Netflix’s latest true-crime potboiler, The Tinder Swindler, just dropped, and it’s already becoming a new obsession. The documentary tells the story of a man who, posing as a diamond mogul and jet-set billionaire, bilked women out of millions and how those women set about trying to bring him to justice. It’s a story of the ultimate catfish, draped in diamonds and furs and flown in on a private jet that left the victims destitute and ruined. As the network teaser states, “You’ll never ‘swipe right’ the same again.”
Shimon Yehuda Hayut, better known by his alias, Simon Leviev, is an Israeli-born conman who used the popular dating app Tinder to seek out and defraud his victims. Hayut managed to scam his Tinder dates out of money using so-called long con tactics, surrounding himself with the trappings of extreme wealth and then asking for money when he was supposedly in a desperate situation. The Tinder Swindler focuses on three of the women he targeted on the app and their painful discovery that he was not the wealthy businessman he pretended to be.
Pernilla Sjöholm, Cecilie Fjellhøy, and Ayleen Charlotte all fell prey to Hayut’s wiles believing him to be the storybook romance of their dreams, only to realize too late that he was cunning, ruthless, and ultimately terrifying.
On his first date with Fjellhøy, Hayut, posing as Simon Leviev, took the 33-year-old UX Designer to Bulgaria from London on a private plane for one night, after he convinced her to join him after their very first date to meet and have coffee. Before agreeing to the trip, Fjellhøy searched the internet for his name and learned that he was apparently the son of Russo-Israeli diamond merchant Lev Leviev, so she went home and packed her bags.
Six months later, she was over $250,000 in debt and on the brink of suicide after discovering that the man she had fallen in love with was actually a cold-blooded swindler. “I felt like my life was over and I didn’t want to go on,” she told The Sun. Leviev convinced Fjellhøy to let him use her American Express card, saying he had been advised by his “security team” to cancel all of his due to a business deal with shady operators that had gone sour. He then convinced her to loan him over $20,000, saying that he had been attacked and that his “security situation” was worsening.
Leviev would go on to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars across Europe, all funded by Fjellhøy’s Amex. People say I was stupid, but I truly believed he was in danger,” she told The Sun, “The pressure I was under cannot be described.”
Cecilie’s nightmare deepened after she blocked Leviev on social media and her phone. She returned to her native Norway to stay with her family. Leviev reached out from an unknown number with a chilling message that read, “Watch out because with every action, there will be a reaction.”
Tinder Swindler director Felicity Morris, known for her critically acclaimed Netflix documentary Don’t F**k With Cats, says that practically all of us can relate to Cecilie’s story. “Everyone has an internet dating horror story, and Tinder was the perfect hunting ground for Leviev – you’re putting yourself out there, and he knew that,” she told The Sun. “The women we filmed with were using Tinder to genuinely find love, which resonates with all of us,” said Morris, “These women just unwittingly swiped right on the wrong guy.”
Leviev was indeed the wrong guy. Leviev was born Shimon Yehuda Hayut in Bnei Brak just east of Telk Aviv. Though he did change his name legally, he was no relation to the eponymous diamond mogul or his family. According to The Sun, his mother told newspapers she had not talked to him since he was 18. In 2011, Leviev fled Israel one step away from authorities seeking him in connection to fraudulent activities he allegedly committed in his twenties, according to Haaretz. Leviev ended up in Finland, where he began his practice of conning women he met on dating apps out of their money. He ended up in a Finnish prison for two years. Upon his release, he briefly returned to Israel, evading the authorities there before going back to Europe — where he met Cecilie Fjellhøy.
In late 2018, Fjellhøy approached the Norwegian newspaper VG with her story. Their reporters noticed that Leviev had used Fjellhøy’s credit card to purchase airline tickets for another woman, Pernilla Sjöholm, 35, who they tracked down using social media. Leviev had already scammed over $40,000 off of Sjöholm when reporters from VG contacted her. Sjöholm then confronted Leviev via telephone in the offices of VG. The full story of the two was published in 2019, which encouraged some of Leviev’s other victims to come forward.
Ayleen Charlotte, who Leviev was dating — and swindling — at the time VG published the story, helped orchestrate his arrest in Greece, where he was caught by the police while attempting to use a fake passport. At the time of his arrest, Leviev was wanted in Israel, Sweden, England, Germany, Denmark, and Norway. Extradited to Israel, he denied all charges against him, telling the country’s Channel 12 News, “I have the right to choose whatever name I want, I never presented myself as the son of anyone, but people use their imaginations. Maybe their hearts were broken during the process. I never took a dime from them; these women enjoyed themselves in my company, they traveled and got to see the world on my dime.”
Leviev was convicted of fraud, theft, and forgery in Israel and sentenced to 15 months in prison and to pay restitution amounting to around $50,000 — but only for the crimes he committed there in 2011. Leviev faced no charges stemming from his activities in Europe or for his manipulation of Fjellhøy, Sjöholm, or Charlotte. After five months in prison, he was released – for good behavior.
“How can you give trust to a man like that, who escaped from Israel twice? A man that deceived and swindled women in Europe for hundreds of thousands of euros. Where is the justice?” Sjöholm told Channel 12.
Several of the women Leviev targeted are still seeking justice for his crimes. According to Esquire, one woman, a Finnish citizen who wished to be anonymous, stated, “Myself and some other women filed lawsuits against him with the European Court of Justice and submitted complaints against him with Interpol.” Another woman said, “Private investigators and Interpol people are waiting for him to leave Israel to arrest him,” said another victim. “He ruined my life and shattered me emotionally and financially.”
Leviev is currently a free man in Israel, and if his purported “official” Instagram account is actually him, he is at least still affecting to lead a lavish lifestyle of designer clothes and high-end sports cars — though not, for obvious reasons, any international travel. In December, he made headlines in Israel again for trying to pass himself off as a medical worker to gain early access to the COVID-19 vaccine. He has threatened to take legal action against VG and Netflix, but no suit has been filed at this time.
In the meantime, Pernilla Sjöholm, Cecilie Fjellhøy, and Ayleen Charlotte are all still trying to repay their debts.