Several of the participants in The Tinder Swindler (Netflix) describe the extraordinary events relayed in the documentary as like being in a film. One woman talks about being romanced by a man she met on the dating app. He called himself Simon Leviev. Their first date started at a five-star hotel and extended to a spontaneous trip on a private jet. Another woman (and there are many women), further down the line, says she feels as if she is in “a horror movie”. Given the show’s title, it isn’t too much of a giveaway to reveal that Leviev, who claimed to be the son of a billionaire diamond dealer, was not the wealthy, suave suitor he made himself out to be online, but a convicted conman named Shimon Hayut.
Audiences love nothing more than a scam, from the podcast Sweet Bobby to the fascinating case of the “fake heiress” Anna Delvey. This slots neatly into the pantheon. It is a pacy, gripping feature-length film that lays everything out with precision and offers plenty of compassion for the victims.
We begin with Cecilie, a serial dater who describes herself as “a bit of a Tinder expert”. She becomes caught up in the whirlwind of Simon’s world. He sends her extravagant bouquets of roses, flies to visit her in Oslo and asks her to move in with him. Then, one night, he sends her photos and videos of himself and his bodyguard, bloodied, in trouble, under threat from enemies and suddenly unable to access the great reserve of finances he claims to possess.
Then there is Pernilla, a Swedish woman who seems a little more worldly than Cecilie. “I’m just thinking: oh my God, another diamond guy,” she tells the director, drily, about matching with him. The director responds off-camera: “Another diamond guy?” Pernilla doesn’t fall for Simon’s charms, at least not romantically, but they become friends. She spends a wild summer travelling around the billionaire-friendly parts of Europe with him and his then-girlfriend, a Russian model. Until threats from his enemies mean he can’t access his money and, well, you understand the drill.
There are many fascinating facets to this ugly story, most of them documented here. This is what happens when lives are lived online. Cecilie Googled Simon, she says, because that is what you are supposed to do with a match. She found him to be out there, in public, as the man he said he was. His Instagram seemed to confirm his identity. We hear voice notes from Simon, pulled from women’s messaging archives, and see romantic videos he sent from private jets. There are Cecilie’s videos of her looking around luxury flats that Simon told her to rent for them to live in together.
This lends it a particular intimacy. When the story finally became public, after an in-depth report by the Norwegian newspaper VG, the women had to face the social-media verdicts of strangers, who called them gold-diggers and worse. If this were fiction, it would be too far-fetched to be believable; with every jaw-dropping twist, you wonder how he got away with it. This gets to the heart of the horrifying emotional and financial damage these women endured and sustained. It also goes some way towards explaining how he got so many of them to fall for it. When the moving parts of Simon’s schemes come into focus, the scale of them is truly amazing.
The Tinder Swindler picks away at each layer of the story. It is about looking for love online, and internet cons, and the magnetism of con artists who say just the right thing. It takes a turn into thriller territory, when the Norwegian press and then Interpol start to look for Simon. Finally, it becomes a story of resilience, even revenge, as another of Simon’s victims starts to work out how she can get at least some of her money and her pride back. It hints at issues with policing online activity that takes place across many countries, and at crimes that are considered “small”, despite their devastating effects on the victims.
Netflix’s true-crime documentaries can be a mixed bunch. They tend to be sensationalist, overly long and undersatisfying. The Tinder Swindler is snappy and smart and leaves you wanting more, rather than scraping the barrel for every possible angle. It leaves plenty of questions unanswered – it lacks the neat resolution that might have made for a perfect ending. But that is life, which turns out to be not much like the movies at all.