The past decade has seen an alarming surge in scams across the world, as digital life has created a whole new playbook for criminals to prey on the vulnerable. Combined with a political and cultural climate in which lies, disinformation and outright fraud seem to run rampant (just consider high-profile examples like Elizabeth Holmes and Sam Bankman-Fried), it’s easy to feel surrounded by grifters.
Encompassing many kinds of elaborate deception, like art forgery, romance scams and medical fraud, these six shows focus not just on the perpetrators (and how to spot them), but on the life-altering devastation they can leave in their wake. While these podcasts won’t leave you feeling reassured on that front, they’ll deepen your understanding of how liars and con artists operate.
‘Believe In Magic’
On its surface, the scheme at the center of this BBC investigative podcast sounds almost too cartoonishly evil to be real: a mother-daughter duo committing fraud while running a charity that billed itself as a “fairy godmother” to terminally ill children. But that’s just a small part of a story that’s much more nuanced and disturbing. Back in 2012, Megan Bhari, then 16, and her charity Believe In Magic rose to prominence in Britain after being spotlighted by members of the chart-topping boy band One Direction. So when Megan fell seriously ill herself with a rare form of brain cancer, well-wishers flocked to donate money to her crowdfunding campaign for experimental treatments — until a few followers began to notice holes in her story. As the show gradually focuses in on Megan’s dynamic with her co-founder and seemingly doting mother, Jean, the host Jamie Bartlett unravels this twist-filled and ultimately tragic saga with skill and sensitivity.
Starter episode: “Megan”
‘The Perfect Scam’
Older Americans are among the most likely to fall victim to a variety of con jobs, and may be especially vulnerable to ones that prey on loneliness like romance hustles, grandparent swindles and even pet scams. In light of this, the AARP debuted a podcast in 2019 to boost awareness of common (and some less common) red flags. Several episodes dive into a specific and particularly wild story, like the Colorado funeral home whose operator was sentenced to 20 years in prison for stealing body parts and selling them for hundreds of thousands of dollars without family members’ consent. Others focus on a category — including Zelle fraud, fake Covid tests and computer lockouts — featuring first-person accounts from victims and information on how listeners can avoid such traps.
Starter episode: “A Veteran Rebuilds His Life After a Scam Takes Everything”
A true-crime anthology series from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “Unravel” chronicled an unforgettable scam story in its fourth season. Ollie Ward, a radio producer in New Zealand, is both host and subject, recounting how his family lost everything after becoming entangled with an alluring California “entrepreneur” named Lezlie Manukian. Ward recalls feeling uneasy on the day of his brother’s wedding to Manukian without quite knowing why — but within months, she had vanished along with their parents’ life savings, leaving behind only a mysterious warning: “The snowball’s about to hit you.” It’s strange details like this, along with Ward’s personal stake in the mystery, that make these seven episodes so gripping.
Starter episode: “The Girl With The Dragonfly Tattoo”
‘Chameleon: Scam Likely’
Now in its sixth season, the Campside Media podcast “Chameleon” has explored stories about impostors and charlatans of various stripes, including the “Hollywood Con Queen” who wreaked havoc in the film industry, and a so-called doctor who hypnotized victims into giving up their fortunes. The ‘Scam Likely’ season is a little different, focusing not on one particular con artist but on a group of people dedicated to stopping them. The investigative journalist Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, who originally reported out the story for The New York Times Magazine, shadows a small team of government investigators who are tasked with tracking down the perpetrators of one of the largest tele-fraud scams in American history, in which tens of thousands of ordinary Americans lost a combined total of more than $300 million. “Scam Likely” has a thrilling on-the-ground feel, with Bhattacharjee interviewing victims and investigators before ultimately traveling to India to hunt down the culprits on their home turf.
Starter episode: “Follow the Money”
Though it ran for just one season back in 2017, this Panoply series is well worth the listen, delivering detailed portraits of 10 highly successful grifters. Maria Konnikova, a journalist and author who wrote about the psychology of deceit in her 2016 book “The Confidence Game,” sets out to understand why so many of us still fall for fraudulent schemes despite being convinced that we’d never be so naïve. In each episode, Konnikova profiles a different fraud (the lineup includes an art forger, a card shark and a psychic) and allows them to tell their own stories, laying out the architecture and power dynamics of their cons with a level of detail that’s both unsettling and oddly mesmerizing.
Starter episode: “Fast Jack, the Card Shark”
‘Nobody Should Believe Me’
Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a rare and once little-known psychological condition with potentially devastating consequences, has gathered mainstream coverage in recent years because of high-profile cases like that of Gypsy Rose Blanchard. In a typical case, a parent or caregiver will either feign or deliberately cause an illness in their child, often subjecting the child to unnecessary medical tests and procedures and inflicting psychological trauma. “Nobody Should Believe Me” is a rich and harrowing chronicle of the condition, hosted by a novelist, Andrea Dunlop, whose own family was deeply impacted by allegations of medical child abuse. More than a decade later, she interviews doctors, law enforcement officials and victims to finally understand the condition that devastated her family, homing in on the recent case of Hope Ybarra, a Texas mother who spent 10 years in prison for the medical abuse she inflicted on her daughter.
Starter episode: “Sisters”