National Geographic’s ‘Trafficked’ can’t decide who to root for

Tuesday, December 15, 2020 - 1:07pm

NOSELL

National Geographic

“Congratulations! You are the lucky winner of one million dollars! To collect your winnings, please send me a processing fee of $130,000.” If you’ve ever gotten a call like this from an unknown number, you were probably targeted by a scammer. “Trafficked” wants to show who exactly is on the other end of the line. 

The new National Geographic docuseries “Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller” gives viewers an inside look into the booming illegal industries that are secretly operating worldwide. In each episode, journalist and host Mariana van Zeller (“Breaking Borders”) investigates a network of the global criminal underground. The series premiere focuses mainly on the lives of phone scam artists in two countries known for committing fraud on American citizens: Jamaica and Israel. 

Van Zeller interviews members of this deadly and competitive community to learn just how important scamming is to local economies. From college-educated young men to domestic workers in Jamaica’s many all-inclusive resorts, the perpetrators of these cons comprise a diverse group with one common goal: to make as much money as possible. With a list of contact information taken from the country’s many call centers, these scammers target older Americans with promises of lottery winnings, new cars and vacations.

Unlike the familiar phone call cons of Jamaica, the scamming industry in Israel is built on fake finance companies who gather clients, take their “investments” and disappear. Many of these firms appear legitimate to the average American consumer but are potentially funneling billions of dollars into illegal markets around the world. With the help of other investigative journalists, van Zeller even goes undercover to interview for a job at one of these fraudulent companies.

For the most part, “Trafficked” is no different from the new generation of “edgy” documentaries à la Vice News. It is abundantly clear that Mariana van Zeller isn’t just a journalist: She’s a cool journalist who can make jokes with kingpins and swear with abandon. As the premiere goes on, it feels more as if the show is trying to be your friend, rather than educate you. That in itself is not a bad thing, but it feels deeply at odds with its subject matter. 

Each of the scammers featured in the episode justifies their immoral actions with no remorse. Many of the Jamaican scammers claim the industry has bloomed partially because of the economic hardship the country’s Black population has undergone just beyond the walls of Sandals’ resorts. Their profits are seen as “reparations” for Jamaica’s history of slavery. “Trafficked” frames this logic as understandable and portrays a few of its subjects as deeply sympathetic. Paired with the depiction of slick, fake investment firms in Israel, however, the show is unable to commit to any singular conclusion.

The incredibly lucrative businesses are based primarily on duping American consumers. Scammers claim it is Americans’ insatiable appetite for wealth that makes them easy targets. “Trafficked” offers far more sound bites of this cynical point of view than stories of the victims who are financing the struggling amateurs in Jamaica and the professionals masquerading as executives in Israel. While the show undoubtedly takes the stance that scamming is a crime, it is hesitant to label the practice ass unconditionally bad.

The attempt to portray “criminals” as human is admirable, but “Trafficked” is not yet ready to make its final argument. Instead, it offers itself to the audience and asks them to judge for themselves. In passing the buck while claiming an objectivity it clearly does not have, “Trafficked” can’t differentiate itself strongly from other docuseries. As the series continues to explore underground industries, it will hopefully find its footing and justify its place in a TV guide full of nearly identical content.

Daily Arts Writer Anya Soller can be reached at anyasol@umich.edu.


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