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His profile picture seems intriguing, so you swipe right. On your first date you’re whisked away on a private jet to another country. Soon you are crisscrossing the globe, staying in five-star hotels and being lavished with expensive gifts. It makes sense, after all: Your new boyfriend is Simon Leviev, son of Lev Leviev, the Russian-Israeli diamond tycoon. Plus, he is a pretty great boyfriend, sending you a steady stream of texts and voice notes, flying across Europe to take you to coffee when you say you are having a bad day. Then he texts you that his accounts have been frozen and his “enemies are after him.” So you lend him a little cash, then a lot, and suddenly you are taking out loans and draining your savings while he promises to pay you back. This is the story of the women featured in the new Netflix documentary The Tinder Swindler about an Israeli man, originally from the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, who defrauded more than $10 million from women he met over the popular dating app.
It turns out the facts in the documentary are only the tip of the iceberg. Simon Leviev, aka Shimon Hayut, has been accused of committing various frauds inside and outside of Israel and is still living a lavish lifestyle that, until recently, he meticulously documented on Instagram.
Yesterday, I called up Uri Blau, the famed Israeli investigative reporter, to talk about Hayut. Blau usually writes about political corruption and national security issues, and he first heard about Hayut when reporters from the Norwegian tabloid VG contacted him. Hayut had been imprisoned in Finland in 2015 for defrauding women, and the outlet was investigating if Hayut was continuing to do so. Blau, who makes a cameo appearance in the Netflix documentary but was not involved in the production, soon discovered that technically Hayut was not pretending to be Simon Leviev because he had legally changed his name, shoring up his false credentials. “Up until that point, we were all under the impression Leviev was a fake name, but it was key that he actually changed his name and the Interior Ministry of Israel issued him a new ID and passport,” Blau tells me. (Blau wrote about Hayut for Haaretz in 2019.)
It turns out Hayut was born to an ultra-Orthodox family living in a modest apartment in Bnei Brak. His father is Yohanan Hayut, the chief rabbi of El Al airlines (who knew El Al had a chief rabbi?). Blau went to the apartment Hayut’s family lived in as well as the yeshiva he attended as a child. “It was striking to see the gap between how he grew up” and the hedonistic lifestyle he then adopted, says Blau.
While the documentary focuses on Hayut’s romantic deceptions, Blau says, “He’s been involved in monkey business from a young age.” This includes stealing checks from a family he was babysitting for (for which he was convicted) and, according to VG reporting, stealing $42,000 from a family he visited in New York as a teenager. The Israeli media has also reported allegations of fraud committed with his father. Blau spoke with many people who had been taken in by Hayut. “In particular I remember one real estate mogul who was a savvy guy–you would never think he could be fooled—and I said to him, ‘I don’t understand how this happened to you,’” says Blau. “He told me, ‘You don’t understand, he showed me his ID that he was the son of Leviev, so I believed him.’”
In 2011, Hayut was indicted on fraud charges but fled Israel before sentencing. After serving time in Finland, he was returned to Israel in 2017 but fled again to avoid sentencing for the previous fraud charges. It was during this period that the events of the documentary take place, when he was dating and scamming European women. In 2019, Hayut was arrested by Greek police and extradited to Israel and sentenced to 15 months in prison. (This was for the original 2011 charges—he has never been prosecuted for his “Tinder cons.”) Hayut was released after five months, and as reported in the documentary and other outlets, he has resumed his lavish lifestyle with expensive sports cars and designer clothes and is reportedly dating an Israeli model. “He’s a convicted felon but he is smart enough to turn that into a persona,” says Blau. “He knows how to market himself well and has created a narrative that works well in the era we are living in. These days it doesn’t matter if you are good or bad; if you are famous, people want to be around you.”
With the Winter olympics currently taking in Beijing, it’s worth revisiting Tom Gjelten’s masterful piece examining America’s muted response to China’s repression of the Uyghur people and its disturbing similarities to the American—and international—failure to challenge Nazi actions against the Jews in the 1930s. Also this week, a plan for an Israeli-Palestinian confederation is being presented to Biden administration officials and the United Nations. Letty Cottin Pogrebin discussed this approach to solving the conflict in her spring column. And with Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s accusation yesterday of Nancy Pelosi having a “Gazpacho police,” I recommend reading this issue’s cover story on the state of Holocaust education in America.