‘Tinder Swindler’ documents when love found online goes horribly wrong
Few movies have captured audiences like “The Tinder Swindler,” Netflix’s most viewed documentary. Riveting to anyone who has ever dated online, it is especially so for those who have been catfished. But the con man at the center of the film, Simon Leviev (a.k.a. Shimon Hayut), won’t just break your heart, he’ll break your bank account.
“The fact that the documentary did so well was a complete surprise. We knew we loved it. But the response was off the charts, almost anxiety inducing,” says first-time director Felicity Morris, reflecting on the success of the film since its Feb. 2 premiere, as well as plans to turn it into a dramatic series.
Morris is a longtime producer whose credits include that other creepy Netflix hit, “Don’t F**k With Cats,” about an animal abuser-turned-murderer whose whereabouts are traced by an online group, ultimately bringing him to justice.
A similar arc is tracked in “The Tinder Swindler,” which begins with Cecilie Fjellhøy who recalls finding a match on Tinder with Leviev, who posed as the son of a billionaire diamond dealer from Israel. On their first date, he spontaneously invites her to join him on his private jet to Belgrade. She eagerly accepts despite warnings from friends.
Over the next month, Fjellhøy falls hopelessly in love. But then he claims to have survived an attempt on his life and can’t use any of his funds for fear his pursuers will track him down through his transactions. He asks for an exorbitant bridge loan. She obliges. In the weeks that follow, a pattern of requests emerges, slowly draining Fjellhøy’s bank account. In time, she learns she is one of many women similarly targeted.
After reading about them in the Norwegian news tabloid VG, Morris met with Fjellhøy and another of Leviev’s Tinder matches, Pernilla Sjöholm. During production, Ayleen Charlotte, Leviev’s last girlfriend before his arrest, contacted Sjöholm and joined the others in getting Leviev on camera.
“They had fire in their bellies. They both wanted to do this more than anything, and get this story out on a global platform,” Morris says with a laugh. “So, it did feel like we were working together to tell this story in the best possible way. I think they really trusted us. They handed us their WhatsApp of their entire relationship.”
Trust was key to making the movie work. It’s hard to get a stranger to open up about their love life, especially on camera, especially after being taken for over $100,000. Being of similar age and experience as her subjects gave Morris an edge.
“I felt that it needed a woman to tell this story,” she says. “I always think of swiping on Tinder as an act of vulnerability because you’re saying ‘Look, I’m a bit lonely, I’m here, I want someone.’ They were obviously embarrassed and it felt very exposing for them.”
Leviev sweeps his victims off their feet, often seeing several in a single day — with access to luxury jets, five-star hotel suites, Lamborghinis and helicopter taxis, financed by the money previous women had given him.
“We often wondered, how did he keep up with it all. He remembered everything about these women. He knew their parent’s name, what work they had, their best mates, what problems they had, all of these things,” Morris says. “Psychopaths have been among us since the beginning of time. But the influx of social media kind of allows those narcissistic tendencies to play out even more. You’re putting an image of yourself out to the world, getting people to like you, getting people following you.”
While Leviev’s riches were an undeniable draw, Morris maintains it was only part of the attraction. His victims deemed him to be someone with a strong work ethic who actually listened when they talked, a rarity among first dates. He also made them feel that family and fatherhood were a priority to him.
“It’s very hard for the women to admit or say, ‘Yes, I was attracted to the wealthy lifestyle,’ because they feel that then people will say to them, ‘Then you deserve for this to happen to you,’” Morris notes. “Even if money was part of that, it doesn’t mean they deserve what he did to them. Victim-blaming is entrenched in the world.”
Leviev operated in different countries and jurisdictions, which complicates building a case against him. In the film, the women claim that they borrowed money in their own names and voluntarily forwarded it to him. Those alleged incidents are not part of any criminal case against him. He was arrested only on fraud-related charges stemming from 2011 in his homeland of Israel. He was sentenced to 15 months and served five.
Today, he dates Israeli model Kate Konlin and has resumed living the high life, claiming he’s made his new fortune in NFTs and public appearances. And he’s responded to the film.
“They present it as a documentary, but in truth it’s like a completely made-up movie,” Leviev told “Inside Edition.”
“I am not a Tinder swindler,” he added.
Meanwhile, Fjellhøy, Sjöholm and Charlotte are still paying off the debts.
“I was resolute that the film should be about the victims’ experience and not fetishize the criminal,” says Morris, noting Leviev surely suffers his own private form of punishment. “Imagine living a life where nothing around you is real, no relationships can be real because people don’t know exactly who you are. For me, that life would be entirely empty.”
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