Financial crime doesn’t usually get too many people excited, but recently no one seemed able to look away when the government seized $3.6 billion in bitcoin and arrested married New York thirtysomethings Heather Morgan and Ilya Lichtenstein for alleged money laundering.
People weren’t so much shocked by the crime, which ties back to a 2016 hack that was already well known, but by its alleged perpetrators. These two? For a pair of alleged criminal masterminds pulling off a web of sophisticated transactions, the couple seemed a lot like your average oversharing, millennial hipsters – with Morgan posting social media videos of them brunching in addition to her side project as a self-described “cringe rapper” named Razzlekhan.
What surprised no one, however, was that Netflix snapped up the story for a documentary project in a matter of days. Millennial fraudsters are definitely having a moment in pop culture. From documentaries to fictionalized versions of their lives and crimes, it seems we can’t get enough not just of audacious crimes but of their equally audacious perpetrators.
Here are five accused scammers whose hijinks you would roll your eyes at as false if you encountered them in fiction but who we all can't seem to get enough of in real life.
Anna Sorokin (aka Anna Delvey)
It’s safe to say that Anna Sorokin, a con artist who took in New York society by posing as a German heiress named Anna Delvey, is no stranger to the spotlight. An instagram account devoted to her courtroom fashion has nearly 42,000 followers.
Sorokin, sometimes referred to as the “SoHo grifter,” went from a girl-about-town known only in rarefied circles where she masqueraded as wealthy socialite to a national figure when New York magazine published a deeply-researched feature on her in 2018.
The piece described the fake heiress as routinely dropping hundred dollar tips on staff members at chic hotels, including 11 Howard, where she stayed until the hotels realized she wasn’t paying the giant bills she was racking up. Meanwhile, the con woman was defrauding banks as she sought to raise money for “The Anna Delvey Foundation” which she said was working to launch an art-focused SoHo-house like club on Park Avenue.
In the end, it was another hotel stay that began her undoing. Sorokin booked a girls’ trip to Morocco, including a stay in a $7,000 per night night riad at La Mamounia. When that hotel couldn’t make her credit card work, she convinced her friend Vogue photographer Rachel Williams to put the $62,000 bill on her credit card.
Friends began to question just what was going on with the supposed heiress, and she was arrested for stepping out on hotel bills (later prosecutors would also charge her with other crimes). Ultimately, she was revealed to be neither wealthy nor even German, as she originally hails from Russia.
Despite her history as a fabulist, Sorokin has more recently shocked people with a striking bluntness. In 2019, she famously told The New York Times “I’m not sorry,” in regard to her financial crimes. And when asked by the BBC in March if crime pays, she replied: “In a way, it did.”
She wasn’t wrong; Netflix reportedly paid her $320,000 for the rights to adapt her life story. The money is being used to pay her victims and fines, though, not to help her live the high life. Television legend Shonda Rhimes wrote the series “Inventing Anna” for the streaming service. It’s currently Netflix’s most popular English language title. Williams also got a book deal.
Sorokin was released from prison after nearly four years, but she is now in ICE detention, where she is fighting being deported to Germany and supposedly working on “a little something” with Kanye West’s recent ex-girlfriend Julia Fox.
Shimon Hayut (better known as the Tinder Swindler)
Another fake heir to a fortune, Israeli-born Shimon Hayut has been accused of pretending to be Simon Leviev, the son of diamond magnate Lev Leviev. But rather than hotels, banks and the occasional pal, Hayut allegedly went after women he met on dating sites – and managed to scam an estimated $10 million.
Hayut is said to have pulled the same con on multiple women in multiple countries, and to have kept going even after his first conviction for fraud in Finland. The alleged pattern looked like this: Hayut would meet a woman on Tinder and sweep her off her feet with an impressive and expensive first date (sometimes private jets were involved). While building trust and flying around Europe – and supposedly also dating other women in secret – he would begin speaking to the women about enemies that were after him. He would ultimately allegedly recount an attack by these enemies and turn to his girlfriend for help. And that’s how he would allegedly get his girlfriends to open new credit cards in their own names and hand them over to him, allowing him to run up charges and leave them holding the bag.
He couldn’t keep it going forever though – especially not after one of his latest marks recognized her beau in an exposé about him scamming other women by media outlet VG. Hayut was arrested in Greece in 2019 and extradited to Israel, where he was convicted of theft and sentenced to 15 months.
Now the subject of a popular documentary on Netflix featuring three women who say he conned them, the Tinder Swindler was released from prison after only 5 months and has signed on with a talent manager to pursue a Hollywood career.
It looks like there may be more payback in store for the scammy lothario, though. The real Leviev family has slapped him with a lawsuit in Israel over the impersonation of a family member. The makers of the documentary might appreciate the irony that the only comment they got from Hayut was a threat to sue them for “defamation and lies.”
Tinder said it banned Hayut and all his known aliases after the documentary dropped (and its parent company says he’s been banned from its other sites as well). But, if you see this guy, ladies, swipe left.
Martin Shkreli (the Pharma Bro)
Ex-pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli became “the most hated man in America” (at least according to the BBC) for raising the price of life-saving drug Daraprim from $13.50 a pill to $750 per pill overnight in 2015.
But that’s not what landed him in prison. The charges for which he was ultimately sentenced to seven years stem from claims that he lied to investors in hedge funds he ran before making the jump to biopharma.
While Shkreli didn’t invent the practice of acquiring older drugs and astronomically hiking the price, his refusal to apologize and commitment to the strategy quickly made the former hedge fund manager the poster child for corporate greed.
The executive’s cartoonish swagger, which led the press to dub him “pharma bro,” and smug facial expressions also did little to endear him to the public. Nor did attacking critics on Twitter or using Facebook to offer a $5,000 bounty for a strand of Hillary Clinton’s hair, which Shkreli (who clearly does love trolling) later claimed was just a joke. Even Donald Trump called him a “spoiled brat.”
The flashy items Shkreli spent his money on didn’t help matters. It wasn’t just your typical rich guy stuff like expensive wine, which Shkreli did favor. It was also, famously, the one-of-a-kind Wu Tang album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin that Shkreli nabbed for $2 million.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t include a disclosure here: The editor-in-chief of The Business of Business, Christie Smythe, had a personal relationship with Shkreli. And for some, that’s only added to the intrigue surrounding the erstwhile pharmaceutical executive. After all, it’s not every convicted fraudster that ends up starting a romance while in prison with the journalist who broke the news of his arrest.
Shkreli hasn’t gotten the full Netflix treatment yet. But he has been the subject of multiple documentaries, and Smythe has sold the movie rights to her book proposal.
Once hailed as “the next Steve Jobs”, Elizabeth Holmes had it all for a while after dropping out of Stanford at 19 to found Theranos, a startup that claimed its technology could perform a slew of tests on a single drop of blood, a feat that would revolutionize health care. A public figurehead for the company, Holmes received glowing media coverage as she grew the company into a decacorn. The company wooed seasoned investors like the Walton family, Rupert Murdoch and Larry Ellison, and its board included luminaries like former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and retired four-star general Jim Mattis. There was just one problem: the startup’s technology never worked, and it was never going to.
Things started to unravel at the erstwhile Silicon Valley darling in 2015, when the Wall Street Journal published an article revealing the truth that despite its massive valuation and partnership with national brand Walgreens, Theranos just couldn’t do what it claimed to. After the truth came out, the company ended up shuttered, and Holmes and former Theranos president (and Holmes’ ex-boyfriend) Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani were accused of fraud.
In addition to the sheer boldness of the fake-it-til-you-don’t-actually-make-it scam and the high-profile figures she managed to hoodwink, people are fascinated by Holmes because of her seemingly inauthentic self-presentation. Holmes favored black turtlenecks that were supposedly chosen to invite the comparison to Jobs (though Holmes denied that this was her goal). Several former colleagues also noted that Holmes never blinked, an unsettling trait that seems to disappear when Holmes is lying. She also leaned hard into cheesy aphorisms about changing the world, especially embracing Yoda’s “Do or do not there is no try,” which rang particularly hollow when it turned out she was full of it.
But perhaps most striking is that voice – a deep baritone that was unexpected in a young blonde woman, and which was, apparently, entirely fake.
Some have gone as far as accusing the former CEO of planning her pregnancy to win sympathy with the jury in her criminal trial. If that’s what happened it didn’t work. Holmes was found guilty of four counts of fraud and is currently awaiting sentencing. Meanwhile, her life has been fodder for books, documentaries, and, most recently, a Hulu series starring Amanda Seyfried.
Heather Morgan (stage name: Razzlekhan)
Morgan is one half of the couple that quickly became known as Bitcoin’s Bonnie and Clyde. The crime she and her husband Lichtenstein are accused of is massive and brazen. The $3.6 billion in cryptocurrency the U.S. Department of Justice seized when it arrested the pair in early February was touted as its largest ever financial seizure. The DOJ claims the money comes from the 2016 hack of Hong Kong-based cryptocurrency exchange Bitfinex, and has accused them of money laundering.
But what really caused Netflix to pounce on the story and call on the executive producer “Tiger King” to deliver a series was Morgan’s larger-than-life online persona.
Sure, Morgan held herself out as a tech entrepreneur and wrote for respectable publications such as Forbes and Inc. Magazine – including a piece on protecting your business from cybercrime – but there was so much more to Morgan’s online life. Namely, Razzlekhan, her rap alter ego.
The self proclaimed “Crocodile of Wall Street” describes herself as “like Genghis Khan but with more pizzazz” and her art as “something in between an acid trip and a delightful nightmare.” In a rap video titled “Versace Bedouin,” Morgan in her Razzlekhan persona asserts she’s a “real risk taker,” which if the DOJ is to be believed is certainly apt.
It’s not yet clear what the future holds for the now very famous comedic rapper, who is currently confined to her apartment after being released on a $3 million bond. She and her husband (who was denied bail) are reportedly in talks to reach a plea deal with prosecutors, and she recently brought on her own lawyer. But whatever happens, if she ever makes more content, a whole lot more people will be watching.