Article Thumbnail

A Con Man Preyed on Single Women Looking for Love. Then Two Documentary Filmmakers Decided to Bring Him Down.

The Showtime series ‘Love Fraud’ profiles the strange story of Richard Scott Smith, who systematically married and then bankrupted middle-aged women. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady discuss their quest to find Smith and how his crimes hit harder in our #MeToo age.

At the movies, con men are often dashing, devilishly compelling figures. You think of the antiheroes of The Sting or Catch Me If You Can, and they look like Robert Redford or Leonardo DiCaprio — they have the swagger of stars. But in real life, they can be Richard Scott Smith, a seemingly ordinary fortysomething Midwesterner who scammed a collection of different women, leaving devastated lives in his wake as he locked onto his next victim. 

His M.O. was strikingly similar: He’d go on dating apps, targeting middle-aged women who’d been married before and/or had children and were looking to settle down. He’d spin a tale — maybe he’d say he was a CEO — and after a whirlwind courtship, he’d marry them. (In fact, unbeknownst to his victims, he’d sometimes be married to more than one woman at a time.) His wives were sure it was love — Smith could be charming when he tried — but soon, they’d notice he became a different person, angrier and sneakier. Before the women knew what had happened, Smith had taken their money and fled. He used different names and different social security numbers, moving from Iowa to Kansas to Tennessee. And the cops seemed uninterested in intervening.

When documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady found out about this story, they were introduced to some of the women, who lived in the Kansas City area and had bonded over their shared desire to bring Smith to justice. (There was even a blog dedicated to exposing Smith, who went on the lam after a 2017 piece in The Kansas City Star chronicled his criminality.) Ewing and Grady — who have made several fascinating documentaries about little-understood pockets of American life, including the abortion film 12th & Delaware and the Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp — felt right at home in this world, but they didn’t just want to turn it into a film. They wanted to see if they could help these women catch the guy. 

Out of that personal manhunt comes Love Fraud, a four-part documentary series whose first episode premieres on Showtime this Sunday. The filmmakers segue from interviewing these women about their experiences to pursuing the missing Smith, hiring private investigators to uncover his whereabouts. Every once in a while, Ewing and Grady get a bite — there’s word Smith has been spotted somewhere in the U.S. — but will they ever be able to corner him?

When I spoke to Ewing and Grady earlier this week, we avoided spoilers about what transpires in Love Fraud, which proves to be an absorbing portrait of sociopathic behavior and an indictment of law enforcement’s lax response to such crimes. But the filmmakers sought to put the focus on these women, refusing to see them as foolish or pathetic because they were conned by Smith.

“I would say that he wasn’t looking for desperate people at all,” Ewing says. “He was looking for women that were ready to find a partner.” Unfortunately, all they found was a monster. In our conversation, we discussed how hard it is to make a documentary whose ending is unknown, what real-life private investigators are like and why they feel that Smith’s behavior should be part of the larger #MeToo discussion going on today.

After watching Love Fraud, I did more reading about Richard Scott Smith and found The Kansas City Star piece from 2017 about him. At that point, his victims were already coming together and had started the blog, and he was just out in the world living his life — even though he was facing allegations of forgery and identity theft. Sometime between then and when you started your series, he went underground — it’s remarkable he was a free man before that.

Grady: Heidi and I were looking for a story that would let us explore a particular breed of sociopath that has multiple families — which we’ve always thought was such an incredibly strange thing because, besides being cruel, it just doesn’t make any sense. We were looking for what we thought was a simple bigamist, but [Smith] ended up being a con man and a bigamist. 

We came across a blog that a group of women had started in Kansas City of former victims of a con man named Richard Scott Smith. They had started this blog in order to warn other women, band together and try to figure out where this guy was. He moves around, he changes his name, he uses fake social security numbers — he changes addresses all the time, and he’s actually fairly hard to track down. When we jumped into the story, according to the women, he was still in Kansas City and he was still at large — he had a warrant out for his arrest, and no one was looking for him except for them. 

We found [the women] so compelling that we wanted to join their “revenge squad,” which is what we started calling them. They introduced us to a woman named Carla Campbell, a local Kansas City bounty hunter who felt a personal connection to these women in bringing this guy to justice. That’s how we got the band together.

Carla Campbell. (Courtesy of SHOWTIME.)

How stressful is it to start a project like this knowing, “Okay, we have no control over what the ending will be — or even if we’re going to have an ending”?

Ewing: You try not to let yourself think too hard about what’s going to happen if you don’t have an ending, because you’ll never sleep again — it’s the curse of cinéma vérité documentary filmmakers. It was a very risky endeavor to pitch it as a series, not knowing if we were ever going to find him, bring him to justice, where the story was going to go. That was also the most thrilling thing about it. 

This isn’t a case you can Google and find out how it ended. It’s not a cold case, and it’s not a famous case — there’s no Atlantic magazine article about it. It was an ongoing, low-level con that nobody was paying attention to. And that’s really where we thrive — in environments where there’s something major happening in a cul-de-sac, or there’s something explosive happening in the most ordinary spot on earth. 

And this [story] was no different: This person is blowing up people’s lives and their bank accounts in the suburbs of Kansas City, and he’s done it to scores and scores and scores of women, and nobody’s looking for him and nobody cares, except this band of women that also have careers and kids and their own lives. They’re expected to bring this guy to justice because law enforcement doesn’t care. All of that together just made us really mad and intrigued. We were like, “Well, maybe if we can find him…” Maybe it was hubris, maybe it was stupidity, but we were like, “We’re going to help them find him.” 

We make it very transparent in the series that we’re involved — we’re hiring P.I.s, we’re sort of joining this group. It’s a very unconventional thing to do as filmmakers, but it felt like the right thing to do. And it really led to very unpredictable twists and turns that were at times really frustrating, at other times thrilling. 

What becomes clear is that the cops really aren’t that interested in finding Smith. I think it’s Carla who says that crimes like his are considered small potatoes. There’s almost this idea of, “Well, sorry, ladies, you got screwed you should’ve known better.”

Grady: I think there’s a massive amount of sexism that happens — certainly in cases like this, but even in domestic abuse [cases], which seem not as important to follow up with. It seems like [conned] women are seen as somehow compliant — that they somehow asked for it. And this guy also often married his victims, and once you marry someone, that’s an even tougher and stickier legal situation because, essentially, you share everything then. It’s really hard to make the argument that just because you married this guy doesn’t mean you were okay with him [taking] everything and forging your signature and emptying your bank account. That is one of the clever things that this guy does — it’s one of his tactics, and it’s very, very successful.

Did Smith have a type? It seems like he preyed on women who felt unlucky in love and were looking for a nice guy.

Ewing: Well, he definitely preyed on women that are not tech-natives. They didn’t grow up with online dating, for starters, so maybe they were at a disadvantage there. He targeted women who had been either married before or had children before and were not looking to mess around — they weren’t looking to play the field. He was looking for women that were ready for a serious relationship and maybe a second marriage. As [one of his victims] says in the series, “At this age, things move faster.” 

That’s taken for granted for people in their 40s — they’re not going to date someone for 10 years and then marry them. [Dating] is going to move at a faster clip, and he definitely took full advantage of that: “Let’s buy a house, let’s buy a car, let’s join bank accounts, let’s get married, let’s get married, let’s get married.” And if you marry someone, it’s much harder to prove that they stole from you — it was very, very hard for the women to be taken seriously by anyone. 

So, I would say that if he had a type, it was a woman who it’s not her first rodeo. She’s also very busy with kids and a career, so maybe she wasn’t going to stay up all night doing background checks on the guy. 

Photo Credit: Alex Takats/Courtesy of SHOWTIME.

Obviously, these women have this support system with one another. But when you met them, how much were they wrestling with “I can’t believe I got conned. How did I fall for it?”

Grady: Oh, definitely. They were very frustrated, and they felt embarrassed and humiliated. Instead of channeling it that way, though, they had the opportunity once they found each other to start looking at it differently: “Okay, this is what this guy does. This is his job. I didn’t do anything wrong — he is the one who’s doing something wrong.” So that, married with the fact that these two women filmmakers showed up with a camera and were ready to chase him down, I think was very encouraging and energizing for them.

Ewing: These are women at various stages of their relationship with what had happened. Some had been freshly conned, some had been conned a few years ago. So it really was varying [degrees of] shame. I think every one of the women in the series would tell you that participating [in Love Fraud] was its own form of therapy because somebody was actually listening — not just listening, but trying to do something about it. And I think that was eventually very empowering for them. I think if you spoke to them today, you’d find very little shame left. But when we met them, it was still lingering.

The impression I got was that Smith physically abused some of these women, but not all of them. It wasn’t a consistent pattern.

Ewing: He did show an explosive temper with all of them, [but] he didn’t physically abuse all of them. But I’d say verbal abuse — anger, outbursts that were unexpected — that was something that many women told us about. I think he is a scarily unpredictable, explosive individual, and that pretty much every woman could confirm.

Because of the internet and constant surveillance, we tend to assume it would be hard to disappear the way Smith did. You spent a lot of time trying to find this guy.

Grady: Well, with the internet, your fingerprints are really hard to get rid of. And so I think that you could disappear pretty easily — and he did for a long time while we were looking for him — but, eventually, you can’t escape. It’s really hard to not leave some impression on the web. So we were just scouring all the dating sites — if he wanted to continue getting his victims through dating sites, which was one of his favorite ways to do it, it’s impossible for him to disappear.

Ewing: But, suddenly, the country did seem extra-large. We couldn’t find him, and we’re like, “This country’s too big. Why is it so hard to find somebody?” You would think that with a digital trail, it would be much easier. Well, it wasn’t really. The only sort of hope that we had was the private investigators telling us, “He’s going to mess up. He’s going to have to come out of hiding at some point to get his needs met. He’ll want to have a place to live. We just have to be ready when he makes that mistake.”

It’s depressing to think that, without yours and Showtime’s resources, a guy like Smith might still be in hiding. Apparently, the two of you will have to make a series of these documentaries since the cops aren’t inclined to track such men down.

Grady: At the very least, the series could help raise the profile that this exists. People don’t know that it happens a lot, because people are embarrassed when it happens to them, so they don’t speak up. But it’s happening more and more. The FBI has its own romance scams department, and it’s exponentially growing. I was shocked: The fact that it’s an entire division of law enforcement means that it’s obviously a big problem.

You go out of your way to at least explore the roots of his behavior, giving us a portrait of his difficult childhood. But at the same time, you don’t want us to forgive or empathize with him. How did you strike that balance between context and sympathy?

Ewing: Well, we really obviously wanted to have an open mind, as much as possible, about what would motivate an individual to behave this way. For us, the chase isn’t really the reason we made the series — it was to explore the mindset of an individual who goes out of his way to humiliate and rob and sort of destroy people. That was our fascination. 

So we tried to reach out to everyone that had ever met him. We reached out to every family member we could find — some wouldn’t talk to us, some would — and ask the question: “Why? Were there signs? When did this begin? Help us understand this person that we may never meet.” We thought it was very important to find if there were any underpinnings in his childhood to this behavior, but we were also extremely careful not to act as armchair psychologists: “Poor guy, he had a bad childhood. His mother was mean to him, therefore, of course he’s mean to women.” No, we were very careful not to excuse the behavior, because there are many, many, many people with similar backgrounds to his — a divorced family, maybe an alcoholic father — that didn’t turn out to be evildoers. 

We never found that one incident or event that we could say, “Aha, and so it began!” It wasn’t there, but it didn’t stop us from trying. We thought the audience would be asking those questions — we were asking those questions. So we thought it was important to weave it into the whole story.

A private Iinvestigator in Love Fraud. (Photo Credit: Alex Takats/Courtesy of SHOWTIME.)

You hired private investigators, a profession I only know from movies and TV shows. How similar were the guys you got versus what we see in fiction?

Ewing: Well, we loved most of the P.I.s that we met, to be honest — especially the ones in Knoxville. They were younger and funny, and they had a lot of things to say. [Their work] is really boring — a lot of times they’re sitting in cars holding onto a video camera for hours at a time — and so they keep an open phone line, and they’re chit-chatting between each other trying to fight the boredom. 

Nothing happens for long periods of time, but I got to tell you: When something jumps off, it’s amazing. We were in the car the first time he was spotted, and they’re racing [after him] and they’re trying to not lose him — that’s exciting. So it’s mostly boring, and then it’s just the best thing ever. 

I think the detectives themselves, what they expressed to us was that most of what they do is trying to find husbands or wives cheating on one another. They’re mostly employed by a disgruntled spouse, and that’s a bummer. A lot of times, they feel really dirty doing the work, but with our case, they were excited because we were trying to catch a bad guy. They were super-motivated by that, because it barely ever happens — most of the cases that they take are domestic and pretty seedy.

Love Fraud explains that men like Smith, even if they’re ultimately caught, won’t even get that long of prison sentences — less than a year. That’s surprising.

Grady: It really reflects the fact that these kinds of crimes just aren’t taken that seriously. If you’re married to someone or if you’re living with someone and they’re your significant other, and they steal money from you, it’s not considered law enforcement’s problem — it’s considered a domestic problem. 

Basically, the attitude seems to be, “It’s not murder or rape, so it’s not that big of a deal.”

Grady: And in the meantime, he’s ruining these women’s lives and humiliating them, taking what little money they have, ruining their credit. He leaves them in shambles. It’s wrong to think that these are insignificant [crimes] — to these individuals, they’re life-altering.

That makes me think about another documentary you made, 12th and Delaware, which is about a pro-life pregnancy center and an abortion clinic that are essentially next door to one another. You made that movie 10 years ago: How are you feeling about reproductive rights now?

Grady: It’s just gotten worse. People that are pro-life have a lot more political capital right now. It’s only gotten worse for women’s-rights scenarios. We’ll see, but I’m not so optimistic about it in the future, either.

In terms of the outcome of the presidential election, or just in the future?

Grady: Just in the future. The hearts-and-minds campaign that the pro-life movement has been fighting has won. I really do think that it’s won in a lot of ways in the United States.

I’m curious: How have men reacted to Love Fraud?

Grady: You know what? I haven’t gotten the feedback I need from my male viewership. I’ve heard from a lot of women, but I really hope men watch it and love it. But I have to say that women have been much more vocal about their feelings about it.

Have the women told you that they’ve had similar experiences to the women in Love Fraud?

Grady: Oh, yes. I mean, mostly so far it’s been, “My friend, my mom’s friend, my mom.” So far, we haven’t had a first-person account, but I’m sure that’ll happen.

I don’t want to conflate what happens in the series to sexual assault, but in the #MeToo era, your subjects’ stories seem to be connected to a larger theme of how women are shamed into silence. Because your subjects were “just” conned — because it’s not a violent crime like rape — maybe others in a similar situation don’t want to speak up. 

Grady: It’s humiliation, which is a lot harder to quantify. But this is totally part of the #MeToo conversation, 100 percent. These aren’t famous people — these aren’t people that are having some sort of extraordinary lives outside of this particular thing that they experienced — but I like investigating it and having it out there for conversation. It’s women of all walks of life and positions.