The Netflix documentary The Tinder Swindler relates the story of Simon Leviev, who meets women on the popular dating app, fosters relationships with them, and subsequently cons them out of large sums of money. It represents an extreme case of what the FBI terms romance scams and falls under the umbrella of what scientists call catfishing.
Catfishing involves using a fake identity online to foster romantic relationships; romance scammers use this false persona to exploit their victims financially. Over the past several years, I’ve collected data from more than 1000 people who have experienced this phenomenon as a victim, perpetrator, or both, and my research reveals patterns that were exhibited in The Tinder Swindler. (If you have experienced catfishing as a victim or perpetrator and are interested in taking part in a study about your experience, please click here.)
Here, I summarize a few key findings from my research.
Who falls victim to fake relationships?
Women. The documentary is consistent with my research: Women are more likely than men to become catfishing victims. Potentially, this is because compared to men, women are more relationally-oriented, socialized toward caring for others, and desiring of the fairytale or dream romance. This doesn’t mean men aren’t relational or that women don’t catfish; it just means women are more commonly catfish victims.
For various reasons, some people are not successful in relationships, and this puts them at risk of being scammed. The history of difficulty may stem from childhood (e.g., bad parenting) or low-quality adult relationships, but either way these individuals are vulnerable to victimization. When a “partner” requests favors or breaks promises, those with a negative relationship history are inclined to remain committed and indulge the swindler, rather than breaking it off.
Who perpetrates fake relationships?
People high in dark personality traits such as narcissism and psychopathy are more likely to perpetrate romance scams. These individuals lack empathy, lie for self-gain, and manipulate others. Narcissists are especially charming in the initial phases of a relationship, which hooks the target, but once the hook is in, control and exploitation ensue.
In addition to a dark personality, the person’s level of attractiveness also predicts perpetration. Some people are especially sought after as romantic partners, but this is not the case for catfish perpetrators. Consider the case of The Tinder Swindler: By objective dating standards, he was not that appealing—not the best-looking, lacking money and status, and without a caring personality. So, he faked it. People who do not espouse desirable relationship features more often pretend to be someone they are not.
5 tips to protect yourself
My research has examined ways to protect from this type of relationship. Here are my main recommendations.
- The most important tip is to meet in person before becoming emotionally invested. The meeting will confirm that the person online looks the same as the one you meet, at least physically. In the case of The Tinder Swindler, however, meeting in person did not help so…
- When someone seems too good to be true, they likely are. Catfishers tailor themselves to the victim’s preferences. If someone claims to be famous, they probably aren’t. And if they come on too strong, beware.
- Use paid dating services over free ones and be leery of those who approach you via social media. Scammers tend not to find victims through paid services; they use what is available for free.
- Exert caution if a person asks for money or implies they need financial assistance. Ask a trusted friend or family member what they think about the situation; they will have a more objective perspective.
- Never share info that can be used for identity theft or other types of fraud. Closely guard important information such as your passport, Social Security number, and credit cards.