‘Tinder Swindler’ Shows the Devastation of Dating Scams
“Catfishing“ sounds deceptively trivial, silly, and even amusing. The term’s emergence in the cultural zeitgeist of online dating has come to make dating cons sound like light entertainment. There is even a reality show around it, where participants go through an elaborate and painful process of figuring out if they’re being catfished or not. In all, it sounds like a mild annoyance to get catfished — almost like a “‘Prince from Nigeria- requesting money”-flavor of email. It’s funny because we, who hear about it, would never fall for this scam.
Tinder Swindler, however, shows us that it could be anyone that falls, and for the first time, displaces the scorn onto the fraudster. For one, it treats online dating scams as a crime — a devastating, deeply emotional one. It is the real-life story of how an Israeli man, Simon Leviev, cheated and swindled several women he met through Tinder out of their money.
In pop culture, we are used to rooting for this con artist and ladies’ man all in one. Think Ladies vs Ricky Bahl, a Hindi film that valorizes a conman and makes light of the fact that he emotionally manipulates women into giving him their money.
Too often, victims of online scams are painted as naive and are the butt of jokes and laughter. In Tinder Swindler, we encounter dating scams in the same genre as true crime, which complicates both dating scams and grisly murder documentaries at once. In the former, we brush off victims as foolish, even as “gold diggers” as many called the women who shared their stories in Tinder Swindler. In the latter, women are tragic victims, their stories pieced together by everyone else, having lost all agency and being viewed through a nearly voyeuristic gaze.
But Tinder Swindler confronts the question of harm and accountability, and shows the devastating emotional fallout of being so deeply manipulated and betrayed that it upends your life completely.
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For one, one of the survivors, Cecilie, admitted to having suicidal thoughts and checking herself into a psychiatric facility to cope with the aftermath of the scam. It was a result of having her world completely unmoored, and not knowing what was real or not anymore. After all, this wasn’t like a usual breakup. Cecilie had to confront what it meant to have fallen in love with someone who did not exist. And this raises some uncomfortable questions for everyone: what does consent mean — when a partner lies about who they are?
If the women targeted consented to sex and an emotional relationship in a person, not knowing that they were only seeing an elaborate disguise, is it still consent? If someone lies about who they are and presents a false front, it can’t possibly be informed consent. After all, the women in question did not have the information they thought they did about this person.
The discovery of the crime, therefore, can feel that much more devastating for the closeness involved in the crime. “It is observed that many victims suffer from symptoms similar to a post-traumatic stress disorder, and some even consider suicide,” notes a study in Frontiers in Psychiatry, on the effects and treatment for trauma from online dating scams.
Another study notes what exactly happens in the fallout: “Once the scam is discovered, the emotional reaction of the victim may go through various phases or have various contrasting aspects at the same time: feelings of shock, anger or shame, the perception of having been emotionally violated (a kind of emotional rape), loss of trust in people, a sensation of disgust towards oneself or the perpetrator of the crime, a feeling of mourning – the so-called ‘double whammy,’ i.e., the trauma of having lost both money and a person.”
It is one thing for a person you love to hurt you, but an unrecognized form of harm is the person you love having lied about their entire identity. The line between fact and fiction blurs: it is a fact that women were in a relationship with this person, but it is fiction at the same time — because, again, the person as they knew him as never existed.
In other words, online dating scams are a form of gaslighting so complete and consuming, it leaves survivors with a sense of emotional vertigo from not knowing whom to trust, and not even being able to trust their own judgment in the future. Thankfully, however, Cecilie is back on Tinder because, as she rightfully points out, it was never about Tinder. It was fully and only about Simon. The women are resolute in placing the blame where it belongs, and share what they’re comfortable with sharing — no more, no less.
For perhaps the first time, women who were harmed or abused in some way are treated with sensitivity, allowed to tell their story on their own terms. But at the same time, Tinder Swindler doesn’t present a victory narrative to fall into the good versus evil trope that true crime documentaries often do. We see these women continuing to struggle; while Simon Leviev gets away unscathed and continues to enjoy his high-flying life paid on someone else’s tab. It is a grim reminder of how accountability is hard to come by — but at least we can begin to tell stories of harm differently, on the survivor’s own terms.