Netflix has established itself as a haven of thought-provoking and controversial documentaries, and recently set the Twittersphere ablaze with its latest offering.
From the makers of smash-hit series Don’t F*ck With Cats and The Imposter, The Tinder Swindler tells the stranger-than-fiction tale of Shimon Hayut (alias Simon Leviev), an Israeli con man who posed as the son of a diamond merchant to lure unsuspecting Tinder matches on dates. Dangling the billionaire lifestyle in front of his prospective victims during their initial meetings — private jets, dinners at luxury restaurants, designer gear — then love bombing them into a relationship, Leviev would then initiate the second part of his scam: he’d explain that he was in danger, send videos of his "bodyguard" bleeding and tell his Tinder girlfriend that he needed to use a credit card in someone else’s name so he couldn’t be tracked. He’d then vanish, using his newly acquired money to seduce his next target and leave his former girlfriend penniless. When Leviev was finally caught and convicted in 2019, he was sentenced to just 15 months in prison — and released after five months due to good behavior.
The Tinder Swindler focuses on three of Leviev’s victims and their harrowing stories, but the two-hour documentary hasn’t necessarily elicited sympathy for Cecilie Fjellhøy, Pernilla Sjoholm, and Ayleen Charlotte, who bravely decided to share their experiences after Leviev stole $600,000 from them. As the documentary shot to the top of the Netflix charts, Twitter has been far from compassionate towards these women who had significant amounts of money stolen from them. The overwhelming sentiment is that the women who got conned were "stupid" for falling for it.
"Women who give men they’ve just met money don’t like money enough for me & that’s where the problem is #tinderswindler," snarked one user. A second user agreed: "Na the girls who got played in Tinder Swindler are just sooooo stupid." Meanwhile a third added: "watched the tinder swindler last night and was shocked how many women… over the age of 25… with a fully developed frontal lobe could fall for this??" To understand why the Twittersphere can so easily dismiss the victims of romance scams is to understand why we fall for them in the first place.
Romance scams are becoming increasingly common. Last year, the total reported losses from romance scams skyrocketed to a record $547 million, a nearly 80% increase from 2020 and six times what was reported in 2017, the Federal Trade Commission says. The agency points to the pandemic as well as the increase use of online dating sites and apps as facilitating scammers to weave elaborate stories and convince their victims to send them money.
"We’re naturally susceptible to romance scams because of our desire to fall in love," says therapist Marisa Peer. "We’re very influenced by media [representations] of the 'tall dark stranger' coming to sweep us off our feet," she explains. "We’re wired to believe we’re going to find our other half and live happily ever after. Logically, we know this isn’t true but when we’re in a battle of emotion and logic, the logical side of our brain doesn’t often win. When it comes to love, we make emotional decisions, not logical ones."
It’s something the film is keen to stress from the outset. When Fjellhøy is telling us how she fell in love at the start of The Tinder Swindler, she speaks with a rather idealistic notion about romance, explaining how, as a child, Disney films set the tone for what she expected love to look like when she was older. Her testimony is spliced with scenes from Beauty and the Beast as Fjellhøy, smiling and wide-eyed, says: "It just sticks with you, the feeling of a prince coming to save you."
Fjellhøy’s comments certainly come across as naïve — especially when presented with the implication that women are damsels in distress who need to be saved — but this "neediness," typically presented as an exclusively female trait, may be why people fail to sympathize with victims of romance scams compared to other kinds of financial fraud.
But while people are quick to roll their eyes and dismiss Fjellhøy’s somewhat idealized view of romance, it’s surprisingly common, particularly among women. The phenomenon has been described as "Prince Charming syndrome." Meanwhile about a third of US women who are in a couple are financially dependent on their partner, according to YouGov. Peer suggests that even if we are aware that a story our partner is telling us doesn’t ring true, the socialization of being "partnered up" often encourages us to overlook more incredulous details that an objective person would recognize.
"Even if we think we’re not, women are socialised into thinking we need to find our 'soulmate,'" says Peer. "If we’re presented something like, This son of a billionaire loves me and only I can save his life by getting my credit card out, we may know it’s not real but this emotion blinds us; we make an emotional decision based on this narrative. Scam artists are very good on picking up on this emotional element when it comes to romance. They can play upon their victim’s desire to be in a happy relationship and they say things such as: 'We’re destined to be together, you’re the only one for me.' We stop listening to the logic in our head and we tend to act on our heart and on emotions."
The general lack of sympathy for victims of these sorts of scams, compared to victims of other crimes, also stems from our inability to see Leviev’s crimes from an emotional point of view. "When we’re watching The Tinder Swindler, we have a distance from the events of what happens," Peer says. "We are using the logical brain because we’re not emotionally tied to the story. There’s that belief that these women have brought it on themselves because they were seeking this lifestyle, and should have seen the warning signs. As we’re not in that emotionally heightened state, we can see warning signs and we can see Leviev’s red flags. Our lack of sympathy is tied to our logical brain: we think they should have known better."
The dismissive attitude towards Leviev’s victims may be partly due to internalized misogyny — an assumption that only women could fall for such a scam, that women are susceptible to scams of this nature. Twitter's more critical users often refer to the women as "girls," alluding to their supposed naivety and lack of world experience. "The Tinder Swindler presented this idea that he had money and power, and these women fell for it," says Peer. "They’ve been seen as gold-diggers, when really these women weren’t necessarily sucked in by the billionaire lifestyle but the desire to help someone who said they were in danger."
Indeed, as a wide-eyed Fjellhøy tells her story of falling in love, it's cut with a scene from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in which Marilyn Monroe coos: "Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You might not marry a girl just because she's pretty but my goodness, doesn't it help?" Even the most logical viewer is encouraged subconsciously to see Fjellhøy as someone who was after financial security — perhaps even blinded by it.
It’s a sexist fallacy to assume that only women can fall victim to con artists. "We do have an incredibly slanted view when it comes to romance scams and gender," explains Tim Holmes, a criminal justice lecturer at Bangor University. "It’s the same when it comes to older people and social media. There’s the idea that some people, like women and the elderly, are more naïve than others when it comes to romance scams. But the data that’s been collected around romance scams shows that this isn’t the case."
It’s naïve for people to think they wouldn’t fall victim to a romance scam, particularly as con artists become increasingly sophisticated in their methods. Peer points out that Leviev made his fantasy life look believable with documentation and recordings, while criminal enterprises are using more advanced techniques and software to make their carefully crafted cons more believable. "People are scammed across every age and every walk of life," she says. "These women are being judged very harshly for being sucked into something that did look real. If you look at con artists such as Frank Abagnale of Catch Me If You Can, he conned millions of dollars out of numerous industries, all who should have 'known better.' But it’s different when you’re in the thick of it, you’re sucked in."
Not all the viewers of The Tinder Swindler have little time or compassion for Leviev’s victims. After Fjellhøy, Sjoholm and Charlotte set up a GoFundMe to try and raise the money they were conned out of, fans were quick to donate, pledging over $68,000 in just three days. (To date, the fund has raised $220,000.) Perversely, it is this human desire to want to do right by others that will enable con artists to rely on romance scams as a quick means to amass money for many years to come.
"Everyone out searching for love and romance, even when it’s genuine, is going to run the risk at some point," Holmes says. "We’re all naïve when we enter relationships and the heightened emotional state prompts a physiological change in our bodies. I always believe in the view that any type of fraud is an abuse of a trust that everybody uses. We’re good people who hope to see that good in others, and so tend to take people on face value."
"With the Tinder Swindler, he put on an elaborate display of his lifestyle to develop a deep sense of trust in these women, and he exploited them to the maximum he could."