The Tinder Swindler
“One little swipe can change your life forever.” Although spoken optimistically, with the promise of future true love, it turns ominous as this crisply filmed feature about one of the most shocking con artists in present times moves forward.
Where films and series about major cons are concerned, The Tinder Swindler is one of the better true-crime stories, about how a guy used the popular dating app to manipulate and exploit women out of thousands of dollars — the cost of his total con running into the millions.
Told through the accounts of three of his victims — Cecilie Fjellhoy, Pernilla Sjoholm and Ayleen Charlotte — we’re introduced to the ‘perfect’ guy: Simon Leviev, presumably the heir to the Israeli Leviev diamond fortune.
They do background checks online and it all checks out. The problem is, none of it — except for the actual Leviev family — is real. Simon Leviev is a carefully and painstakingly constructed persona that Simon Hayut, a lifelong con artist, has constructed. And he uses it to woo impressionable young women, showing off his lavish lifestyle and sweeping them off their feet, and then tricking them into lending him hundreds of thousands of dollars — money they often don’t have themselves.
Three productions to stream this week — The Tinder Swindler, Inventing Anna and The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Con Man — focus on the art of the fraudster
That same money is then used to impress and manipulate the next victim. Until one of them decides to fight back and beat the con artist at his own game.
There are many, many more victims out there, but the documentary focuses on these three, and each of them make for very compelling characters. The sheer scale of this con is mindboggling and the cruelty and callousness by the con artist towards his victims is both shocking and heart-breaking.
The Tinder Swindler is tighter and more focused than other productions in this genre and definitely worth a watch.
I remember reading about this ‘fake heiress’ who had fooled New York society into believing she was one of their own. And honestly, good on her.
The series is told through the experience of a reporter called Vivian, who is based on Jessica Pressler, the real-life reporter who wrote the original Anna Delvey profile for New York magazine. A good reporter, with good instincts, her reputation is marred by a ‘bad character’ from a previous feature that didn’t check out. She’s knows the Anna Delvey story will be big, and she goes out of her way to pursue it.
Played by the incredible Julia Garner, Anna Delvey is a self-proclaimed German heiress who left thousands of dollars of unpaid bills behind as she lived the high, jet-setting life of the persona she built… while also trying to raise funds for her passion project — the Anna Delvey Foundation.
She’s a thief, but with a heart of gold. She never screws over people she truly considers as friends, or the staff at the establishments she’s staying at. Her real target are the banks and other very wealthy investors.
What makes her different from The Tinder Swindler is that she’s not just conning people out of their money to support her lifestyle, she’s doing it to fulfil her dream of setting up the Anna Delvey Foundation. And believes everything will fall into place once it’s realised, and her con will never be caught.
But it does. It always does.
The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Con Man
This one is truly heartbreaking, not just because of the con and the shocking coercive abuse, but that the victims were robbed of the thing most precious to any living thing: their time. In this case, for some, over a decade.
This three-part series opens with the current ‘victim’ of British conman Robert Hendy-Freegard, or rather, the victim’s children. It’s astounding to think that, in light of what we get to know as we watch the series, this man is free and continuing to engage in devastating coercive control over his victims.
We go back in time to the 1990s. Students studying agriculture interact with a barman that tells them he is an agent working for MI5, that he’s spying on an IRA cell in their college. Besides, someone from their college has also been arrested for aiding the IRA. The barman immediately warns them that their lives, and that of their friends, are in danger and that they must leave immediately. He’s charming and persuasive and, over time, he’s already built trust with them. So, they listen and they get their friends.
Thus begins a horrifying saga, told to us through the victims’ (John Atkinson and his then-girlfriend Sarah Smith) own words, of how a boy and two girls were bullied and manipulated into constantly travelling across the country, staying in cheap motels, driving second-hand cars, eventually changing their appearances so as not to be recognised and completely forbidden from contacting their loved ones… for over 10 years!
It’s one of the most heartbreaking and horrifying cases of protracted psychological abuse I’ve ever seen. The loss of the life that they could’ve lived, the connections they lost, the suffering of their families and the physical and psychological abuse leaving the victims a shadow of their former selves, living in an entirely constructed reality and forgetting who they are at one point, is painful to witness.
It’s both horrifying and fascinating to watch. To see how con men use the same tactics to build trust and isolate their victims. To see how it’s entirely possible for even intelligent people to fall prey to them. And, of course, to see how our justice system is simply not equipped to deal with them, and bring them to justice.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, April 10th, 2022