Netflix is creating cult numbers from con artists - opinion

'The Tinder Swindler' is a new Netflix documentary telling the story of an Israeli con man.

The Netflix logo is seen on their office in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, US July 16, 2018.  (photo credit: REUTERS/LUCY NICHOLSON/FILE PHOTO)
The Netflix logo is seen on their office in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, US July 16, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/LUCY NICHOLSON/FILE PHOTO)

Social media has exploded this month with posts, jokes and memes about Simon Leviev, the Israeli scammer who conned his victims out of an estimated $10 million. Though Leviev’s story initially broke a few years ago, he’s making international headlines again after his crimes were the focus of a Netflix special. The Tinder Swindler documented his elaborate schemes and featured interviews with many of his victims. It was a big hit for the streaming service, amassing over 45,800,000 hours of watch time around the world in only a week.

Despite the shocking story of widespread theft and lies that devastated the lives of multiple girlfriends he conned, a quick search on Instagram will give you no shortage of fan accounts for Leviev - yes, fan accounts. The sudden fame has worked in his favor, in a way.

Leviev, whose real last name is Hayut and is originally from Bnei Brak, took on the last name of a billionaire and pretended to be his son in order to lure women on Tinder. After his victims were in an established relationship with him, he would spin tales of enemies who were after him, even staging fake photos of being attacked, in order to borrow money and open credit cards in their names – money he would use to finance the luxurious lifestyle he was simultaneously leading with multiple girlfriends.

The Netflix special is part of a recent trend of shocking true stories on con men (and women), including The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman and Inventing Anna. The public can’t seem to get enough, but is it a good idea to give narcissistic sociopaths more attention and money?

It’s one thing to draw attention to a trend or trick the public should be aware of in order to help people avoid becoming victims, but when you’re creating content that is flirting with glorifying criminals and is paying those criminals as well is going too far. In the case of Netflix’s new series on con woman, Anna Delvey (a.k.a. Sorkin), who pretended to be a German heiress while defrauding some of New York’s elite to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, Netflix paid her $320,000 for rights to her story.

 Tinder Swindler  (credit: NETFLIX) Tinder Swindler (credit: NETFLIX)

Though she claims she wasn’t happy with how she was portrayed, the series painted her in a far more attractive light than she deserved, as if she was some sort of fashion-icon girlboss determined to rise above her circumstances in a male-dominated world. In contrast, some of her victims, such as the real-life friend of Anna Delvey, Rachel Laroache Williams, were portrayed as shallow, money-hungry fools who set themselves up to be defrauded.

The reality is that Delvey was a complete fraud who damaged the lives and reputations of numerous people, and was found guilty of eight of the 10 charges against her in 2019, including theft of services, second-degree grand larceny and one count of first-degree attempted larceny. She served prison time for these crimes, and since her release, has been put back in prison for overstaying her US visa.

Netflix glorification is problematic because the individuals who commit these types of crimes, criminals like Delvey, with narcissistic delusions of grandeur, feed off the attention they get from the initial program and the social media around it. A similar phenomenon occurs with terrorists who commit heinous acts of violence, although the media has largely learned not to publish their names and photos (through trial and error), lest they be glorified by extremists and encourage more attacks.

There’s no question that Netflix is benefiting from delving into such juicy grifter stories, but the streaming service should really think twice before investing in these types of specials, especially when it involves direct payment to criminals. The attention around these true crime stories and their spectacularly crafted schemes has created a new genre of social-media-cult-figure worship that these fraudsters do not deserve. They certainly should not benefit financially from their misdeeds. Criminals like Leviev and Delvey deserve to serve their sentences in complete anonymity, forgotten.

The writer is the CEO of Social Lite Creative, a digital marketing and PR firm.