Technology both giveth and taketh away—a fact proven by The Tinder Swindler, a new Netflix documentary (Feb. 2) about Simon Leviev, who met various women on Tinder and wooed them with claims that he was the heir to a billion-dollar diamond-industry fortune. With the aid of that dating app, as well as Instagram, WhatsApp and Google Maps, Simon convinced his new girlfriends that he was living the high life—and moreover, that he wanted to share it with them. The only problem, he cautioned them, was that he had ”enemies” who wanted to take him out, which meant that he needed their financial help.
Directed by Felicity Morris (producer of the streaming service’s Don't F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer), The Tinder Swindler is equal parts non-fiction exposé and thriller, primarily told through the stories of two women. The first, Cecilie Fjellhøy, is a Norway native and self-described “Tinder expert.” Via the popular hook-up app, she crossed paths with Simon, who presented himself as a stylish businessman who attended lots of professional meetings and liked to visit the beach. They turned out to be a Tinder match, and promptly had a date at the Four Seasons in London, where he told her about his job as CEO of LLD Diamonds. During that first get-together, he invited Cecilie to join him on a business trip to Bulgaria, and in the blink of an eye she was traveling to the airport in a Rolls Royce, and flying on a private jet alongside a woman who claimed to be Simon’s ex, a little girl who was purportedly his daughter, and a hulking man named Peter that Simon said was his bodyguard. For someone who had grown up fantasizing about a Beauty and the Beast-style whirlwind romance, this all struck Cecilie as a dream come true. (Disclaimer: Tinder is owned by Match Group, which was formerly owned The Daily Beast’s parent company, IAC).
Their ensuing courtship was overwhelming—full of caviar meals, lavish displays of affection, and amorous texts and voice messages sent while Simon was gallivanting around Europe. When Cecilie and her friends googled Simon, they discovered articles about his powerful family and its ties to Vladimir Putin, as well as the potential dangers that he faced from industry rivals. All of this helped convince Cecilie that the man she was falling for was a bigwig operating in a stratospheric sphere of wealth, power and peril, and recounting those early days now, she candidly admits that the situation was intoxicating. So smitten was she that, even when she deduced that Simon was still active on Tinder, she believed his protestations that he had deleted the app—an assertion that, as with so many of the voice messages and photographs that he sent her during their relationship, is presented for all to see in The Tinder Swindler.
At the same time that Simon was romancing Cecilie, he was additionally connecting on Tinder with Pernilla Sjøholm, who similarly liked that he was a well-traveled, hard-working grown-up. As with Cecilie, Simon’s initial move was to spirit Pernilla away on a private jet—in this instance, from Stockholm to Amsterdam—and to take her to a restaurant where the entire staff seemed to know him. True sparks didn’t ignite between them, but Pernilla maintained contact even after this first date, because she found him to be a “battery charger” sort of personality who enlivened everything and everyone. A short while later, she joined him and his new girlfriend Polina (a Russian model) on a lavish European summer vacation.
Simon pretended to be a man of limitless means, but The Tinder Swindler makes clear that the source of his funds was Cecilie—and, also, others just like her. Thanks to photos and videos of an alleged assassination attempt on his life that had left Peter injured, Simon convinced Cecilie that his security team had cut off his financial resources (for his own protection), and that he needed urgent monetary assistance. Since she was now in love—and even looking to purchase an apartment for them to share—she didn’t hesitate to get him a credit card on her account, and to begin taking out loans to keep him afloat. Big surprise that, once she’d racked up enormous debts, Simon continually failed to keep his promises to pay her back, leaving her in desperate straits.
In response to her circumstances, which eventually landed her in a psychiatric hospital, Cecilie came clean to American Express, whose agents informed her that Simon was actually a notorious Israeli con man named Shimon Hayut. This bombshell drove Cecilie to Norway’s VG newspaper, whose reporters embarked on an investigation that soon led them to Pernilla. What they uncovered was a criminal who’d previously been incarcerated for fraud, and who was now using comparable cover stories to dupe other unsuspecting women out of everything they had. When confronted with such accusations, Simon vacillated between denials and threats, and The Tinder Swindler lays bare his duplicity and rage through a shrewd formal structure—rife with animated text conversations, online videos, and audio missives—that details the intricate method of his digital ruse.
Director Morris’ aesthetic approach illustrates the way in which real and virtual realities can be exploited for deceptive ends, which helps transform the film into a cautionary tale about the dangers of believing what you see or hear on your smartphone (even when it’s backed up by in-person experiences). At the same time, though, The Tinder Swindler also paints modern technology as a double-edged sword, given that once VG’s bombshell article was published—and Cecilie and Pernilla began making the media rounds—another of Simon’s long-term paramours, Ayleen Charlotte, came out of the woodwork with an eerily identical account of emotional and financial manipulation. The difference in Ayleen’s case, however, was that she was still in touch with Simon, thereby allowing her to take direct action against the charlatan.
In its closing sequences, The Tinder Swindler becomes a suspenseful recap of the race to capture Simon before he vanishes with a new alias and a plastic surgery-reconfigured face. Even if its conclusion isn’t nearly as comforting as one might like, it’s a damning portrait of a man who can’t be trusted—and who, courtesy of this documentary, will have a far harder time hiding his genuine identity in the future.