Impersonation Nation: A Very Scammy Reading List

Five stories that demonstrate we’re living in the golden age of the personal hoax.

If the 21st century has been great for one thing, it’s scams. That’s not to say that the last few have been scam-free; 1700s grifter Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy made off with a massive diamond necklace by pretending to be friends with Marie Antoinette, and the 1800s boasted so many charlatans that it gave us the phrase “con man.” But the art of the personal hoax — specifically, claiming to be something or someone you’re not, for personal gain that may not even be monetary — has truly entered a golden age.

The impulse, as in any discussion around causes and effects, might be to blame the internet. And in many cases that might actually be true. Distributed communication already rewards persona over personality, and for some the temptation to try on and discard different selves is undeniable. I’m not convinced, though, that the tools alone induce the trespass. I certainly expected them to be the culprit, especially after documentaries like Catfish and debacles like Fyre Festival, both of which hinged on social media’s ability to elasticize and obscure identity. But as I revisited some of my favorite stories and discovered new ones, I realized that the most compelling tales of grift aren’t the ones that depend on technology: the bottomless library of fraud-ready photos; the platforms that let anyone claim to be an epidemiologist or electoral fraud whistleblower; the software that can plop your face onto another person’s. 

No, the tales that captivate us most almost always reveal a person’s longing. A longing for acceptance, or escape, or prestige, or some other intangible reward. In fact, some of the stories collected below only touch our online lives insofar as that’s how we first learned about them. (Where were you when you first heard about Rachel Dolezal? Probably Twitter.) It’s true that the internet has given us all the power to tell our own stories, and more than a few have twisted that power along with their story. But the reason we’re living in a flood of scams isn’t because we can reach strangers across distance — it’s because we’re feeling that distance more acutely than ever before.

Who is JT LeRoy? The True Identity of a Great Literary Hustler (Stephen Beachy, October 7, 2005, New York Magazine)

If there’s a handier generational lit-world litmus test than “remember JT LeRoy?” I don’t want to know about it. Since the late ’90s, LeRoy had long been an enigma — a runaway teen sex worker turned writer who collected famous friends and co-signs like merit badges, yet never spoke in public. But Beachy, who hailed from the same San Francisco neighborhood that spawned LeRoy’s fiction career, did the journalistic due diligence that up to then had only surfaced as whisper and innuendo. The final dominoes fell mere months later, and other outlets would re-tell the tale (repeatedly) over the years, but the story crumbled in large part because of the dots Beachy connected.

Over time, his publishing friends experienced his transformation from a stammering, freaked-out child to a “cocky, sassy, ambition-driven megalomaniac,” as one literary contact put it. But how had a homeless teen developed both the writing skills and that endless ambition? How could somebody so pathologically shy be working as a prostitute? And how did he manage to send those faxes?

The Hipster Grifter (Doree Shafrir, April 15, 2009, The Observer)

The joy of a good scammer story isn’t in the sentences or structure. It’s in the details. And the details Shafrir uncovered electrified the media world, from Kari Ferrell’s bizarre come-on lines to her increasingly graphic cancer story. This wasn’t a feature that punctured a myth; in Ferrell’s case, the jig was already up. But extensive interviews with the friends and exes she’d ensnared made for a jaw-dropping tale of deceit — and minted a legend of the Gawker Era. 

Within the space of a half-hour, Ms. Ferrell was peppering him with questions about his sexual history—how many women he’d slept with and so on. “She was coming on to me, and I was super into it for the first part of it,” he said. “I realized I could have fun after work—but then I was like, ‘Let me check this girl out.’” He Googled her. Up popped a photo of his flirtatious new co-worker on the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Most Wanted list, wanted on five different warrants, including passing $60,000 in bad checks, forgery and retail theft.

The Heart of Whiteness (Ijeoma Oluo, April 19, 2017, The Stranger)

Sometimes all it takes is two words to make someone laugh, roll their eyes, or storm off in anger: “Rachel Dolezal.” In 2015, a Spokane, Washington, news station confronted the city’s local NAACP chapter president with evidence that she was a white woman presenting herself as Black, and a punchline (and polemic punching bag) was born. But nearly two years after the controversy burned itself out, Dolezal changed her name — to Nkechi Amare Diallo — and Oluo found herself on a plane to Spokane.

Not that she particularly wanted to go. “For two years, I, like many other black women who talk or write about racial justice, have tried to avoid Rachel Dolezal — but she follows us wherever we go,” wrote Oluo. “So if I couldn’t get away from her, I was going to at least try to figure out why. I surprised myself by agreeing to the interview.” The result is an interview, yes, but it’s also much more: a scorching interplay between text and subtext that allows Oluo the space to unpack the very conversation that Dolezal resisted.

There was a moment before meeting Dolezal and reading her book that I thought that she genuinely loves black people but took it a little too far. But now I can see this is not the case. This is not a love gone mad. Something else, something even sinister is at work in her relationship and understanding of blackness.

Not Fuzz (David Mark Simpson, July 2017, The Atavist)

Some children want to be police officers when they grow up; to grow up into an adult who habitually impersonates police officers (along with firefighters and federal agents) is rarer. But that’s exactly what happened with Steve Farzam, a California man who represented himself as “a former cop” and lived much of his life like one. As the years went by, though, and Farzam’s actions became more troubling and erratic — flashing forged federal credentials, keeping tactical equipment in his car, claiming he’d won a Medal of Valor — his friend and fellow police-head Christopher Darcel realized Farzam’s quirks weren’t entertaining anymore. We’ve all met people who play-acted for power, but in Simpson’s story we meet a man who redefines that phenomenon. When you’re done, check out Simpson’s 2020 postscript for a chilling follow-up.

McChesney, the former Santa Barbara cop, said that to his layman’s eye, Farzam suffered from a “self-identity crisis”—a need to “create this other persona just because he doesn’t like himself or he needs to feel like he’s somebody.” An investigator who worked a case against Farzam, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me, “He’s like a mosaic. You can’t understand him by looking at any one incident, but over the years, patterns emerge.”

The Amazing 30-Year Odyssey of a Counterfeit Saudi Prince (Mark Seal, November 2018, Vanity Fair)

Since the story doesn’t make you wait long for the truth, I won’t either: The man who for decades had claimed to be His Royal Highness Khalid bin al-Saud, son of the king of Saudi Arabia, was actually Anthony Enrique Gignac, a Michigan man who had been adopted as a Colombian orphan when he was a child. Seal unspools Gignac’s early life and long criminal career in luxurious detail, from his earliest grade-school lies to his increasingly ambitious scams. Hotels, car companies, boutiques: No one was safe from Gignac’s motor mouth and unshakeable kayfabe. Even American Express issued the guy a card with a $200 million credit line. Ultimately, of course, Gignac crossed the wrong person — a Miami billionaire whose lawyers worked up an intelligence dossier and delivered the imposter to federal agencies. If you’re looking for chutzpah on a global scale, you can’t do better than this.

“You mean the fake prince of Fisher Island?” the man told me. “To play the role he played so well for so long, he had to believe the lie. He actually believes he is Khalid, the prince of Saudi Arabia. I was sucked into absolute mayhem. He dangled such a carrot. Even though you knew he was full of shit, the carrot was so big, and there was a 2.2 percent chance that there was some truth in his asinine lies, that you kept going. He was so talented, and pulled off so much shit, I don’t even know where to begin.”