Tinder Swindler vs Inventing Anna: Why do we treat victims of romance scams so poorly?

Two con artists had the same plan: to gain the trust of others and manipulate them into giving them their life savings. Yet, the victims of one are treated with more disdain than the other. Kate Ng explores why

Sunday 20 February 2022 15:42 GMT
(Getty/The Independent)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


“Who the f*** takes out $100,000 in loans for a man you’ve spent all of three days with? You deserved it.”

The Tinder Swindler just shows how stupid women get when they fall in love.”

Where can I find these stupid women from The Tinder Swindler that will dash me something sweet?”

It was comments like these that flooded Twitter following the release of The Tinder Swindler last week. The Netflix documentary, which dropped on 2 February, follows a group of women who were swept up in a romance scam so intricate, so extreme, that it left some of them hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket.

Shimon Hayut, or “Simon Leviev” as he was known to his victims, conned women into believing they were in genuine relationships before asking them for money. The narrative of the documentary follows how the women – Cecilie Fjellhøy, Pernilla Sjöholm and Ayleen Charlotte – met Hayut through Tinder and how he manipulated them into giving him their money.

Presenting himself as the son of billionaire diamond mogul, Lev Leviev, Hayut would begin each romance by showering the women with lavish gifts, flights on a private jet he apparently owned, and promises of love and commitment. But once he had secured their trust, Hayut started asking them for large amounts of money under the pretence of needing to protect his identity from his “enemies”.

Fjellhøy, who was 29 when she met Hayut in 2019, says she was conned out of more than $270,626 (£200,000), while Sjöholm says she gave the fraudster at least $45,000 (£33,256). The women have since set up a GoFundMe page to try and raise enough money to pay back their debts – all while Hayut, who was sentenced to 15 months in jail but was released after just five, walks away a free man.

Netflix has since released a new series based on another notorious fraudster; Anna Sorokin, better known by her fake identity as German heiress, Anna Delvey. Inventing Anna follows journalist Vivian Kent – based on real-life journalist Jessica Pressler, whose 2018 The Cut article about Sorokin’s crimes inspired the series – as she unravels the complicated web Sorokin spun around herself as she pretended to be a socialite spending her way through New York City.

Not long after Sorokin was charged with grand larceny and theft in 2017, one of her victims, Rachel DeLoache Williams revealed that Sorokin had scammed her out of $65,000 (£48,000) over the course of their friendship.

In essence, what Sorokin and Hayut did are similar. They spent months gaining their victims’ trust and didn’t give them any reason to believe they would turn them upside down and shake their pockets dry.

However, the difference in social media response towards what the fraudsters did has been stark. In Hayut’s case, there is an inordinate amount of focus on women being initially attracted to him on Tinder because he portrayed himself as a billionaire, with many people harking back to the misogynistic trope of the “gold-digging woman”.

Romance fraud, and just about every type of fraud, involves a level of grooming and manipulation

Dr Elisabeth Carter

Much of the social media discourse surrounding The Tinder Swindler seems to dismiss the serious fraud Hayut committed and instead mocks and blames the women whose lives he messed with. Even worse, by branding them as “gold-diggers”, many critics have twisted the entire narrative to frame Hayut’s victims as the predators instead.

In contrast, the aggrandisation of Sorokin in pop culture has cast a huge shadow over her victims, shrinking them to the point of near non-existence. As the Evening Standard notes, Inventing Anna sometimes appears to “buy into this Robin Hood self-mythologisation”, where Sorokin is heralded almost as a hero for scamming banks, hotels and New York’s elite in order to live like a socialite.

Let’s not forget that Sorokin is a convicted criminal, found guilty of theft of services and grand larceny. She was sentenced to four to 12 years in state prison, but was released after two years. She was then taken back into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in April 2021 for overstaying her visa, and has been in ICE custody since.

Dr Elisabeth Carter, a forensic linguist, criminologist and assistant professor at Kingston University in London, tells The Independent that victims of romance scams do seem to find themselves on the receiving end of more public vitriol than other types of scams. This, she says, is fuelled by the idea that victims of fraud have “some level of complicity” in order for the scam to work.

“They have to give the information or the money over at some point [for the scam to work]. That leaves outsiders with the narrative that you’ve been a part of it, therefore it is your fault,” she explains.

“But romance fraud, and just about every type of fraud, involves a level of grooming and manipulation. The victim is making their decisions in a reality that has been so severely distorted that they can’t be blamed at all – they have been groomed and manipulated into making these decisions, much like coercive control.”

Romance scams are particularly damaging, because victims don’t just lose money, they also lose a relationship they were led to believe was real.

It’s more common than we think, too. New research from UK Finance’s Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign and the Online Dating Association has found that 38 per cent of people who have dated someone online over the past year have been asked for money, despite never meeting in person.

Carter says: “These types of scams specifically are very cruel and pervasive. They can last for a long time – one of the victims in The Tinder Swindler was in a relationship with [Hayut] for 14 months – and you can’t just switch off from it, you have residual feelings.”

She compares it to domestic violence and abuse, where victims often “tell yourself this is okay” and are trapped in abusive relationships.

The real convincing wasn’t done by wealth, it was done by stealth

Dr Elisabeth Carter

“In the case of romance fraud, they are designed to exploit your trust and love and honesty in a relationship for the very reason of taking your money. It’s very hard to overcome. But people just look at the money lost and don’t see the psychological harm involved or the massive grooming before money is ever mentioned,” Carter says.

Ahead of the show’s release, Fjellhøy said in an interview with ITV’s Lorraine that she and the other women had been victim-blamed. She said: “We kind of knew it might come, but to be called a gold-digger for giving out money, like we said, we must have been the worst gold-diggers in history.”

Carter adds that dating someone with money can be a “red herring” and it’s not the reason why these women continued to have a relationship with Hayut.

She continues: “It might have been the reason they started it, but on Tinder, people make fast decisions based on a photo, a short bio and glimpses into a potential match’s lifestyle all the time.

“But the real convincing wasn’t done by wealth, it was done by stealth. We see in fraud prevention literature all the time, ‘Don’t give money to people you don’t know’, but the victims weren’t giving money to someone they didn’t know. They were lending money to their boyfriend or friend. People pass money between family, friends and partners all the time,” she says.

“There is something about women looking for love and finding love in a wealthy man that people don’t like,” adds Carter. “It goes against the normative gender roles of who women are expected to be, which is meek and mild-mannered and not explicitly interested in money or sex. And then if it goes wrong, they blame the woman.”

But in the case of Sorokin, because she was seen to be scamming the “elite”, much less emphasis was placed on her victims. This is despite Williams becoming so traumatised by the theft that when she testified in court against Sorokin during the trial, she said: “I wish I had never met Anna. If I could go back in time, I would. I wouldn’t wish this on anybody.”

There is something about women looking for love and finding love in a wealthy man that people don’t like

Dr Elisabeth Carter

Neither Sorokin or Hayut fit the narrow narrative we have that scammers are hooded people sitting in a dark room behind a computer, tapping away at codes. Instead they led people to believe they had all the money in the world to go on eye-wateringly expensive shopping sprees and holidays, when the truth was that neither of them had a penny to their names.

“[Sorokin] didn’t match that narrative, and so it was almost seen as a civil matter rather than a criminal matter,” Carter says. “People forget all the time that financial abuse and fraud are likely to be committed by an acquaintance, or even by family members, and it’s not always out of the blue by a total outsider.

“A lot of people thought Delvey’s friends who she defrauded must have known something was wrong since they were so close. But that was part of the fraud and the grooming. When you’re on the inside, you’re much less likely to question it.

“We never consider that it’ll happen to us. You think you know someone – but then, you find out it’s just not true.”

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