True-crime documentaries invariably revolve around serial killers and grisly slayings, so there’s something vaguely refreshing about one in which the only murder is committed by a woman attempting to sing “Nights in White Satin” in a karaoke bar.
But that’s not to say there aren’t dark deeds aplenty in the absorbing Showtime series “Love Fraud” (showing in Israel on Cellcom tv), which follows a group of American women as they pursue the man who stole their hearts and then their life savings.
Most documentaries in this genre inevitably need to be told as recollections, the filmmaker recreating and revisiting the scene of the crime for the viewer’s, let’s say, pleasure. So what’s particularly rewarding about “Love Fraud” is how over its four episodes it becomes a real-time manhunt for Richard Scott Smith – the con man who, we’re informed, has been married to at least 10 different women in 10 different states (some simultaneously), and robbed them all.
Intrepid filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady follow this trail of broken hearts in an effort to find the elusive scumbag, recruiting a fascinating collection of helpers along the way. (I particularly liked the lugubrious private investigator who answers most questions with the response “mkay.”)
“Dating in your 40s sucks. It seems like your only choice is to go online to meet anybody – but it’s hard,” explains one of Smith’s many victims, Tracy, a single mom with two grown-up kids. She offers a clear hint as to why she and other women might have found Smith appealing when she recounts going on dates with men who, contrary to their dating profiles, turned up toothless. As she points out, “There’s no excuse not to have teeth these days.”
Indeed, throughout the captivating opening episode, “Love Fraud” serves as a warning to any single woman using a dating site or app. The specific lesson to be learned from Smith’s case is that if a person claims to be either a professional water-skier, pilot or successful entrepreneur, you really should swipe left.
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As if to emphasize the point, a string of women in their 40s recount the exact same story of how they met this charming, “vivacious” man online, and how he swept them off their feet at such a rate that he was expressing love within days and marriage within weeks – all with the aim of getting his hands on their financial assets.
You could argue that the world is full of men like Smith, and the fact he has the most common surname in North America certainly attests to his “everyman” nature. But there are sleazy men using dating sites, and then there are sleazy men using dating sites like Smith, who was able to prey on vulnerable, lonely women simply by being attentive and having a full set of teeth.
What makes the show even more interesting, and his actions even more loathsome, is that he’s not a “big dollar” player. His modus operandi is to steal from middle-income women who have “just enough money to make him look good. Meanwhile, he drains them of everything they worked their whole life for.” (Some of the losses are particularly eye-watering: Smith reportedly stole $750,000 from one woman.)
That quote, by the way, comes from Carla Campbell, a bounty hunter from Kansas City, Missouri, who’s hired by some of the victims to try to track down Smith. This gray-haired, chain-smoking, 60-something lady – I hope she’s not any younger, because she will probably find me and kill me if I’m wrong – is a documentarian’s dream: equally expressive vocally and facially, and a memorable screen presence around whom to hang an entire story.
As you read this, someone in Hollywood is probably snapping up the film rights to Carla’s life, because it’s some story – starting with how she became a bounty hunter in the first place. Seriously, what’s not to love about a woman who sounds like a particularly ornery character in Netflix’s “Ozark” series and spits out phrases like “Some days chicken, some days feather, you know?”
Every second she’s on screen – usually illuminated by the green and orange emanating from the neon “Bail Bonds” sign in her office window – is to be savored.
If the internet is one of the villains in “Love Fraud,” it also gets a shot at redemption thanks to a humble blog that brings Smith’s victims together. Looking like something a lazy kid might churn out at the 11th hour for a homework assignment, it’s called Con Man Richard Smith Scott and proves an unlikely lifeline for the women.
“If you are reading this blog then you too have been victimized,” it states, although its writer, Lisa – “Wife #6,” as she describes herself – could never have imagined quite how many other women would have to turn to her blog for help.
This is where they find out about bounty hunter Carla, and how they disseminate clues concerning Smith’s whereabouts when he’s taken yet another woman to the cleaners.
Some stellar editing work highlights how the women all fell for the same patter from Smith, including choosing an engagement ring. As well as these beautifully staged moments, the documentary also stands out with its innovative use of animated sequences to illuminate such themes as love as a many splendored thing and Smith’s own troubled backstory.
Kudos to the filmmakers for tracking down some of his family members and old associates to discuss his formative years, when – you will not be surprised to learn – happiness did not play a major role in his life.
Even more importantly, the filmmakers and the women ultimately refuse to see themselves as passive victims in all of this. Leading the charge is Sabrina, a blond assassin-type whose advice to other girls is that the “best way to get over a guy is revenge.”
If “Love Fraud” is strong on character, it’s a little fuzzy on timelines. Some online sleuthing (OK, a Google search) revealed that most of the action took place between 2017 and 2019. But it would have helped if this were established in the show itself, which moves at a tremendous pace.
What’s made abundantly clear, though, is how someone like Smith is able to get away with his crimes – and by the way, journalists have got to stop referring to him as a “serial dater” or “Lothario.” George Clooney was a serial dater/Lothario; this guy is just a crook, plain and simple.
And how does he get away with it for so long? Because the police don’t seem to give a damn. Or, as Sabrina puts it in that distinct way of hers, “Unless he kills somebody, they don’t give a shit.”
Even if the police aren’t interested, this is a story you really should care about. And remember, never trust any person you’re dating who says “I want to get a sports car – for us.”
“Love Fraud” is on Cellcom tv, with a new episode every Tuesday until September 22. It airs on Sundays on Showtime in the United States.