At the EMCRC, we often warn people of the dangers of romance fraud when dating online, and now, thanks to Netflix, our words have been amplified in the form of their new hit documentary, The Tinder Swindler.
Note: This article contains details of and spoilers for the Netflix documentary, The Tinder Swindler. However, as it's based upon a true story, the details already exist in the public domain. But, if you wish to watch the documentary without knowing what happens, we suggest you stop reading now!
Netflix have tapped into the Valentine’s Day market, not with a soppy rom-com, but with a dark and complex tale of how a charismatic, handsome, funny and smart Israeli conman stole millions of pounds from his victims.
The story begins with London-based 29-year-old Norwegian graduate student, Cecilie Fjellhoy. In January 2018, like so many single men and women, Cecilie’s search for romance centred on swiping left and right on dating apps, pawing over potential partners based on a few photographs, a sentence about their interests and hobbies and what they’re looking for in a partner.
Amidst the usual plethora of like-minded but uninspiring singletons, one man stood out from the crowd: Simon Leviev was handsome, stylish, successful, and led a luxurious lifestyle. But here’s the thing. With so many romance fraud cases, the promise of success, wealth and the jet set lifestyle are often just smoke and mirrors; fake bait to entice victims into a web of deceit before the payload pleas are dropped.
But with Leviev, he didn’t falsely claim that he needed “money for an operation”, or for “travel to meet up”, or any of the other typical traps thrown down as bait by fraudsters. On first inspection, Leviev was in fact genuine in his claims: he really did live the lavish lifestyle, he really was handsome and stylish, and to that end, he was no fake.
He met multiple women, including Cecilie, in luxury hotels, and would take them on private jets to exotic locations. “He was the kind of person you wanted to save,” says the Norwegian, and why wouldn’t she?
He was the son of a billionaire diamond trader called Lev Leviev of LLD Diamonds, or so he led people to believe. 'It’s lucrative but difficult work', he’d claim, liable to put him in tight spots.
He would talk of his mysterious “enemies” and would conjure up outrageous stories involving said enemies, even sending photos to his victims via WhatsApp of his beaten and bloodied bodyguard in the back of an ambulance after his nemeses had caught up with him. This, of course, was faked, and was all part of his nefarious extortion strategy.
It was the same story over and over again, woman after woman, victim after victim. His WhatsApp messages and videos declaring his love for his "girlfriends" were almost identical, as if templated, with only the names of each woman changed to match whoever was in his web at the time.
Once Leviev’s groundwork had been laid, he would urgently message each girlfriend to say that his credit card could not be used for security reasons and would ask that she open a new card under her name for him to “borrow”. In some cases, certainly in Cecilia’s, he would hire the women to work for his firm. Cecilia received forged pay slips, and because her supposed salary was almost £100,000 per month, she appeared to be a legitimate employee, and American Express, with that evidence to hand, would have no reason not to increase her credit limit.
Soon Leviev could spend tens of thousands of each woman’s money, with little - if any - suspicion. He would spend the money of one woman on another woman who was in his company at the time, almost always in a different country, in a kind of Ponzi scheme.
It was fraud on a Hollywood scale, and as the reality - and enormity - of the situation sank in for his victims, each of them said they felt like they were in a movie.
At first Cecilie said being with Leviev was like a fairy-tale, but there was to be no happy ending. The emotional strain of the con led her to have suicidal thoughts, even checking herself into a psychiatric ward for her own safety.
Eventually, Cecilie was united with another of the women Leviev had conned, Pernilla Sjoholm, a Swedish businesswoman, who although had dated Leviev after meeting him on Tinder, did not have a romantic relationship with him.
She became his friend, but he used this friendship and her misguided trust to defraud her out of thousands of dollars. He even had the audacity to spend her cash on his new Russian girlfriend whilst Pernilla travelled with them to Rome and Mykonos as part of the same group.
Of course, Leviev, masquerading as a high-profile businessman to his victims, would always claim he was close to a deal which would allow him to pay them back. But he never did. There was never any deal. Even a cheque made out to Cecilie for $500,000 - double the amount he owed her - bounced, leaving her with a debt of $250,000 to no fewer than 9 creditors.
Eventually, after Leviev could defraud them no more, Pernilla and Cecilie took their combined stories to Norway’s biggest tabloid, Verdens Gang, who, with the assistance of Pernilla, this time acting as his friend, exposed him for what he really was: a cunning, organised, serial fraudster.
Subsequently, the police became involved, although at first they shrugged off the allegations. And it wasn’t until another “girlfriend” - Dutch fashion industry worker Ayleen Charlotte, who had been 'dating' Leviev for months - read the story online and recognised Leviev's patchwork of lies, that a plan was hatched to foil him.
So what became of Simon Leviev?
Simon, or to give him his real name, Shimon Yahuda Hayut, was arrested by Interpol in Greece after Ayleen had informed Dutch police he was on a flight from Prague to Athens.
The 31-year-old spent 5 months of a 15-month sentence in prison in Israel (released early due to the pandemic it’s claimed) but - remarkably - not for the fraudulent claims made by the women in The Tinder Swindler documentary, but for using a forged passport.
His incredibly organised fraudulent activity is said to have earned him an estimated $10 million from multiple women, who all fell for the same story.
He is still wanted by police in several countries but the alleged crimes against Cecilie, Pernilla and Ayleen remain unpunished.
But this will never happen to me...
This example of romance fraud is, of course, extreme. But it does lend to the already existing evidence that many people - not just women - are duped by fake claims that their “match” is someone they are not.
After all, the one common theme with all his victims is that they initially fell for his Tinder profile, and would subsequently all say the same thing of him: he was handsome, stylish, lavish, charming, sweet and funny. These words may well describe Leviev, but it was all an act, much in the same way a serial catfisher would use similar traits to attract their victims. It’s all just an act.
One major thing that his victims all failed to consider, or just never took five minutes to ponder, was: is this too good to be true? As his first victim said, he was one to keep, and came to that conclusion very quickly. But often, if someone appears too good to be true - or in Leviev’s case too ridiculous to be true - they most probably are.
Each victim spoke of how things would move incredibly quickly, from Tinder to Whatsapp to hotels to private jets, all within days. When someone wants to move things quickly, this can be another sign that perhaps things aren’t quite right.
Of course, we’re not blaming the victims here, as many have done in the comments of the Norwegian newspaper article and on social media. Love is a cruel and fickle mistress, and each victim was drawn in by his almost magnetic charms, to which there can be no blame. But the show does make you ask yourself: just who is lurking behind their dating profile?
The Tinder Swindler is available to stream from Netflix now.
Cecilie Fjellhoy appeared on This Morning with Holly Willoughby, Phillip Schofield and the documentary’s director Felicity Morris on February 9. Watch below.
Report all Fraud and Cybercrime to Action Fraud by calling 0300 123 2040 or online. Forward suspicious emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. Report SMS scams by forwarding the original message to 7726 (spells SPAM on the keypad).