Wednesday, November 29

‘Catfishing on a whole other level’: the shocking story of the Tinder Swindler | Documentary films

When Cecilie Fjellhøy first met the man she knew as Simon Leviev for a 10am coffee date at the Four Seasons Hotel in London in January 2018, he seemed to align with his Tinder profile. His pictures of him were flashy – designer clothes and expensive sunglasses in luxury cars and private jets – and his in-person demeanor of him was equally debonair. “He has this magnetism,” Fjellhøy recalls of her first impression of her in the Netflix documentary The Tinder Swindler, out this week. “There’s something about this guy that is special.”

Fjellhøy, then a 29-year-old Norwegian graduate student living in London, was charmed by the man who claimed to be the “prince of diamonds”, a billionaire heir to the diamond fortune of the Israeli magnate Lev Leviev. And she was surprised: Simon had to leave that afternoon for a business trip in Sofia, Bulgaria. Would she like to go with him via private jet? She agreed – “I felt I would be stupid if I said no,” she says – and the film, directed by Felicity Morris, stitches together the trip through the documentation on Fjellhøy’s phone. There’s a “Yolo” WhatsApp message to her friends from her; photos of Leviev’s security team aboard the private jet; video of the woman and toddler Leviev said they were his ex of him and child of him, and one in which Fjellhøy kisses him on the cheek. They spent the night together in the hotel, and she flew back to London the next day, smitten with the man with whom she began exchanging messages daily.

This being called The Tinder Swindler, it’s not a happily ever after; it would take Fjellhøy months, $250,000 in unpaid loans, and an investigative team from Norway’s largest paper to figure it out, but nothing Leviev said or did was truthful. The bodyguard? A hired poser. The jet? Paid for by another swindled woman’s money. The woman Leviev said was his ex of him, who assured Fjellhøy he was a stand-up guy? One of three women he had swindled in Finland before he was convicted and imprisoned there in 2015, who still associated with him for reasons that remain unclear (she declined to participate in the film). Even the name Simon Leviev was a dodge; the “Simon <3” in her phone de ella was actually a serial catfisher and conman born Shimon Yehuda Hayut to a middle-class Jewish orthodox family in suburban Israel – no billionaire father. (In 2017, upon release from the Finnish prison, he legally changed his name to Simon Leviev.)

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“This isn’t just catfishing – this is catfishing on a whole other level,” Morris told the Guardian. “There’s not the red flags you think there are in these stories.”

“We’re all a little bit guilty of gold-plating our lives, whether it be on Instagram or what you have,” she added. “But Simon, when you meet him, everything stacks up.” For Fjellhøy and the two other women who tell their stories in the film – Pernilla Sjoholm, from Sweden, and Ayleen Charlotte from Amsterdam – as well as others who have not come forward, “it’s almost like they enter a Truman Show, being played out for them, where he’s got a bodyguard, he does actually fly around in a private jet,” said Morris.

For most of its first half, the nearly two-hour film weaves Fjellhøy’s first-person account with Sjoholm’s, who met Leivev on Tinder in March 2018. Their connection was initially romantic but turned into a deep friendship; Leviev brought along Sjoholm on trips to Mykonos, Rome and elsewhere with other Tinder dates, and the two messages consistently for eight months. As Leviev partied lavishly with Sjoholm, Fjellhøy was looking, at his request from him, for London flats to rent together. Three months into dating, she received disturbing photos of Leviev and his bodyguard covered in blood, and a request for $25,000 – according to Leviev, his enemies of him were tracing his credit card payments from him. Fjellhøy had no reason to doubt her boyfriend of hers would be good for the money, and who else was closer to him? She took out credit cards, loans and more loans for more requests, as Leviev repeatedly assured her that payment would come through the next day, then the next.

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It didn’t. Fjellhøy had been tricked, fallout from which rains throughout the second half of the film, as she links up with journalists at the Norwegian paper VG, and eventually Sjoholm and Charlotte, to unravel Leviev’s long history of cons dating back to his teenage years in Israel . (VG’s investigative piece, featuring messages, voice notes and video that is worked into the film, was published in 2019.) Losing the money and credit was bad enough, but losing the man she thought cared about her – the boyfriend who sent her roses and doting voice notes , the one who made a surprise last-minute trip to Oslo to see her – was a worse gut punch. The con was as much emotional as financial.

Leviev “wasn’t being a kind of James Bond character with these girls,” said Morris. “Yes he’d send them flowers, and he’d remember their birthday from him, and he’d be really sweet, but it wasn’t like they were getting anything. He wasn’t giving them designer handbags or amazing holidays. He was just a very consistent, loving boyfriend.” The normal red flags or hiccups – not texting back, ghosting, lack of interest – didn’t apply to Simon, and the bar for dating was so low that this in and of itself was remarkable. “Simon was the perfect man for these women,” said Morris, “and that wasn’t in a material way. That was in an emotional way.”

Cecilie Fjellhoy
Cecilie Fjellhoy. ‘I have [Simon] has this magnetism.’ Photograph: Courtesy of Netflix

“We’ve all grown up on this diet of romcom movies and the idea of ​​finding the love of your life, your Prince Charming, to sweep you off your feet,” said Morris, who works in clips from classic Hollywood romances into the film . “I definitely think that Simon plays on that.”

The final section of the film, which simply must be seen to be fully appreciated and moves beyond the scope of the VG story, works in testimony and comeuppance from Charlotte, who dated Leviev for 18 months and also loaned him significant amounts of money that was never repaid. Morris stitches together VG’s investigations, Charlotte’s recollections, and threatening voice and text messages from Leviev to reveal a vindictive pathological liar finally snagged by his past. It’s thanks to all three women that he was arrested in 2019 in Greece and extradited to Israel; he was sentenced to 15 months in prison for theft and fraud charges he skipped out on in 2011, and released after five months due to good behavior.

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Simon Leviev, as he is still legally named (his now-private Instagram account, @simon_leviev_official, currently has 97,500 followers, bot percentage unknown), declined to formally participate in the film, though he did respond to WhatsApp messages from the Morris’s team. There was a “back-and-forth between us and various lawyers that he had employed for us to speak to”, said Morris, but “an interview never materialized.” Leviev, however, did send voice notes that are included in the film in which he denies all the women’s claims of fraud and threatens legal action.

Despite the name, The Tinder Swindler is not actually that much about Tinder, or a warning against the perils of online dating. “We’re not saying that people shouldn’t use dating apps,” said Morris. “We’re not saying that people should be more cautious than they are, because most people are cautious.” Instead, the message is more one of perseverance through gaslighting, financial ruin and the fear of judgment. Fjellhøy, Sjoholm and Charlotte knew the reaction and skepticism that would come from speaking out, yet “they’ve been brave enough to say well, actually, the only real way that we’re going to get justice is to expose him,” said Morris.

That justice, if not in jail time or financial restitution, can come through a public record. The first thing you do with a Tinder match is Google them, says Fejllhøy, who is still on the app, at the end of the film. And the results for Simon Leviev? Pages on pages of articles unraveling his lies about him.

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