The Predators and Their Prey

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It has been said that you can’t cheat an honest person. That may be true. But you can certainly cheat a greedy one. That’s the underlying message of three cautionary docuseries trending on Netflix right now: The Tinder Swindler, Bad Vegan, and Inventing Anna. All three are based on true stories, and all three offer fascinating case studies that could seemingly happen to anyone.

The story told in The Tinder Swindler focuses on Simon Leviev, a suave, debonair son of a wealthy diamond dealer who often sweeps his internet dates off their feet and into the air on a private jet — on their first date. It’s shocking to think that a woman would be willing to fly to a foreign country with someone she just met, especially on Tinder. It’s a long time since I went on a date, but I do remember the sensation of trust that often accompanied those first inklings of chemistry. I got into a few cars I probably shouldn’t have. But a plane?

It may be true that you can’t cheat an honest person. But you can certainly cheat a greedy one.

 

Nevertheless, everything seems legit as they board the jet — he brings along an entourage of friends, pilots, business associates, even his young daughter and former wife. The target feels like a princess. Before long they are in love, texting constantly, talking about marriage, touring expensive Manhattan condos and Tiffany’s. Suddenly he has “temporary” international banking problems. Could she just advance him some money until his bank wire clears? As the episodes develop, more women are taken in by the grifter, and he uses money enticed away from current lovers to finance romantic getaways with new conquests (while pocketing a lot more than he spends on them). Using archival footage, photos from social media, and saved text conversations, director Felicity Morris creates the stunning story of a romantic Bernie Madoff preying on naive young women who see dollar signs and diamond rings when a rogue Prince Charming comes along.

The villain in Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. is more of a Svengali than a Bernie Madoff. He doesn’t take money from multiple women, but drains the business finances of one single woman — Sarma Melngailis, a successful restauranteur and founder of Pure Food, a high-end raw vegan hotspot frequented by celebrities and influencers. Sarma was young, creative, and smart. She possessed that “it” factor that made foodies flock to her tables and financiers flock to her balance sheet. But she wasn’t smart in her private life. Unlike the women duped by Leviev above, Sarma wasn’t drawn to Anthony Strangis for his fancy style of living; she already had that on her own. Instead, Anthony promised to make her beloved dog immortal. (Director Chris Smith opines that people who meditate and follow vegan beliefs are more susceptible to promises of such supernatural powers. Hmmm.) But first Sarma had to demonstrate her utmost faith by performing outrageous tests of loyalty. These tests generally required depositing large amounts of money in offshore bank accounts. He also invented a narrative of supernatural bad guys who were after him and watching her to see if she would pass the test. And then . . . all of her dreams would come true. Her dog would never die, and they would be fabulously wealthy. Soon they were jetting around the world, using her investment loans and payroll money to finance the jaunts. It seems from the recorded phone conversations and texts that she was playing along to regain her freedom and her money, but she kept getting pulled deeper into the intrigue Anthony was creating. It’s sad and shocking to see how a woman as savvy and successful as Sarma fell for this crazy story, destroying her business, her life, and the trust of her employees, her customers, and her finance partners.

I got into a few cars I probably shouldn’t have. But a plane?

 

Perhaps the most entertaining and jawdropping of the three series is Inventing Anna, a scripted narrative inspired by the story “How Anna Delvey Tricked New York’s Party People” that Jessica Pressler wrote for New York magazine in 2018. (In the Netflix series, the part is played by Anna Chlumsky as Vivian Kent of the fictional Manhattan magazine.) It follows the story of Anna Sorokin (Julia Garner), a young Russian-born visitor who passes herself off as a German heiress while insinuating herself into the upper echelons of Manhattan society and using chutzpah and haughty charm to borrow millions of dollars to finance her dream business. Is it a Ponzi scheme? Or does she really believe in her business plan? It’s hard to say. People whom she meets eagerly help and befriend Anna, who speaks frequently of the massive trust fund she will gain access to when she turns 25. Along the way she bilks hotels, restaurants, clothing stores, friends, and bankers who believe her when she says, “My father will wire me the money” or “My bank is wiring the money to you” or “I want to do this without calling my father.”

Like The Tinder Swindler, Inventing Anna shows how hard it is to cheat someone who is honest, and how easy it is to cheat someone who is greedy. People tend to believe what they want to believe, especially when they’re chasing a pot of gold that seems just beyond the next hurdle — the next bill to cover, the next plane ticket to purchase, the next credit card to give as security. We feel sorry for these marks, but we also see how deliberately blind they are to Anna’s tactics. We wouldn’t make that mistake, would we? Or would we . . . hordes of Americans are scammed every day by manipulators who prey on their trusting nature and their desire to luck into the big break.

The characters are given a nuanced script, and they rise to the occasion with nuanced, often ambiguous portrayals. Especially good are Alexis Floyd as Anna’s devoted friend Neff, Katie Lowes as her opportunistic friend Rachel, and Arian Moayed as her skeptical yet loyal attorney Todd Spodek. Chlumsky and Garner are also excellent as Kent and Sorokin.

We feel sorry for these marks, but we also see how deliberately blind they are to Anna’s tactics. We wouldn’t make that mistake, would we? Or would we . . .

 

Netflix reportedly paid Anna Sorokin $320,000 for her story, and Jessica Pressler’s story is well researched. Yet each episode begins with the cheeky disclaimer, “This whole story is totally true. Except for the parts that are totally made up.” As the series develops, we realize it isn’t the scriptwriters who are making it up; it’s Anna herself. Was Anna a ruthless con artist out to make millions? Or a dreamer who believed that she could make it in New York? I’m not sure even Anna Sorokin knows for sure.

These series and others like them are fascinating because they show just how easy it is to be gaslighted, manipulated, and defrauded by charming scammers who prey on the misguided belief that we’re too smart to be duped. So many victims are eager to believe that dreams can come true, that frogs can be princes, and that they, too, deserve a place on the A-list. And we just can’t take our eyes off the frog wreck.

One Comment

  1. JdL

    “I got into a few cars I probably shouldn’t have. But a plane?”

    Back when I was single and had cash to burn, I owned a small airplane and would often entice first dates into it. Some had never flown at all before, and I was mildly surprised at their willingness to jump into an adventure with someone they knew only from a newspaper ad (we’re talking pre-Internet days). One of the ways men can never figure women out is your vacillation between caution and abandon. But, we definitely celebrate those moments of abandon!

    Thanks for another enjoyable review.

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