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A Hollywood Ponzi scheme and rogues’ gallery of lawbreakers

Podcasts of the week


Zach Horwitz, who was behind a a $650m Ponzi scheme

Zach Horwitz, who was behind a a $650m Ponzi scheme

Zach Horwitz, who was behind a a $650m Ponzi scheme

What happens when the truth is nothing like what was promised? An outrageous scam and a hit podcast, that’s what. Writers and hosts Scaachi Koul and Sarah Hagi are two culture journalists who are fascinated by con artists and what happens when their schemes fall apart.

Scamfluencers (Wondery, widely available) has so far had a look at Ballet’s Lethal Start-Up (the “Fyre Fest of the ballet world”), The Hollywood Ponzi Scheme, Dr Teen Love MD, and Brazil’s Supermom. The hosts rate each story in terms of its effectiveness and influence as a scam, with deep dives into the lives of some infamous con artists.

The Hollywood Ponzi Scheme episodes are particularly good on the LA culture of “zero real jobs but private jets”, exploring just how “buff wannabe actor” F ruined lives with a $650m Ponzi scheme, the largest ever known in Hollywood.

The hosts’ “wait, what now?” conversational style comes across as a bit cheesy at times because the shows are scripted, but that’s a small quibble. Highly bingeable.

Equally bingeable, though very different, is White Eagle (widely available), a six-part series about an unsolved 1983 heist in West Hartford, Connecticut. Hosted by investigative journalist and author M William Phelps, this opens in classic true-crime mode: an account of how 25-year-old Victor Gerena stole $7m (the equivalent of $19m today) from his employer, Wells Fargo. Gerena drugged and tied up two colleagues and loaded the cash into a hire car. He stole so much money, he couldn’t fit it all in.

Family, friends and even his fiancée knew nothing. His third wedding was scheduled for four days later but, needless to say, Gerena was nowhere to be seen. A year later, when money began to flood into the local Puerto Rican community, things took an interesting turn. Was Victor Gerena acting alone and in self-interest?

Was he, as the local community loved to think, a Robin Hood-style hero? Or was he really part of Los Macheteros, a group of Puerto Rican independence fighters?

In a league of its own is self-described “tinpot” podcast Crime Club with Jack Beaumont (widely available). Now in its fifth series, the premise is simple: Beaumont talks to and about a rogues’ gallery of people who have broken the law.

Unlike so many true-crime shows with super high-end production values, expert contributors, diverse locations and a host determined to wring every ounce of socio-economic and cultural relevance from the story, this is restless, irreverent — and definitely not for the faint hearted.

This is the fringe world of true crime that rarely makes the news: recent episodes featured crime in Catholic schools and an interview with Anonymous hacktivist Barrett Brown. Some conversations sound like they were recorded in a pub car park, but the brilliant bespoke music makes up for the rough edges.

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