On Netflix, a notorious Israeli swindler finally gets his comeuppance
Watching Netflix’s “The Tinder Swindler,” about an accomplished Israeli conman and the victims who exposed him, I couldn’t stop thinking of TikTok’s most-maligned and unremarkable f-boy, West Elm Caleb.
On paper, the titular swindler, a felon named Shimon Hayut, and W.E.C, a tall, mustachioed New York furniture designer who is bad at online dating, seem to share a number of tactics. Both men use dating apps to speak to several women at the same time without the others’ knowledge. They “love bomb” these women. They send the same messages and signs of affection to them. They then disappear, or “ghost,” with little to no notice for days at a time or indefinitely.
Hayut, who we meet under the alias Simon Leviev, the scion of an Israeli billionaire diamond dealer, is of course several orders of magnitude more impressive and toxic than West Elm Caleb. From Hayut’s humble beginnings in the Orthodox enclave of Bnei Brak, he would rise to defraud an estimated $10 million from victims across the globe all while wearing some truly awful-looking designer clothes.
The “Tinder Swindler” documentary, directed by Felicity Morris, is a stylish account of Hayut’s deceptions, slowly zooming out to reveal his web of lies as he traps his Tinder matches in a romantic ponzi scheme.
Kicking off with Cecilie Fjellhoy, a Norwegian expat living in London, we hear how Hayut made a big impression, inviting her to the Four Seasons and then on a private jet to Bulgaria, where he had business to do. This is the Prince of Diamond’s stratagem: dazzling women with his luxe lifestyle. Next, he asks them to be in a committed relationship, getting Fjellhoy to shop for apartments with him over Facetime while he’s on some other part of the map supposedly making deals (but actually just getting bottle service and eating a lot of seafood).
Once Fjellhoy is committed, his “enemies” attack him, making it impossible for him to use his own credit card for fear of being traced. Fjellhoy takes out loans and lends him credit cards in her name. He pays her back in excess of what he owes and the checks inevitably bounce.
Fjellhoy is not the only woman Hayut is talking to and he uses her money to pay for lavish parties with these other (usually blonde, and often Nordic) women, and those women’s money for other women and so on and so on. Interviewing Fjellhoy and Pernilla Sjoholm, a friend and later mark of Hayut’s who he also met through Tinder, Morris devotes the last half of her film to exposing him.
When Fjellhoy discovers she’s been duped and financially ruined, she goes to the press. Journalists from the Norwegian paper VG fly to Israel to learn he’s a fugitive from justice there. Their pursuit of Hayut takes them to Munich, where, in a white-knuckle sequence, they catch Hayut on camera with Sjoholm’s help. The perhaps inevitable scripted treatment of this moment won’t measure up to the actual footage, and hearing from the women themselves.
When paired with some tasteful recreations and a ton of actual text exchanges and video, Morris’ work is never less than engaging even as it takes its time. Kudos to Netflix for not demanding this be stretched to miniseries length, as it easily could have.
Once the women in Hayut’s life find him out or delay sending him money, he is all kinds of abusive. He threatens them, screaming in WhatsApp audio messages before pivoting to tearful mea culpas. His comeuppance is thrilling to behold once the script is flipped and his ill-got Gucci shirts are sold to recoup the debts he laid on a girlfriend.
Beyond the satisfying reversal of Hayut’s fortune, the film shows what heroism in the face of bad dating app actors looks like. Fjellhoy, Sjoholm and others made themselves vulnerable, exposing themselves to the internet labels of gold digger, fool and patsy in an effort to save other women from emotional and financial ruin. That’s what makes “The Tinder Swindler” exciting and ultimately sad, as the women are still paying for the privilege of knowing and trusting Hayut.
If there is a Tinder parable to heed, Hayut certainly provided it, but any viral story in the realm of swiping right has consequences for its villains.
West Elm Caleb, who was doxxed by people with less noble intentions for sending the same Spotify playlist (pre-Neil Young boycott) and an alleged unwanted picture of his penis, has probably received some credible death threats knowing how reasonable and proportionate the internet usually is. The crazy thing is, of the two, Hayut appears to have suffered less in the love department; he’s now dating an Israeli model and living as a free man with seemingly endless resources from a consulting business.
Hayut’s infamy will hopefully be more enduring than West Elm Caleb’s, but sometimes infamy is good for the brand. If recent developments are any indication, both men may soon be unmasked again on a reality singing competition.