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Con artistry has gone mainstream — not just in movies, podcasts and TV, but in real life too

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Con artist Albert Rosenberg has a taste for the finer things in life.

When I went to visit him at Beaver Creek Institution in Gravenhurst, Ont., in 2014, he had managed to incorporate a Louis Vuitton belt buckle (contraband!) into his standard-issue prison uniform. When I asked about the food at the less-than-glam address, he told me that the inmates make their own meals, that he was partial to a beef bourguignon recipe, and that he lamented the lack of good red wine. In prison.

Rosenberg has been convicted of fraud in Europe and Canada and has been in and out of prison for decades — but that hasn’t stopped him. In 1988, he was sentenced to four years for defrauding investors and two art galleries. In 2013, he pleaded guilty to assault, one count of possessing the proceeds of crime, and eight counts of fraud, and got a five-year sentence.

Albert Rosenberg and his daughter. (Melbar Entertainment Group)

The documentary The Talented Mr. Rosenberg examines how he convinced not only galleries, but also banks, his wives and girlfriends, and elite investors from around the world that he was a sophisticated business tycoon worth millions. How did he get away with it for so long? The film features revealing interviews with his ex-wife and daughter, and Rosenberg himself.

In 2014, I wrote the Toronto Life feature magazine the documentary is based on. When the film premiered at the Hot Docs festival in 2022, I was asked what it felt like to return to this subject — and what was different almost a decade later?

My answer isn’t about the particulars of the story or even about Rosenberg himself. Rather, I’ve noticed his area of ​​expertise — con artistry — has gone mainstream.

The con artist content just keeps coming

In 2018, New York magazine announced the “summer of scam,” kicked off by the publication’s talk of Anna “Delvey” Sorokinthe fake heiress recently featured in the Netflix series Inventing Anna.

But when summer was over, the stories of swindlers and con artists kept coming:

The Tinder Swindler came out while we were making final edits on The Talented Mr. Rosenberg. The story of an internet-enabled scammer made me wonder what Rosenberg could have done with an Instagram account. But really, Albert Rosenberg is an Instagram account. Who needs filters when you have false identities in real life?

I knew none of this in 2013, when I first started looking into a news hit describing a Toronto “billionaire” who had been arrested after posing as a Swiss investor and defrauding victims of millions of thousands of dollars.

My only cultural touchpoint was Catch Me If You Cana movie based on the memoir by Frank Abagnale Jr., who impersonated a pilot, doctor and lawyer, and cashed millions of dollars in fake checks — all by the age of 21.

Yes, the Bernie Madoff story had come out, but while Madoff was a fraud and a crook, he was always himself. Rosenberg was a man of many identities: not just a Swiss billionaire, but also an Ovaltine heir, an internationally ranked tennis champion, a lawyer, a decorated academic, a film producer, a doctor and, maybe, a bit of a pioneer.

Romance scams have increased exponentially in the last decade. In 2018, they cost Canadians more than $22.5 million; last year, that number had almost tripled to $64.6 million (investment fraud has seen a similar rise). The actual figures are likely much higher: the Canadian Anti-Fraud Center says only five per cent of fraud cases are reported.

Cons are always evolving, but Rosenberg stays the same

The tools of the trade are always evolving. Scammers have traded the fake identities and far-fetched bios for messaging apps and untraceable bank information.

HAS fascinating New York Times story pulled back the curtain on a network of fraudsters operating out of Nigeria. These self-dubbed “Yahoo Boys” (a reference to Yahoo Messenger, where romance scams appeared in the late ’90s) find their marks on social media. They never meet them in person.

They often work as a team, with one person specializing in the early courting stage of a “relationship.” In the final scam, an unsuspecting individual wires her life savings to her online sweetheart, who’s stuck at the border or needs an operation for his kid. And they leave their work at the office.

The same cannot be said of Rosenberg, who unfailingly plays the part.

During his interview, Albert Rosenberg was consistently inconsistent with his elaborate storytelling, making it difficult to piece of real story together. (Melbar Entertainment Group)

In his first interview for the documentary, he showed up in designer Valentino boots and pale pink cashmere, spinning the same old yarns about his business acumen and status as an art world aficionado, his trust funds and tennis clubs.

To the extent that our movie has a message, it’s that a guy like Rosenberg isn’t going to change. Arguably, he can’t exchange. Does that make him a monster? A megalomaniac? An irredeemable psychopath? The victim of his own complicated psychosis?

Viewers will have their own opinions, but if we can agree on one thing, it’s that the man is consistent.

Meanwhile, scam culture hasn’t just infiltrated our streaming services, it has become what culture critic Jia Tolentino called “the dominating logic of American life” (Canadian life too).

A reality star scammed his way into the White House. Wellness influencers are making millions on magic beans. Matt Damon is hawking crypto. It all feels a little removed from reality.

The first time I met Rosenberg, I don’t think I’d ever heard the term “personal brand.” Today, everyone is working an angle on social media, highlighting some truths while obscuring others, projecting a lifestyle that is filtered, if not a full-on fiction.

I don’t want to downplay the severity of Rosenberg’s crimes or the lasting impact his actions have had on his victims. I just want to note that the world has become a lot scammier since I first set out to learn more about a mysterious fake billionaire.

He hasn’t changed. But we have.