The Tinder Swindler review: Netflix’s latest true-crime documentary centres on a cruel yet charismatic conman

·4 min read
New Netflix documentary will explore the case of the Tinder Swindler (EPA-EFE)

Despite the 21st-century overtones of its title, in many ways The Tinder Swindler is a con as old as time. Netflix’s new documentary, from the team behind Don’t F*** with Cats and The Imposter, begins with the story of Cecilie Fjellhoy, a 29-year old Norwegian graduate student living in London. It’s January 2018, and like so many men and women in her position, Fjellhoy’s search for love mainly comprises flicking left and right on dating apps, assessing potential partners on the basis of a few photographs and a sentence about their interests.

In the usual morass of lads who think “eating” and “sleeping” are adequate things to list under “hobbies”, as though they weren’t requisites of being a living mammal, Simon Leviev stands out. He is handsome, successful, and has the kind of lifestyle graduate students tend not to enjoy. They meet in luxury hotels and he takes her on private jets. She is bowled over by his occasional vulnerability as well as his charm. “He was the kind of person you want to save,” she says.

He is the son of a billionaire diamond trader called Lev Leviev of LLD Diamonds. It’s lucrative but difficult work, liable to put him in tight spots. He has mysterious “enemies”. Before long, he asks Cecilie to take out an American Express credit card that he can use to pay for things to throw these enemies off the scent. He hires her to work for his firm and sends her a payslip. With this evidence, Amex increases her credit limit with no trouble. Soon Leviev has spent a quarter of a million dollars of her money.

It’s all a fraud. In reality, “Simon” is Shimon Hayut, an Israeli fraudster. His deception has been thorough. To lend credibility to his operation, he changed his last name to Leviev, and employed fake assistants and security guards. Among other things, the case proves how much store we set by online footprints, as though they can’t be manipulated and twisted like any other document. By the time Fjellhoy realises she is being conned, Leviev has already found another victim, Pernilla Sjoholm, a Swede. Evidently, he has a type. As we will discover, he also has previous: he served three years in Finland for fraud. Eventually, the women help police put together the operation that catches him again. In November 2019, he is imprisoned for 18 months.

With hindsight it’s easy to wonder how these women could have been so credulous. American Express needs to take a hard look in the mirror. But an ostentatious love of private jets, watches, cigars and blondes is hardly a new red flag. Top tip: if he publicises pictures of himself in helicopters, he’s a chopper.

Although it was love that he traded in rather than old burgundies, Hayut reminds me of Rudy Kurniawan, the wine fraudster who was the subject of Netflix’s 2016 documentary Sour Grapes. Just as Kurniawan evidently had a real skill with wine and a refined palate, Hayut is obviously a charismatic man capable of real charm. In another universe, he might have used these qualities for good, rather than evil. But he didn’t. In the deranged voice-notes he leaves these women as the net closes, he sounds frightening: a psychopath on the edge. Fjellhoy, in particular, was sent to the verge of a nervous breakdown by the deceit, and still struggles to speak about her experience without crying. The film’s ending is bittersweet. Hayut was never charged with defrauding the women, who are still paying off their debts. After serving just five months, he is a free man in Israel, where he was apparently caught trying to skip the queue for vaccines.

Despite the great yarn at its centre, as a film, The Tinder Swindler sometimes lapses into the self-indulgence common to so many modern documentaries, with endless shadowy reconstructions and a heart-tugging soundtrack. At nearly two hours, it is at least half an hour too long. I blame true crime. Especially, I blame podcasts. The market for these kinds of stories is so rabid that once producers get hold of something juicy, as this undoubtedly is, they are determined to wring every drop from it. Rigorous editorial judgement: important when making a documentary; essential when browsing Tinder.