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EXCLUSIVE: Netflix’s Tinder Swindler stars share their transformation from victim to inspiration for women

DUBAI: Just swipe left. At least, that’s what many undecided Tinder users have been doing after the infamous case of the dating app scammer known as “Tinder Swindler” was exposed in a explosive Netflix docu-drama earlier this year.

Despite being scammed by the scammer, Norwegian TV personality Cecilie Fjellhoy and Swedish business owner Pernilla Sjoholm hit back by sharing their experiences.

The women will appear in a special keynote address entitled “When women fight back” at the Arab Women Forum, being held in partnership with Arab News on May 17 at the Palazzo Versace Dubai.

“It was very traumatic,” Sjoholm told Arab News, reflecting on her experience ahead of Tuesday’s forum appearance. “It wasn’t just about the lost money. You’ve lost the way you saw yourself, the way you saw everything.

“I used to think about cheating like, ‘Oh my god, who’s getting cheated? You must be of lower intelligence or something.’ And I’m very embarrassed to say that today because of what I’ve lost.

“I was 31 years old and it wasn’t how I imagined my life to be. to lose everything You lose your soul too.”

Based on a revelation by Verdens Gang, a Norwegian tabloid known by the acronym VG, the program uncovered the story of Israeli citizen Shimon Hayut, who allegedly posed as Simon Leviev on dating app Tinder and claimed the son being a diamond mogul.

Hayut notoriously charmed women and persuaded them to lend him money, slaying an estimated $10 million from people around the world.

Hayut reportedly followed a pattern. After hooking up with unsuspecting women on Tinder, he took them on a lavish first date and slowly built a relationship while hooking up with other women.

Israeli citizen Shimon Hayut used the Tinder app to scam unsuspecting victims.

Eventually the scammer would confide in them that a number of nefarious “enemies” were after him and would persuade the women to send him money provided he would repay them quickly.

After a sophisticated counter-scam by a woman, Ayleen Koeleman, who had been alerted to the scam by the VG exposure, Hayut was arrested in 2019 and sentenced to 15 months in prison for fraud in Israel.

However, Hayut only served five months behind bars before being released. He has never been charged with crimes related to Fjellhoy and Sjoholm and denies their allegations of fraud.

And the story doesn’t end here. In a shocking twist, Hayut is now pursuing a Hollywood career while the women he targeted remain in debt to this day.

“We were very disappointed,” said Sjoholm. “Unfortunately, there is no extradition from Israel to Europe. So he’s still there.

From 2017 to 2019, Shimon Hayut used the dating app Tinder to scam about $10 million from women around the world. (Shutterstock)

“We don’t think they handled this case properly and should have. And that is unfortunately the case in many cases of fraud. I mean, I only know the numbers in Sweden. They drop 96 percent of cases because they have too much.”

Rather than surrendering to a life of sacrifice, both Sjoholm and Fjellhoy work to inspire women around the world to recognize and stand up to love betrayals.

“We’ve talked a lot about the shame that surrounds cheating and I think it’s so important to stand up and say this can happen to anyone,” Sjoholm said.

“Because it’s so common for scammers to get away with cheating because people are afraid to share their story. So I definitely know that we have helped a lot of people and hopefully will continue to help a lot of people in the future.”

According to Action Fraud, the UK’s national fraud and cybercrime reporting agency, most victims of love scams are women. Sjoholm believes that women are specifically targeted for their perceived emotional vulnerability.

“I think we women are more emotional people,” she said. “These scammers work with emotions a lot because it’s a form of emotional abuse.”

The Tinder Swindler case has raised many questions about the responsibility dating apps should have for romance scams and what else they can do to protect users.

“I don’t feel that the dating app could have done much in our case,” said Fjellhoy, who also spoke to Arab News ahead of the forum.

“I feel like just doing proper identity checks so you can’t fish anyone, for example. We see they have some, but I have a feeling cheating is a lot bigger than just what’s happening on the dating app. They take you off the dating app. It’s just one of many ways scammers use.”

As well as dating apps tightening their security measures, there have also been calls to raise awareness in schools so young people can better spot catfishing — the use of fake accounts to lure victims — and love scams.

“If you want to educate young people, maybe teach them more about the different types of people that exist in the world,” Fjellhoy said.

“There are some people who don’t have empathy, there are psychopaths and narcissists who will take advantage of your empathy and things like that. But I think it’s important not to overemphasize us as victims.”

Indeed, there is a risk of victim recrimination when the responsibility for catching scammers is placed on users, when the duty should be to take action against scammers.

“We didn’t do anything wrong here,” said Fjellhoy. “And cheating will always happen. But when cheating happens, how can we as a society talk about how to stop it?”

Still, there are several red flags dating app users can watch out for, Sjoholm says, including “love bombing” — the practice of showering someone with attention or affection in order to influence or manipulate them.

However, Sjoholm believes the nature of social media makes it difficult to find out the truth about someone. “When it comes to social media, it’s all about everyone wanting to look their best,” she said.

“Everyone wants to show their good side. When it comes to social media I would say 95 percent is just scams in general.”

The psychological impact of love scams cannot be underestimated as victims deal with both the financial consequences and intense feelings of shame. “In terms of your mental health, if you realize you’ve been betrayed, I think that’s why I felt so down that I ended up in a psychiatric ward because nobody took you seriously,” Fjellhoy said.

“And I have the feeling, for example, that you go to the police and they just turn you away. And I tried to contact the banks and they said to me, ‘Well, you still have to pay off the loans.’ And you’re still mentally down. It’s double – emotionally and economically. You see no way out.”

As a result of her ordeal, Fjellhoy founded the Action Reaction Foundation to focus on the psychological challenges faced by survivors and to advocate for tougher laws and policies to protect victims.

One of the lasting effects of the ordeal is an inability to trust others easily. “I still have issues with confidence,” said Sjoholm.

“I have more good days than bad days. But even on my good days, when someone does something very nice to me, I sometimes feel like there’s a purpose behind it. That someone is there to hurt me.

“I can still socialize. I can meet new people, but I find it very difficult to really talk to people. I don’t want to take the trust. You should trust people, you should help people because that makes this world better. But of course that was an enormous trauma.”

For Fjellhoy, it’s also about having trust in the system to protect victims and take their claims seriously.

“That the police are there to protect you, that if you go to the bank and say you’re being scammed, you can find some peace and quiet to figure things out, that’s what they’re going to give us,” he said Fellhoy.

“Just so many things that could have made everything that happened after that much easier, which would have made the fight easier.”

For others who have been victims of love scams, Fjellhoy advises speaking out.

“Please make a report to the police in any case,” she said. “We know it didn’t go our way. But they need to know about all the cases so they can see how big it actually is.

“Please report it.”

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