I’m not stupid. But I am a perpetual optimist. That can be a fabulous asset in real life — and a potential disaster online.
“It’s scary. After you’ve trusted and been deceived so many times on dating apps, you want to believe in love but it’s hard,” Ann (who is using her middle name out of concern for her family’s privacy), a divorced woman in her 40s told me, after her online beau never showed up for a promised Christmas visit with gifts for her kids. “In one moment, I was completely blocked from his life and realize now he was probably married. Months later, he was back on Bumble trying to match with me. How many people is this guy going to destroy?”
Hayut’s case may feel like an outlier — and for the sake of women everywhere, hopefully it is.
Netflix’s new hit documentary “The Tinder Swindler” highlights exactly how the optimistic search for love online can be “a dangerous game.” It tells the story of alleged international con man Shimon Hayut (aka Simon Leviev) and the dozens of women who claim he ripped them off. With the help of journalists, Hayut’s alleged victims track him down and alert the police. Hayut, who has never been charged in connection with the Netflix allegations, may have got away with millions of ill-gotten dollars, according to the show’s producers. He has been convicted of defrauding other victims.
In a statement sent to Netflix, Hayut denied any wrongdoing. But just this week, Tinder, Hinge and Match Group Inc. banned the alleged fraudster from their platforms. Three alleged victims featured in the film have created a GoFundMe page that, at the time of this writing, has raised nearly $100,000.
Hayut’s case may feel like an outlier — and for the sake of women everywhere, hopefully it is. But if you came away from the documentary thinking people who wreak havoc are the exception on dating apps — or they must steal your life savings to do real damage — think again. There are oodles of everyday impostors, so called “regular guys” (and women, to be fair) who lie on their profiles every day. And those lies have consequences.
“The man I love was never real. He faked everything,” said Cecilie Fjellhøy, one of the main alleged victims of the “Tinder Swindler.” In painstaking detail, she paints the picture of a man who she says went from a dreamy and loving partner to a cold and calculating manipulator who pressured her to take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans to support his lifestyle. She eventually checked herself into a psychiatric ward following thoughts of suicide. “I still wanted it to be true, you know,” she said. “I felt like he knew me.”
Oh, I get it, girlfriend.
Yes, some armchair skeptics who’ve commented on news articles about the Hayut case have called the victims gullible or deserving of their pain. “No fixing stupid,” one wrote. “Some people will do anything for love,” quipped another. But, as the documentary pointed out, a whole generation of women has been gaslighted by Disney movies — and rom-coms — that make us think intense love, passionate courtships and overcoming crazy obstacles are totally normal.
I’m a savvy divorce coach and former investigative reporter. But I too have been duped by men who claim to be “family guys,” only to find out they still have a wife, as part of that family. Others may say they are “trustworthy and loyal,” then cheat. Another time, a simple Google search revealed a “mensch” I chatted with on the dating site Match and who described himself as the lovable guy next door was actually arrested for harassment, assault and revenge porn.
I’m a savvy divorce coach and former investigative reporter. But I too have been duped by men who claim to be “family guys.
Obviously, he wasn’t going to say that in his profile. These swindlers’ plan? “Love bomb,” or lavish their targets with affection, until the women fall in love with someone they’re not and can be easily manipulated.
And importantly, fudging on dating sites — whether to hide a wife or a criminal past or even just an accurate height — is not all that unheard of according to a 2011 study called “Profile as Promise: A framework for conceptualizing veracity in online dating self-presentations.”
A trio of professors from Michigan State University, Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison collected data from 37 online daters and found that describing yourself in profiles can be “ambiguous” because of lack of self-awareness, conscious efforts to disguise the self and the technical limitations of the online platform’s choices.
“For instance, given the limits of self-knowledge, it may be impossible for some individuals to produce self-descriptions others would see as honest, a constraint known as the ‘foggy mirror’ phenomenon,” the study stated, citing Michigan State professor Nicole B. Ellison’s 2006 research that found “Sometimes it’s not truthful, but it’s how they see themselves.”
Another survey, this conducted by the research firm B2B International and Kaspersky Lab in 2017, found the most common things online daters lied about were their names, marital status, location and appearance. More than half of respondents — 57 percent —admitted they told falsehoods and 67 percent of them were married men.
And again, those lies can create harm. Law professor Irina Manta of Hofstra University thinks daters who lie and endanger others should pay the price — in court. In her 2019 article “Tinder Lies”, she advocated for a system similar to trademark law: what you’re advertising must be truthful and not mislead consumers. Currently, there’s almost no legal recourse for victims — except in the case of financial scams. And even there, as we see in “Tinder Swindler,” fraud can be hard to prove.
“Did this person create an STD risk or Covid risk for another person? This isn’t one guy doing it to one woman but one guy doing it to a hundred or a thousand women,” Manta, who has proposed a small claims court-style system to punish perpetrators and help sufferers, told me. “There is often emotional harm when you were strung along for six months by a married guy. There are financial harms you incur and also opportunity costs because the longer you stay with a liar and get older, the more your market value goes down.”
Manta also blasts the theory that female victims are “idiots” who go for a narcissist or a sociopath instead of a “nice guy” by choice. Looking at the targets of the “Tinder Swindler,” Manta told me, “these women, like so many others on the dating scene, had a hard time even finding someone who would have a conversation, listen to them and treat them well.”
“The money was an add-on. I think this says a lot about the state of the dating pool.”
It’s all so overwhelming. No wonder some people call the online dating world the Wild West. A recent book, “How to Not Die Alone: The Surprising Science That Will Help You Find Love,” by behavioral scientist turned dating coach Logan Ury, agrees with this assessment.
“Each generation faces its own set of challenges – wars, recessions, shoulder pads. The same holds true for dating,” Ury wrote. “While people of every era have bemoaned their love lives, today’s sinkholes might just be right. Dating is harder now than ever before. And the next time your mom pesters you about finding someone nice to settle down with, you can tell her I said that.”
Still, there are plenty of happy couples who found love — and honesty — online. A 2019 Pew Research Study found online daters generally say their overall experience was positive, despite the pitfalls. Plus about one-in-ten U.S. adults (12 percent) reported they have married or been in a committed relationship with someone they met on a dating app.
As for Ann? She’s taking a break to learn more about red flags before taking the online plunge once more.
“I can’t allow myself to be the way I was — I need to protect myself and I owe it to myself,” she told me. “That experience destroyed me and awakened me in a new way. It taught me to never allow someone to swindle me again.”