'The Tinder Swindler': A documentary at the center of a global trend

Suddenly the Israeli public and the rest of the world turned their eyes to this story and specifically to this character.

 The Tinder Swindler, a Netflix crime documentary about Israeli con man Shimon Hayut. (photo credit: NETFLIX)
The Tinder Swindler, a Netflix crime documentary about Israeli con man Shimon Hayut.
(photo credit: NETFLIX)

Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

“Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” – Albert Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

An Israeli girl in a fleeting chat recently asked me if I had seen The Tinder Swindler, and what was my opinion as a journalist regarding this new Netflix documentary. Well, I couldn’t give a profound answer at the time, but now I am encouraged to write about this popular documentary that has become the focus of a global trend.

As announced in a Jerusalem Post story in February, entitled “Israeli ‘Tinder Swindler’ exposed in new Netflix film,” the new Netflix documentary The Tinder Swindler tells the story of an Israeli man who swindled women out of millions. Suddenly the Israeli public and the rest of the world turned their eyes to this story and specifically to this character.

The story is based on a report by the Norwegian newspaper VG, published in February 2019, which tells the story of the three women who testify in the documentary to having been cheated on by a man, Simon Leviev, whom they met through the popular dating app. Through the stories of Norwegian citizen Cecilie Fjellhøy, Swedish Pernilla Sjoholmy and Dutchwoman Ayleen Charlotte, it shows how this man enters their lives after meeting them on Tinder, and they end up handing over sums of money that are difficult to confirm, but which some estimate to be in the millions. One of them alone handed over $200,000 to the scammer.

It is the story of an Israeli boy from a haredi Orthodox family. Bnei Barak, his place of origin, is a small town, though more of an almost entirely exclusive neighborhood for religious Jewish families with different geographical origins, traditions and observances of Jewish law. But this is not the reason why antisemitism or anti-Zionism can be a flag-bearer. The Tinder scammer could have been English, Russian, French or Italian, and there are those, here and there.

 A Netflix poster for The Tinder Swindler (credit: NETFLIX) A Netflix poster for The Tinder Swindler (credit: NETFLIX)

It is a phenomenon typical of Hollywood and literature to see how a character is built up through gimmicks, trickery and lies. Although he is certainly not the first to do so, he will end up becoming the most famous, because if he is on Netflix, he is already more of a celebrity than anything else. He evokes the character of The Great Gatsby, the most famous novel by the American writer of the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Under the name Shimon Leviev, i.e. the “alter ego” of Shimon Yehuda Hayut, he set about dating different European women, in principle. Moreover, his focus was Europe, not only because of the presumed wealth the women might have, but because in Israel it would have been very difficult for him to proceed with his plans.

In turn, Tinder, the app that served this man who presumed to be a billionaire heir to the diamond industry, was launched in 2011 and transformed, perhaps forever, the way people relate to each other.

Tinder became a phenomenon that crossed borders, and although there were already apps for finding a partner long before its launch, this was the one that had the greatest effect on society, due to its agile, modern and accessible form.

Technology created the whole scenario for platforms and apps that now begin to manage themselves with the new “artificial intelligence” (AI). 

Love in the time of Tinder, before that in the time of Facebook, then Instagram and whatever follows, allows whoever wants to hide behind the screen. How many scammers exist on these online sites, apps or social networks? The answer is obvious, so much so that an app like Tinder, which is of course a multi-billion dollar company, has enormous power over the mere mortals who use it and who can also fall for various scams, as this type of app can lend itself to anything that a disruptive mind like Leviev’s can think of.

In this specific case, it is documented that Leviev’s modus operandi was to attract and entice women or simply empathize with them in a friendly way, and then ask them for sums of money that would be returned without any problem and even more than that, in exchange for saving their lives from a dangerous situation.

For some, Leviev would be considered a psychopath, but he is most likely a normal person with a rather high IQ. Just as he designed such a scheme for women (specifically) to unknowingly finance his life of luxury, excess and of course snobbery, he could have created a start-up in Israel or a company somewhere in the world.

But Tinder, the most popular online dating app even at the level of being considered a social network, allowed an ordinary person to become a celebrity, at least there and on Instagram. Likewise, Tinder has installed itself as one of the symbols of the digital age in which we navigate, and has become part of the current conversations about love relationships.

Leviev created a Ponzi scheme (after Carlo Ponzi, Italian swindler, creator of financial pyramids), whereby he used one victim’s money to get another victim and so on. And he had the opportunity in his hands. How many women are not looking for their Prince Charming on apps? But more to the point, is there a woman within these apps who would abstain from a millionaire?

The Tinder scammer is just one example of the anomaly of a strange relationship system. It is virtual, i.e., it only exists in appearance and is not real. It is not real to begin with. And are the feelings behind the screens real or not? Well, surely in some particular cases they are, so much so that there are those who are exposed to being cheated, deceived, mocked and so on by those who use feelings in a virtual way. Apparently there is a virtual “real feeling,” but it is not real, so it does not exist.

Hayut has created a character and also a performance, which means that he created a spectacle for his creation, Leviev, and with that, more than a false identity: an “ideal being,” which I am sure many men would like to be and many others would like to have.

There is a crisis of values, which has been going on for at least two decades, and now, together with corona, the complexity of relating to each other in the old way means that it has become quite difficult or at least fictitious to relate to each other, without even talking about gender.

Thus, virtual commonplaces such as Tinder have moved to traditional commonplaces.

Tinder has transformed the way people relate to each other as they seek to meet others with a common interest, whatever it may be, from the simplest and most casual to something as elaborate as a formal marriage. But it is not only Tinder and the other apps that followed that have transformed society as it was known before.

Uber transformed not only the way of transporting oneself, but also the behavior of people, when they understood this new transportation proposal – an innovative service that transcended and crossed borders. Airbnb transformed the way of staying or lodging, traveling and even of living for some. Netflix transformed the way society sees the world  – more than watching movies, it is a window to the outside world, albeit almost virtual as well.

In fact, everything is connected, as Leviev surely used other apps such as Uber and Airbnb in addition to Tinder. And in the end, it was Netflix, when it became interested in this media story, that decided to go for a documentary, that ends up being as superficial and fictitious as Leviev.

Things got a little more interesting when the family of Israeli Russian diamond tycoon Lev Leviev recently sued the Israeli fraudster known as the “Tinder Swindler” for posing as Leviev’s son and appropriating the family name, according to reports in Hebrew-language media.

The suit was filed in the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court, naming four of Leviev’s children – Zevulun Leviev, Ayelet Leviev Jacobson, Ruthy Leviev Yelizarov and Chagit Leviev Sofiev – as well as the family company LLD Diamonds USA as the plaintiffs.

“For a long time he presented a false impression that he is the son of Lev Leviev, receiving multiple benefits (including material), all of it through deceit and falsehoods, because he is a member of the Leviev family, and because his family (Leviev) will pay and bear the costs of these benefits,” the complaint said, according to the Times of Israel.

Attorney Guy Ophir said that Shimon Hayut, the conman who presented himself as Simon Leviev, had damaged the Leviev family name, and any money recovered from Hayut will be donated to his victims.

The documentary directed by Felicity Morris tells the story of several women whose hearts and wallets were stolen by Hayut, who served two and a half years in prison in Finland after being found guilty of defrauding three women. He was sentenced to 15 months under a plea deal in Israel after being convicted of fraud charges but was released after five months.

As Albert Camus defined the absurd as the search for meaning in something that simply has none, so it would seem that day after day, our society lives in the absurd.  ■

The writer is a political scientist, journalist and international analyst.