How Tracy Hall Survived Australia’s Most Ruthless Scam Artist

“I was sleeping with somebody who wasn’t a real person. So did I actually give consent?”

When Tracy Hall swiped right on Max Tavita, a “blonder than blond Bondi surfer, triathlete and financial advisor who used correct grammar”, the single mother could never have imagined he didn’t actually exist.

“Max Tavita”, the man she’d just connected with on a dating app in 2016 – a man she would spend one-and-a-half years of her life with, a man she would introduce her family and six-year-old daughter to, a man she learned to trust and love – was really Hamish McLaren, a serial con artist, and Hall was one in a long line of victims. She ended up losing $317,000 of her savings and superannuation to his fake investment schemes. But while the money is a substantial loss, it is the emotional cost that has been hardest to bear.

“This man was a fictional character. No-one else knew him as Max. This is the person he made up for me knowing that if he became whatever I wanted him to be, I would fall in love with him. And I did exactly that,” the senior marketing executive tells marie claire. “And even that was weird to get my head around, the fact that I was sleeping with somebody who wasn’t a real person. So did I actually give consent? I had to go to the doctor afterwards and ask for an STI check. I sat there just crying. It’s like I was in this parallel universe.”

Image: Felicity Cook.

Hall found out who McLaren really was only after his arrest in 2017. All his lies – including being the only survivor of a plane crash that killed his parents when he was six and how he was working “less than a block away” when the twin towers fell in New York – spilled out into the open. She finally had answers to why he would always cancel plans to meet her friends at the last minute and why he didn’t want to give her the password to access her “investment”.

During his 2019 trial, it was revealed McLaren stole $7.66 million from 15 victims in Australia, including fashion designer Lisa Ho. He was sentenced to 16 years, reduced on appeal to 12 years, with a non-parole period of nine years, meaning he could eligible for parole in 2026.

“I have concerns about Hamish being out in the world because I believe that he will reoffend,” Hall says. “Through everything I’ve learned about him and everything I know, I can’t imagine that he will, you know, be a barista or get a job at Bunnings. I just don’t think he has the capacity.

I think he’s psychologically ill. And that’s not to excuse any of his behaviour, but I don’t know whether it’s possible for him to have a life where he goes to work every day and earns money in legitimate ways. At the end of the day, only time will tell. I try not to spend too much time thinking about him.”

Who the Hell is Hamish? podcast creator Greg Bearup with Hall. The podcast suggested McLaren may have fleeced more than $70 million from people overseas in the three decades before his arrest. Image: Supplied.

These past seven years have instead been spent on healing and therapy, and speaking publicly about financial empowerment, intimate fraud, and the shame that comes with being a victim of a scam. Working on The Australian’s podcast Who The Hell is Hamish? has helped process some of the trauma. Hall has also written a book, The Last Victim, detailing her experience with McLaren. “There are people who say, ‘You’re stupid.’ I’m not bothered by those comments, but it’s very easy from the cheap seats to think, ‘That will never happen to me. I’ll never be so stupid,’” the 48-year-old says.

“And if I’m honest, I would have been one of those people beforehand as well. Part of the reason I wrote the book is because you can’t explain in a three-minute interview on Sunrise the insidious nature of how these people worm their way into your life and your social fabric and get under your skin and pretend to love you. That was the thing that was really difficult for me to get my head around: how could this man have pretended to love me for so long? People are like, ‘But there must have been part of him that loved you.’ I’m like, nah. This is all part of his game.”

Despite what she went through, Hall does not regret swiping right on McLaren’s profile. “Do I regret losing the money? 100 per cent. My life right now would be very different if I had that money in my bank account. But I don’t regret meeting him,” she says. “I’m not saying the experience wasn’t hard. Strangely, it’s brought me to where I am today; I’m so much more empathetic. I just have grown so much wisdom through it and understanding of myself and the world. And it’s a really important discussion to have in the public forum because if we don’t, then it will happen again.”

Image: Felicity Cook.

Even before meeting the con artist, Hall had endured enormous hardship: her dad died suddenly of leukaemia at just 53, her best friend’s husband died in his sleep not long after they were married, her mum was diagnosed with breast cancer, she suffered a miscarriage, and her marriage broke down.

“Writing the book helped put things in perspective because I worked out that all of those things have built a resilience in me that allowed me to weather the storm of Hamish in the way that I did,” Hall explains. “What happened with Hamish wasn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. It was intense. It absolutely flattened me. But I had endured some really hard things before that. So in a way, I knew I would be OK.”

More than OK. Against all odds, she fell in love again. She and her partner, Tim, whom she’s known for 22 years, have been together now for five years. “We don’t live together. We call ourselves ‘apartners’. He has three teenagers and I have the one, so a house of four teenagers right now would probably not be great for our relationship,” she says with a laugh. “He’s an amazing man and great communicator. That has really helped me learn to trust.”

And most importantly, she’s learnt to trust herself again. “There is no doubt that what happened has changed my perspective on the world. I like to think I’m sceptical, not cynical. We shouldn’t go looking for all the red flags in life, but we have to be boldly curious and really think about things,” she says. “I think it’s important for us to see examples of the rise after the fall. I don’t want to stay down there. That means he wins. And I want to win in life. I am winning in life.”

The Last Victim by Tracy Hall (Hachette, $34.99).

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