Review: ‘The Tinder Swindler,’ starring Cecilie Fjellhøy, Ayleen Charlotte and Pernilla Sjöholm

February 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Cecilie Fjellhøy, Ayleen Charlotte and Pernilla Sjöholm in “The Tinder Swindler” (Photo by Joshua Wilks/Netflix)

“The Tinder Swindler”

Directed by Felicity Morris

Some language in Norwegian and Hebrew with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Israel and various countries in Europe, the true crime documentary “The Tindler Swindler” features a nearly all-white group of people (with a few Asians) representing the middle-class, who talk about convicted fraudster Simon Leviev.

Culture Clash: According to the documentary, Leviev has swindled millions from an untold number of victims (three of whom speak out in this film), often by luring women on the dating app Tinder.

Culture Audience: “The Tinder Swindler” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in true crime documentaries about con artists who use romance as part of the fraud.

Joe Stassi as Simon Leviev in “The Tinder Swindler” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“The Tinder Swindler” shows in chilling and heartbreaking details the dark side of meeting strangers through online dating. It’s a cautionary tale about superficial “fairy tale” images that promote style over substance. If you think that real and potential victims like the ones in “The Tinder Swindler” are just a small number of people, then think again.

Think about all the millions of people who consider themselves to be devoted fans of contrived reality dating shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.” Think about all the people who have self-esteem problems because they’re constant comparing themselves to others who seem to have better and more glamorous lives on social media. Think about all the women who wish they could be like Princess Diana and Meghan Markle, by marrying a famous and wealthy prince, even if that marriage comes at a heavy price of feeling suicidal because of all the pressure, media intrusion and royal family conflicts. And then maybe you’ll have an idea of how many people could easily be lured into a toxic relationship under certain circumstances.

Directed by Felicity Morris, “The Tinder Swindler” tells a thoroughly fascinating yet infuriating story of how a fraudster named Simon Leviev conned his way into the hearts of gullible women, drained them of their financial assets, and left them heartbroken and heavily in debt. He pretended to be the heir to a diamond fortune. He met his victims (almost all were women) on dating websites and apps, particularly Tinder.

“The Tinder Swindler” doesn’t interview a lot of people, which actually benefits the way this documentary unfolds, because it allows viewers to easily digest the stories of the victims instead of having too many talking heads who would clutter up the narrative. The majority of “The Tinder Swindler” screen time is given to the three victims who are interviewed for this documentary: Cecilie Fjellhøy (originally from Norway and currently living in London); Ayleen Charlotte (originally from Amsterdam and currently living in the Czech Republic); and Pernilla Sjöholm (from Stockholm, Sweden). In their own ways, all three women got revenge on Leviev, but Charlotte’s revenge is perhaps the sweetest.

Also interviewed are three Norwegian journalists who were involved in breaking the story and exposing Leviev and his con games to a worldwide audience: Natalie Remøe Hansen, Kristoffer Kumar and Erlend Ofte Arntsen. One of the best parts of the documentary is the archival footage of the undercover investigation that Hansen did with video and photos. It includes a trip to Leviev’s native Israel and a brief interview with his mother.

Leviev has a certain type of women he lures into his traps the most: Thin, attractive European women who are under the age of 40. He seems to prefer blondes. And his victims aren’t necessarily rich. Many of his victims might be “book smart,” but they don’t appear to be “street smart.” The victims interviewed in the documentary place a high value on loyalty, almost to a fault of being too trusting, which made them blind to seeing how Leviev took advantage of them just a few months after he met them.

Leviev’s modus operandi was very similar with all three of the victims who are interviewed in the documentary: He met them through Tinder. He said he was the son of billionaire diamond mogul Lev Leviev, the founder of LLD Diamonds. Simon claimed to be the CEO of the company. It was all a lie. Simon Leviev is not related to the Leviev family of LLD Diamonds, and he does not come from a rich family.

The documentary shows how Simon even Photoshopped family photos to make it look like he belonged to this wealthy clan. And he had his name legally changed to Simon Leviev to add to the illusion. His birth name is Shimon Yehuda Hayut. He was born in Israel in 1990, and he began conning people in his late teens, according to the documentary. Over the years, he has used aliases such as Michael Biton, Mordechay Tapiro and David Sharon.

Simon wined and dined his victims on elaborate and lavish dates, such as trips on a private jet and vacations at five-star resorts. He complimented them and heaped a lot of attention on them that made them feel good. He bought them high-priced gifts. But what these victims didn’t know until it was too late was that Simon Leviev was using other people’s money for all this courting, in an elaborate Ponzi scheme. And he eventually got them to hand over their own money, and he used that money to court other victims.

How did he get the money? By convincing the women to take out bank loans so they could give the cash to him. For the victims interviewed in the documentary, the stories are eerily similar on how he was able to fool them into giving him what amounted to their entire life savings and other finances. All three of them talk about the “instant connection” they had with him.

First, he “groomed” them with luxurious dates to convince them he was wealthy. But he also said that his work in the diamond industry was dangerous because there were unsavory people in the business, which is why Simon constantly had security employees. One of them was a bodyguard/companion named Peter, whose last name is not mentioned in the documentary.

At one point in Simon’s relationships with his victims, Simon was away in another country and sent them an alarming video of himself and Peter, who are both bloodied and appearing to get medical treatment in an ambulance. In the video, Peter’s injuries seem to be worse, because he has a big, swollen bump on his bald forehead, which looks like a bump that came from an assault. Simon sent the women this video to tell them that he and Peter had been assaulted by “enemies,” and that Peter was able to save Simon’s life.

Because of this assault, Simon told the women that he had to go into hiding, and his bank accounts were now frozen, so that his enemies couldn’t track him. He told his victims to send money to help him, and he promised that he would pay them back after he was able to gain access to his bank accounts. The amounts he asked for from each victim usually totaled in the hundreds of thousands in monetary funds.

How could anyone fall into this trap? Fjellhøy met Simon in 2017, when she was in her mid-20s. At the time she was interviewed for “The Tinder Swindler” documentary in 2021, she was working as an information technology consultant. She says she has a master of arts degree from the University of London. Clearly, this is an educated woman. And even after all she went through with this online dating disaster, Fjellhøy says she still uses Tinder, which she doesn’t blame for being the way that Simon met her and his other victims.

Even with a good education and career, Fjellhøy makes this very telling comment on why she was so vulnerable to this con artist’s charms: She fully admits in the documentary that she has a Disney princess idea of what love should be like for her. Fjellhøy says, “The first memory I have of love is Disney. I memorized the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ cassette … It sticks with you, a bit. I think everyone has a little bit of hope, deep down inside, that [falling in love] will be as magical as they were portraying it to be.”

It’s ironic that “Beauty and the Beast” was her most beloved Disney princess movie, since the movie is about a woman who falls in love with a “beast” who’s in disguise over who he really is. As an example of how Simon was able to charm women, on Fjellhøy’s first official date with him, they flew by private jet from London to Sofia, Bulgaria. Two of the people in the entourage for this trip included the mother of Simon’s daughter and the daughter, whose names are not mentioned and whose faces are not shown in the documentary footage of this trip that Fjellhøy filmed on her phone.

In the documentary, Fjellhøy (who says she quickly fell in love with Simon) describes how when she met Simon in person for the first time in a bar lounge (at a luxury hotel, of course) after chatting online, he told her that he and his ex-girlfriend were co-parenting a 3-year-old daughter. Fjellhøy describes this hotel encounter as a meet-up, not a real first date, to see if they were compatible in person. Fjellhøy says that she didn’t expect that the ex-girlfriend and daughter would be on that first date on the private jet.

However, Fjellhøy’s concerns were eased when the ex-girlfriend told her what a great father Simon was, and Fjellhøy saw that the ex-girlfriend had no bad blood or jealousy that Simon was dating someone new. Later in the documentary, this ex-girlfriend’s history with Simon is revealed. And although this history might be shocking to some viewers, it actually shows how skilled Simon is at charming women.

Of the three victims interviewed in the documentary, Fjellhøy is the most forthcoming about what she does for a living and her background. She’s also the only one to say that she had friends who warned her to be careful because Simon could be a con artist. Charlotte has a background working in the luxury goods industry, so she knew the value of the authentic designer items that Simon owned. It’s unclear from the documentary what Sjöholm does to make money. Sjöholm will only say that she’s been “independent” since she was 16 years old. Media reports about Sjöholm describe her as a “business owner.”

However, all three women make it clear that they are middle-class, not wealthy, and that Simon ruined them in more ways than just taking their money. He obviously violated their trust and made them question their self-worth and intelligence after they found out the awful truth. But all three women were responsible in some way for exposing Simon and getting as much justice as they could for what he did to them.

Not all of Simon’s victims were romantically involved with him. Sjöholm says that the first time she met Simon in person, they both knew that they would just be friends. She was invited into his “inner circle” and treated to the same lavish trips and gifts as the women whom Simon was dating. Sjöholm also befriended a Russian model named Polina (whose last name is not mentioned in the documentary), who was one of many women whom Simon was dating at the time. Sjöholm says in the documentary: “I don’t need a man to take care of me, but I would appreciate a man to share my life.”

Charlotte doesn’t appear in the documentary until the last third of the film, because her way of finding out that Simon is a con artist was different from the way that Sjöholm and Fjellhøy discovered his lies and fraudulent schemes. In many ways, Charlotte’s story is the most fascinating of the three because she was involved with Simon for a year-and-a-half, and she saw sides of him that the other two women didn’t see. One side of his personality that all of them saw was his cold and nasty side, when their relationships with Simon turned sour, and he started to threaten them and their loved ones if they didn’t give him money.

No one from law enforcement is interviewed in “The Tinder Swindler.” And when you find out how much Simon got away with in real life, it’s easy to see why no one from the appropriate law enforcement would want to face documentary filmmakers’ tough questions about him. However, the victims who are interviewed in this documentary tell a great deal about what happened to them. All three victims have ways of telling their stories that are never boring. They are also candid about the criticism they’ve received from people (mostly online bullies) who’ve called them gold diggers and fools.

As for “Tinder Swindler” Simon Leviev, who declined to participate in the documentary, he continues to deny all accusations against him. The documentary’s epilogue includes an angry voice mail recording of Simon making threats to “The Tinder Swindler” filmmakers. Even without his participation, “The Tinder Swindler” gives further insight into how he operates through archival video footage and audio recordings of Simon—as well as his email, text messages and hand-written communication—that were saved by some of his victims. An actor named Joe Stassi portrays Simon Leviev in the documentary’s re-enactments. Simon claims that the money he took from his victims were “gifts.” It’s easy to see from this documentary who is credible and who is not.

Netflix premiered “The Tinder Swindler” on February 2, 2022.

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