie is loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late 1970s and early 1980s, in which FBI agents used a con artist to entrap corrupt politicians. Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, the film is a stylish and entertaining crime drama with strong performances and a great soundtrack.
Inventing Anna (2022)
This fictional take on the real story of Anna Delvey is nine episode series that follows a journalist investigating the case of the fraudulent socialite, the Instagram-legendary heiress who stole the hearts and money of New York elites.
Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults (2020)
This four-part documentary series explores the infamous Heaven’s Gate cult and the stranger than fiction circumstances that culminated in one of the largest mass-suicides in US history. 39 men and women were convinced by the visions and teachings of their leader, Marshall Herff Applewhite Jr, referred to as “Do” by cult members.
Wild Wild Country (2018)
The six-part documentary explores the story of the Rajneesh movement, a controversial cult that built a supposedly utopian city in rural Oregon in the 1980s. The film features extensive archival footage and interviews with former members and experts.
Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult (2020)
This four-part series offers a more in-depth look at NXIVM and its charismatic leader, Keith Raniere. The film features interviews with former members who were directly impacted by the cult’s abuses, which included accumulating a harem of sexual slaves that were branded with Raniere’s initials and coerced into intimacy.
Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey (2022)
This four-part documentary series examines the rise of Warren Jeffs in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and his shocking criminal case. The Mormon leader established a polyamorous cult, wrought with pedophilia, child pornography, and minor abuse.