You’ve been scammed. Now what?
We all like to think that we’d never be the victim of a con artist. The phrase itself summons up the image of a fast-talking rando in a dimly lit bar spinning you a convoluted yarn. But when the con artist takes the shape of someone you have every reason to believe is your friend, suddenly your defenses become a lot more porous.
In case you missed the initial hubbub surrounding the fake German heiress, here’s a recap.
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Sorokin arrived on the New York City social scene in 2013. She lived a lavish lifestyle, which she claimed came courtesy of her wealthy father back in Germany. Sorokin offered to treat Williams to a trip to Morocco (along with a videographer and a fitness instructor). But whenever it came time to pay, Sorokin would claim there was a problem with her credit card or her bank. She’d ask Williams to front the costs of flights, dinners, kaftans, etc. and then promise that she’d pay Williams back. But the biggest ticket item was a stay in a private villa at La Mamounia in Marrakech. When Sorokin kept giving hotel management the run around (claiming her bank in Germany was in the process of wiring the money), Sorokin and the management pressured Williams into offering up her credit cards for what she was told would be a temporary hold. Sorokin assured her that she would pay for the hotel bill once it was time to check out.
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Check out time came and the charges stayed on Williams’ cards. Sorokin never paid her back as the truth turned out to be there was no family trust fund and her wealthy image was a carefully constructed illusion—of which skipping out on hotel bills was a central pillar. Sorokin was eventually arrested in 2017 on charges of grand larceny and then sentenced to 4-12 years in prison back in May.
Who among us wouldn’t be susceptible to the lure of being invited on a trip by a friend who appears to take once-in-a-lifetime vacations with ease and regularity? But then who among us could afford it if that “friend” unexpectedly and suddenly left us on the hook for the bill? From a legal standpoint, would you have the option to simply stand up to the pressure of your companion and hotel management demanding that you cough up a credit card? And, if not, what kind of recourse do you have? In order to find out, we spoke to editor at legal help website Nolo and attorney Ann O’Connell.
First, Check the Fine Print
“If [Williams] came to me as her attorney, the first thing I would look at and ask for was whether or not the hotel had terms and conditions or policies that either she or her friend agreed to when they booked the room,” said O’Connell. “It’s possible that a hotel could have a policy that anyone who stays in a room is ‘jointly and severally liable’ (meaning that the hotel can come after any of the guests for all amounts owed) for costs and damages. Even if the room isn’t booked in his or her name.”
This sort of policy is probably even more likely to be in place outside the United States where it’s more commonplace for hotels to charge per occupant and require all guests to register and sometimes show their passport.
If there aren’t any terms and conditions, you’d move on to the law of whatever country you’re in. “If nothing applied, I’d see if Moroccan law recognizes the idea of equity/unjust enrichment,” said O’Connell. If a person were to, say, stop by and say “hi” to their friend and then leave that would be one thing. But a guest would be determined to be “unjustly enriched” if they received benefits or services (like a week’s stay, meals, spa treatments, etc.) that the hotel would be entitled to compensation for.
If the Choice Is Between Paying and Jail, Just Pay
All but the ludicrously wealthy (which Williams was not) are unlikely to have the ability to “just pay” for several nights in a $7,000-a-night private riad without it becoming a nightmarish burden. On a cosmic scale, it’s not fair for someone to end up in this position because of another person’s deceit. But from a legal point of view, if you’re in a situation where you’re “jointly and severally liable” and you don’t pay, you’d be found to be just as guilty as your “friend.”
“The guest in these facts did the right thing by paying the bill out of her own pocket,” said O’Connell. “Better that than ending up in a Moroccan jail.”
In Williams’ case, she was able to ask for her credit line to be raised enough so that she could give La Mamounia a credit card and return to the U.S. without further incident in Morocco. Of course, when she got home, there was the matter of tens of thousands of dollars spread across her personal and company credit cards to deal with.
Sue Your So-Called Friend
Suing someone whose displays of wealth turned out to be all smoke and mirrors may seem like a futile endeavor. After all, you can’t get blood from a stone—or can you? Just because it turned out that Sorokin had no substantial wealth doesn’t mean the matter isn’t worth pursuing.
“What you’d still want to do is sue her and get the judgment,” said O’Connell. “In some states, a judgment can be good up to 10 years. Even longer. If you can show that you’re still actively wanting to pursue this, a lot of times the judge will basically extend the judgment.”
So even if the sued person doesn’t have a dime (let alone a trust fund) to their name in the present day, you still have the ability to collect on that judgment down the line if, in the future, they win the lottery or, say, ink a potentially lucrative deal with Netflix.
Have a Good Credit Card
Though Sorokin was found guilty of grand larceny and theft of services from various banks and hotels, she was found not guilty of stealing from Williams. The thing that turned out to be her saving grace?
“[Williams] is lucky she had a good credit card company that reversed the charges when she claimed she was defrauded!” said O’Connell.
Williams contested the charges with American Express who eventually wiped the charges from her corporate card and later on, after the media spectacle surrounding Sorokin had ensued, the charges on her personal card were cleared as well.
“American Express is one of those credit cards that really, depending on which level you’re at, really guarantees that if you’re the victim of fraud or something like that, they wipe those charges away,” said O’Connell. When we think about our credit cards protecting us from fraudulent charges, we think of being alerted that someone on the other side of the country used our card to buy expensive electronics and then the credit card company takes the bogus charge off your account. What we don’t usually expect is that in a situation that involves more interpersonal nuance (her card wasn’t outright stolen, she’d signed the authorization slip), you could still have the charges forgiven.
Credit card companies are more likely to be more forgiving with corporate accounts in order to maintain that relationship, and a company like American Express is likely to be more forgiving than other companies specifically because they pride themselves on exceedingly high levels of customer service. And, according to O’Connell, American Express probably became more motivated to forgive the charges on Williams’ personal card when her predicament became central to a high profile news story.
So What About You?
Making sure you have a great credit card also makes for a good preventative measure, though it’s by no means a guaranteed get out of jail free card. And, while hindsight is 20/20, the only foolproof way to avoid being stuck with a bill someone else said they’d be responsible for is to not be in the scenario in the first place. If you’re invited on a trip by someone offering to take care of lion’s share of the expenses unless you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this person is not only trustworthy but able to pay, don’t check in to any hotel you wouldn’t be able to pay for yourself.