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Exclusive: Netflix’s Tinder Swindler Stars Tell Women’s Transformation From Victim To Inspiration

DUBAI: Swipe left. At least that’s what many undecided Tinder users may have done after the notorious case of the dating app scammer dubbed the “Tinder Swindler” was exposed in an explosive Netflix docu-drama earlier this year. year.

Despite being defrauded by the scammer, Norwegian TV personality Cecilie Fjellhoy and Swedish business owner Pernilla Sjoholm are fighting back by talking about their experience.

The women will appear at a special keynote address titled “When Women Fight Back” at the Arab Women’s Forum, hosted in partnership with Arab News, at Palazzo Versace Dubai on May 17.

“It was very traumatic,” Sjoholm told Arab News, recalling his experience before Tuesday’s appearance at the forum. “It wasn’t just about the money you lost. You lost the way you saw yourself, how you saw everything.

“I used to think of fraud like, ‘Oh my God, who’s being cheated? You must be of lower intelligence or something. And I’m very embarrassed to say it today, because of what I lost.

“I was 31 years old and it was not how I would have imagined my life. To lose everything. You also lose your soul.

Based on an expose by Verdens Gang, a Norwegian tabloid known by the abbreviation VG, the program unearthed the story of Israeli national Shimon Hayut, who allegedly posed on the dating app Tinder as Simon Leviev, claiming to be the son of a diamond tycoon. .

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

According to reports, Hayut followed a pattern. After meeting unsuspecting women on Tinder, he would take them on a lavish first date and slowly build a relationship, all the while dating other women.

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

Eventually, the fraudster would confide in them that a group of nefarious “enemies” were after him, persuading the women to send him money, on the understanding that he would pay them back quickly.

After a shrewd counter-scam by a woman, Ayleen Koeleman, who had been alerted to the scam by the exhibit in VG, 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 for crimes related to Fjellhoy and Sjoholm and denies their allegations of fraud.

And the story does not end there. In a shocking twist, Hayut is now pursuing a career in Hollywood, while the women he targeted remain in debt to this day.

“We were very disappointed,” Sjoholm said. “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 an estimated $10 million from women around the world. (Shutterstock)

“We don’t think they handled this case properly and should have. And, unfortunately, this is how it happens in many cases of fraud. I mean, I just know the numbers in Sweden. They drop 96% of all cases they receive because they have too many.

Instead of indulging in a victim’s life, Sjoholm and Fjellhoy work to inspire women around the world to identify and fight romance scams.

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

“Because it’s so common for scammers to get away with it because people are afraid to share their story. So I know we’ve helped a lot of people and hopefully we’ll help a lot too in the future.

According to Action Fraud, the UK’s national fraud and cybercrime reporting centre, the majority of romance fraud victims are women. Sjoholm believes women are specifically targeted for their perceived emotional vulnerabilities.

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

The Tinder Swindler case has raised many questions about how responsible dating apps should be for romance scams and what more they could do to protect users.

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

“I feel like doing proper identity checks so that I can’t fish someone, for example. We see they have it, but I feel like the fraud is way bigger than what’s happening on the dating app. They keep you away from the dating app. This is just one of many avenues used by fraudsters.

Beyond dating apps bolstering their protections, there have also been calls to improve awareness in schools so young people are better equipped to spot catfishing – the use of fake accounts to lure victims – and romance scams.

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

“Some people don’t have empathy, there are psychopaths and narcissists who will take advantage of your empathy and that kind of stuff. But I think it’s important not to put too much emphasis on us in as victims too.

Indeed, there is a risk of victim-blaming if the responsibility for spotting scammers lies with users, when it should be the responsibility of cracking down on fraudsters.

“We haven’t done anything wrong here,” Fjellhoy said. “And fraud will always happen. But, when fraud 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 an effort to influence or manipulate it.

However, Sjoholm thinks the very nature of social media makes it difficult to determine the truth about someone. “When it comes to social media, it’s all about everyone wanting to show their best side,” she said.

“Everyone wants to show the good sides. When it comes to social media, I would say 95% is just fraud in general. »

The mental health repercussions of dating fraud cannot be underestimated, as victims grapple with both the financial fallout and an intense sense of shame. “In terms of your mental health when you realize you’ve been defrauded, I think for me why I felt so low that I ended up in a psychiatric ward is that nobody took you seriously,” Fjellhoy said.

“And I feel like, for example, you go to the police and they push you away. And I tried to contact the banks and they were like, ‘Well, you still have to pay back the loans.’ And you’re still mentally weak. It’s twofold – emotional and economic. You see no way out.

Following her ordeal, Fjellhoy established the Action Reaction Foundation to focus on survivors’ mental health issues and push for stronger laws and victim protection policies.

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

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

“I can still socialize. I can meet new people, but I have a hard time really talking to people. I don’t want to take away the trust. You should trust people, you should help people, because that’s what makes this world a better place. But, of course, it was a huge trauma.

For Fjellhoy, it is also about having faith in the system to protect victims and take their claims seriously.

“That the police will be there to protect you, that if you go to the bank and say you’re being defrauded, you can get some peace and quiet to figure things out, that they’ll give us this,” Fjellhoy said.

“Just so many things that could have made everything that happened a lot easier afterwards, which would have made the fight easier.”

For others who have been victims of romance scams, Fjellhoy’s advice is to speak up.

“Please report it to the police no matter what,” she said. “We know it didn’t go our way. But they need to be aware of all the cases in order to see their true magnitude.

“Please report it.”

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