Some of the women of Love Fraud, one of the year’s best documentary series, now airing on Showtime. | Showtime
The Showtime series is both fascinating and genuinely empowering. Its directors hope it will have an impact.
It happens more than most of us realize. A woman meets a nice man who compliments her, makes her feel special, takes her dancing, tells her she’s his soulmate. They move in together. They get married.
And then one day he’s just gone. Efforts to locate him unveil a dark truth: He was never who he said he was.
The story has been told before — the podcast and resulting TV show Dirty John is one of the most famous examples — but Love Fraud, a four-episode Showtime documentary series, tells it in a way that shows how cons like this are both mundane and totally wild. The series, which debuted August 30, centers on one man, Richard Scott Smith, who was at large when production began. The series is full of twists and turns, and what it learns about Smith — and, more importantly, about what kind of person would do such a thing — is eye-opening. He’s also not conning wealthy women or murdering them, like so many men of his kind; he’s targeting ordinary women who fall for him and then leaving them. Sometimes he takes money as he disappears, but mostly it seems like he’s after their dignity.
Over its four episodes, Love Fraud doesn’t just take a watch-the-train-wreck approach to its material. Nor does it center predominantly on Smith. Instead, by letting the women who were conned by him tell their stories, it mixes intrigue with a genuine and moving exploration of our need for human companionship, the reasons we choose to trust other people, and the battle so many women face in just trying to be taken seriously,
Love Fraud was directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, who have made a number of films together, including Jesus Camp and One of Us. I recently spoke to them via Zoom about some of what they uncovered while working on Love Fraud: strange US laws around bigamy, the way law enforcement tends to ignore these kinds of cases, the shame that women targeted by the con feel, and the differing standards that middle-aged women and men face in the world of dating. Our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
How did you stumble onto this particular case?
Heidi Ewing: Rachel and I always bat around ideas — what we’re reading and what we’ve overheard. It’s an ongoing conversation before we decide to do a film or a series together. We both had maybe a little bit of a twisted interest in psychopaths, dictators — psychopaths of all stripes. We had been reading about various con artists out there who persuaded women that they worked for the CIA and in the meantime had multiple families.
One day we were talking how that could possibly happen and how much effort it would take to be a con man and keep all the stories straight. From that conversation, we started to do some research. We got our team together and said, “Hey, look, can you guys find any stories out there that aren’t cold cases, or that are ongoing, that no one’s ever heard of?” Obviously we didn’t want to do anything where you can Google it and find out how it ended.
Our producer Alex [Takats] found this blog where all these women who had been victimized by Richard Scott Smith had gathered to vent, to exchange stories, and, predominantly, to exchange tips on where he might be, because it turned out that Richard Scott Smith was at large. There was a warrant for his arrest. Nobody was looking for him except these women who had been victimized by him and had been bankrupted by him and humiliated by him.
That was a story that really caught our eye, so we went down to Kansas City to meet some of these women, and their stories were very, very compelling. They were decent women who were busy and working and had families and had not done anything to bring this upon themselves except believe somebody when he said, “I want to spend my life with you.”
They led us to Carla Campbell, the only lady bounty hunter in Johnson County, Kansas — as she told us. She had a bee in her bonnet and wanted to help these women because she had suffered under the hands of abusers in the past. So, this conglomerate of women, plus the bounty hunter, equaled intrigue for Rachel and me. Once we started hearing all the stories, we realized it was probably a series and not one film. It was really tantalizing to know that he was out there somewhere, and maybe we could help find him. That was the kind of challenge that we could really get behind, and that’s how it all started.
So when you started, you really didn’t know where this project was going to go or how the story would unfold or what it would end up really being “about” — love, lies, danger, the search for companionship, how we get duped, or anything else that could come up.
Rachel Grady: At the beginning of the filmmaking process, you hope that it will be “about” a lot of things because you have to work on it for two or three years, so you need a lot to think about. We definitely knew it was about the human instinct for companionship and love, and the human instinct for a social contract — believing and trusting people. That, right off the bat, was really, really interesting.
Then there were other layers. Why does someone end up like this? Why doesn’t he just rip people off online? Why does he have to meet them in person and humiliate them and meet their kids and meet their boss and really go the extra mile and spend all that time and energy and, in the end, walk away with very little and just leave them in shambles. The mind behind that was really fascinating to us.
On top of it, there was a chase. We felt like all of that together, all of those ingredients, were enough for us to really buckle up and decide to spend some time with this story.
Heidi Ewing: You have to let the material speak to you. You can wrestle yourself into a pretzel trying to make something be what you had initially thought it would be, and I think over the years we’ve learned not to do that as often. One always tries. But at some point, you have to say, “Where is the material taking us? What themes are emerging in front of our noses? Why don’t we just follow it?” That led us to two jilted men whose feelings had been hurt and had felt conned by the women who ran off with Richard Scott Smith. It took us into a much more enriching journey, to be honest, than to just sort of be dogmatic about the chase or the case.
For us, what’s really interesting about the best true crime isn’t necessarily the crime itself. It’s the stuttering, beady-eyed performances of some of the characters. It’s those people that are on camera trying to convince themselves of something. It’s human nature! That’s really what the best films and series are about. It’s some kind of examination of ourselves as humans, and not really the crime itself, which can be a bit of a MacGuffin.
One big theme that pops up in Love Fraud is the different standards that apply, in the world of dating, to middle-aged men and middle-aged women. Richard Scott Smith isn’t a super attractive guy; he kind of just meets the bare minimum of respectability. He’s nice. He tells women they’re pretty. And there’s this huge pool of women for whom that is attractive, presumably because the bar has been set so incredibly low by their experiences with other men.
Heidi Ewing: It’s slim pickings out there! Slim, slim pickings. We had the same conversation. Like, “Wait, there must be so many losers out there [among men] for this guy to have a modicum of success in the dating world.” It’s shocking. It’s horrifying. 100 percent. We definitely had that conversation.
One thing that’s terrifying about him is how much humiliating these women is part of the fun for him. He’s not ripping off millionaires; they’re ordinary women who don’t have a ton to begin with. Did you come to think of him as more than a con man?
Rachel Grady: The simple fact that he does these cons in person puts him in the minority, makes him different, makes him strange. The FBI has an entire division devoted to romance scammers. It’s something that happens a lot. It happens online and people get ripped off all the time. But they don’t do it in person. It’s not efficient. It’s massively time-consuming and complicated.
So, the fact that he went out of the way to meet the women, to meet their entire families, to create this whole backstory for himself, to promise them the world — that already made him an outlier. He’s one in a million, pretty much, so we were interested in the psychology behind that. What would make you do this inefficient scam, really?
Honestly, I had to look him up after I watched the first episode, because two acquaintances of my own have been victims of men who did the same thing — wooed them, married them, and then turned out to be totally lying about who they were and had done this to two other women. It’s kind of shocking that it happens so often.
Heidi Ewing: That’s why I would argue with Rachel that it’s not one in a million. I think that his [is a] very, very particular con, but a lot of people have said what you just said to me: “Oh my God, this happened to my friend. They saw each other, like, five times, he promised her all this stuff, and then he disappeared.” They were dating! That whole idea of the ghosting is often a part of a con as well. I do think it’s more prevalent than we’d like to believe, this in-person con situation.
It’s kind of shocking to realize, because the question that comes to mind is how many women have been victims of men like this but were so ashamed that they didn’t report it? Or who did report it but the case fell apart because law enforcement didn’t pursue it? I can imagine that victims feeling ashamed would make it hard for us to get an accurate idea of how often this really happens.
Heidi Ewing: There was a lot of shame for every single one of the women we spoke to. They had definitely gone through various stages of believing it was their fault, that they were silly to have believed him. Not only that, but a lot of their male family members — brothers, brothers-in-law, and fathers — had volunteered unsolicited opinions about how foolish they had been. Law enforcement, detectives, police officers had told them, “I hope you learned your lesson, honey.” It turns out that if you dated the person who conned you, you’ve lost all of your credibility and all of your rights, perhaps, to bring this person to justice.
That happened to every single one of the women we spoke to, and we spoke to a lot more women than what you see in the series. That was extremely irritating to us. It was very chilling to hear this theme over and over again.
In order to combat that shame, I think finding him, or looking for him, and attempting to bring him to justice, as well as this sisterhood bond they developed with each other, was part of their healing process. If you talk to the women now — having participated in a series, having come clean with their story, having decided to speak openly about it to cameras — I think you’ll find much less shame. They don’t feel the shame that they felt when we met them. The process of making this series helped to reduce that.
You know, a lot of people are like, “Well, did the women get the revenge that they deserved? Did they get the revenge that they sought?” And Rachel and I like to say, “[The series premiere date of] August 30 is the revenge they had sought.” Millions of people will know what this guy did, and they’ll also be able to start their own process of healing for the cons that they fell for that they never told their friends about.
We feel pretty good about that.
I also would think a series like Love Fraud helps remove the stigma attached to falling for a con like this. It’s so easy to think, “Well, I’d never be taken in by that.” You emphasize how easy it is for anyone to be taken in throughout the series. It happens to ordinary people, for ordinary reasons.
Rachel Grady: Ordinary reasons. There’s nothing exotic about wanting companionship. We all want it. Period. That’s probably the basis of all human instinct. So, maybe you wouldn’t get conned by this guy, but you can get conned by someone.
I’ve been out of the dating pool for a long time, but I still found it frightening — like, how do I know that I know anyone? Did you glean anything from making the series about trusting others and spotting warning signs?
Rachel Grady: I mean, everybody said, “In retrospect …”
Heidi Ewing: If a guy promises that there’s millions of dollars coming soon from a lawsuit, I think it’s time to look that one up. Don’t go further. That’s definitely a red flag. But I don’t know — I mean, I’ve fallen for dumb stuff.
Rachel Grady: It doesn’t just have to be romance, though. It can be all kinds of scams and promises that there are “red flags” that you ignore. A get-rich-quick thing. A drug-addict kid that has never kept their promise. People want to believe.
Heidi Ewing: A president that was a reality TV star. That was a red flag.
Rachel Grady: That was a red flag.
Heidi Ewing: That was a red flag, I’d have to say. I think, “Grab ’em by the pussy” might have been a red flag. I don’t know. Millions of people fell for that shit. So, I don’t know. People are gullible. What are you gonna do?
The narcissism of con men, including Richard Scott Smith — it’s just so horrifying. You can see a person who is absolutely convinced of what he’s saying while also knowing that what he’s saying is absolutely not true. It is startling to have someone look you in the eye and tell you things you know are lies.
Rachel Grady: You’re right. He’s a good liar. Well, that’s the contract we have with each other, that people will be honest with you. And when people break the contract to your face, you always think, “Is it me? Maybe it’s me.”
So, how do you go about chasing someone who is trying very hard not to be found? Someone who uses fake names, fake addresses — it must be scary, or exciting, as filmmakers.
Heidi Ewing: It was mostly stressful to not know where the purported center of our series actually was, or if we’d ever find him. He slipped through the cracks, slipped through our fingers, many, many times. We would try to not take the phone calls when Showtime was calling to check in with us because we didn’t know where he was. We’d be like, “We’ll call you back in like a month.” It was really crazy, and, at some point, you have to give yourself over to it. A couple of the private investigators we hired said, “Everyone can be located.” Carla Campbell [the bounty hunter] kept saying, “He’s going to slip up. They always slip up.” Another PI said, “He’s going to have to come out of the woodwork because he has needs that need to be met, and that’s gonna put him back on the dating circuit.”
We were buoyed by those words because these were the experts, but a couple of times we blew it and we waited too long, we showed up too late, and he was gone. We kicked ourselves a lot for that, and then we started to try to get smart and always move as quickly as possible when there was a purported sighting of him or there was a tip. We got a little bit more nimble.
As filmmakers, I don’t know if we’ll ever do that again. It was absolutely absurd, and we didn’t know that we’d have a satisfying ending in any way, shape, or form, and we might still be filming if we didn’t have a satisfying ending because what are you gonna do? Yeah, I would say it’s a nail-biter.
There’s this trope in movies and TV where we create genius criminal masterminds, cruel, unbeatable, never messing up, always eluding detectives or anyone else who’s looking for them. Did making this series lead you to think about that trope differently?
Rachel Grady: Well, this guy was not some sort of mastermind. He was someone who could do a hustle and a scam just below the radar of getting law enforcement over the hump to care. Law enforcement really just said, “You know, this is a dumb woman, and she’s the only one that got screwed over, and it’s just not that important.” His strategy was to just skim off the top.
He wasn’t some sort of genius, but he was good at reading people in terms of who was vulnerable, what their vulnerabilities were. I think that he was able to really get away with a lot doing that.
The sexism inherent in how these cases are pursued by law enforcement comes through loud and clear. Was that a surprise for you?
Rachel Grady: Not a surprise, but very infuriating, and definitely a motivator for Heidi and me to try and see this through to the end. You know, I mean, there’s laws still on the books that it’s not illegal to rape your wife. There’s a societal position that these cases are between these two people, and if it’s between a man and a woman, that’s personal stuff that we can’t get involved in. And that is bullshit.
I was shocked to realize that while it’s not legal to be a bigamist, it’s pretty easy to be legally married to two people in different states.
Rachel Grady: There’s no national database for marriage. So, if you want to be a bigamist, you can. Bigamy is illegal but that’s not enforced. I don’t think it’s something that most people are voluntarily doing or are interested in doing, but it took us a long time to track down the wives that we did, and we’re fairly confident that when the show drops, more will come out.
Do you have a hunch about what will or could happen as the show airs?
Heidi Ewing: I have a hunch. We expect that a lot more women are going to come out of the woodwork who were done wrong by him. I think we might find other people who were married to him or are still married to him and are trying to get an annulment or a divorce and can’t locate him. I think there’s been a lot more scams against men and women — I mean, he’s had a lifetime of scamming. So I think we’ve just scratched the surface. There’s definitely going to be more information, more allegations. But there’s no way it ends where we end for this guy. He has no intention of changing his stripes. It seems like he’s going to continue to do this until someone puts a stop to it.
Love Fraud began airing on Showtime on August 30. The show airs Sundays at 9 pm through September 20, and episodes are subsequently available to subscribers on Showtime’s site. The series premiere is available to stream for free in full.
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