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Modern romance: swipe right, swipe left

Finding love on dating apps is fun and easy, just don’t get catfished by the Tinder Swindler.

Shimon Hayut allegedly met women on Tinder before swindling them for millions of dollars after catfishing them into believing his name was 'Simon Leviev'.
Shimon Hayut allegedly met women on Tinder before swindling them for millions of dollars after catfishing them into believing his name was 'Simon Leviev'.
Image: Instagram

“Send money now, my enemies are after me.” This is Simon Leviev’s now-infamous refrain in Netflix’s viral true-crime documentary The Tinder Swindler. It chronicles several women’s attempts to bring to justice the alleged Israeli con artist accused of using dating app Tinder to catfish women and swindle them out of millions of dollars.

His ruse, as it unfolds in the documentary, was simple — he’d match with women under the name Simon Leviev (his birth name is Shimon Yehuda Hayut). Falsely claiming to be the son of Israeli diamond tycoon Lev Leviev, he would present a fictitious life of opulence — funded with money he’d siphoned from other women he had emotionally manipulated.

The same tactic was used over and over again with little variation over a number of years. It’s a truly shocking portrayal of the potential dangers of online dating, and a sobering reminder to practise extreme caution.

I remember vividly when I started using Tinder, towards the end of 2018. After having been single for months, I grew tired of cuddling my pillow and decided that it was time to test the market. Since I was knee-deep in work and other interests at the time, I figured dating online was my best bet. I appreciated the convenience of scrolling through a bunch of potentials and handpicking which ones I was interested in. 

The first girl I genuinely pursued was Zama, a third-year law student at Wits university. Zama was beautiful, intelligent, ambitious, and engaging, all qualities that appealed to me. After a few days of free-flowing conversations on the app, I found out she lived close to where I worked, so I decided to ask her if I could say hello on my way home. She agreed. When I arrived she met me outside, and I was blown away by how much more beautiful she was in person. What a score.

We stood outside and spoke for a few delightful minutes. On my way home I felt a sense of victory — I’d found a beauty who also had brains. This Tinder thing was actually working. Zama and I would go on to date for a few months in which we had some really great experiences together. By the time we stopped seeing each other, my confidence had skyrocketed. I went back on Tinder and frequently found myself matching with some gorgeous women. Then I got into a serious relationship (not through Tinder) and left the app.

Now that I’m single again, I sometimes tentatively go on the app to see what’s out there. I’m looking for a serious relationship again and have considered trying out the other popular dating apps — Hinge, Bumble, and Grindr. I recently spoke to a female friend, a 27-year-old writer and epidemiologist who has used these apps, to get a sense of her experiences.

“Hinge has probably been my favourite out of the three,” she says. “It has a lot more substance in terms of what is required to be in your bio versus Tinder, where you can say very little and even nothing at all, which can be difficult to navigate because you are dependent on whatever this person says to swipe left or swipe right.

“So, what I really liked about Hinge, more so than Tinder and Bumble, is that it felt a lot more substantial in terms of the inputs that you have to provide — the bios, for example, are more detailed, asking for [input] that will help you decide if you want to explore anything with this person. Things like ‘Do you want to have children’, ‘Do you already have children’, ‘What are your political affiliations’, ‘Do you drink or take drugs’, etc.”

One of my male friends, a 28-year-old car salesman, has used Tinder and Hinge occasionally, with mixed results. He seems to share the same perspective on the thoroughness of Hinge, but prefers the casual nature of Tinder.

“Hinge feels way more formal. Tinder feels very casual — it feels ratchet, in a way. In terms of what I’d come across, you’d get a very mixed bag of women,” he says.

“Hinge feels very formal in the sense that I need to take time to get to know you and chat with you before we can jump to meeting, for example. With Tinder, although you do also at times find people who want to buy time and get to know you, it just feels much easier to find the opportunity to interact with women who are open to meeting for drinks almost off the bat, come over to your place or whatever.”

There are several other apps available in South Africa, such as Badoo and OkCupid, as well as lesbian, bi and queer dating app Her. Online dating has grown exponentially over the past 10 years.

Couples Help relationship coach and therapist Louis Venter explains this boom: “Most people who are not married by the age of 24 are working. Our chances to go to places to meet people are few and far between, so online dating creates a space where you can meet a thousand people in a few swipes.

“You create a profile and hobbies, what you like and don’t like, so it takes a lot off the table, for example going on a date with someone who likes horse riding when you hate horses. You can eliminate that and improve your chances of meeting people in the pool that you’d naturally be drawn towards.”

Leah Sefor, a life and relationship coach, agrees. “Technology runs our lives, and it’s easier and cheaper than having to go on endless first dates only to find out there’s no connection or chemistry,” she said.

“Online is safe and convenient — you can do it from your couch and take time to get to know the person before committing to meeting them in person. It also allows socially shy people to connect without anxiety, and you can be specific about what you’re looking for from a huge pool of potentials. The pandemic didn’t give us much choice with dating in person, so online dating continues to be the most popular way to meet someone new.”

Curious about the likelihood of finding a long-term partner through online dating, I ask Sefor if it is common for people to find enduring love on these apps.

"The statistics are impressive, with one in five marriages now starting with online dating. They are less likely to end within the first year compared to traditional relationships, and the divorce rates in general are significantly lower than for other marriages,” Sefor says.

“A lot more personal information is gathered — through profiles/questionnaires — in a much quicker time frame, so the emotional intimacy with online connections gets deeper quicker.

“This creates a strong bond and a solid foundation to build upon very early on. I’ve seen many successful couples in my practice over the years — they usually have a level of honesty with each other that’s much deeper than with the traditional couples I see.”

With The Tinder Swindler raising concerns about the safety of online dating, Sefor emphasises that the key is to be alert. I ask her how much of an impact loneliness can have on people’s likelihood of falling for fraudulent schemes such as those employed by Leviev.

“Loneliness or a need to fill an emotional void can always affect our ability to spot red-flag behaviour. You become so desperate to find a partner that you’ll lower your standards, blur your boundaries, and put up with lousy behaviour, because you rationalise that it’s better than being alone,” Sefor says.

“This is where it becomes dangerous, because the other person will realise this and start to manipulate you. Don’t rush. Take your time. Even if you have an amazing connection instantly, don’t over-share really personal things or divulge intimate details about yourself until you’ve at least met the person in real life.”

Venter adds maintaining a healthy relationship resulting from online dating comes with the usual challenges, because eventually it’ll need to translate into a real-life experience.

“It’s about whether the two people have love competencies. It’s not so much about whether you met online or in real life — it’s what you do after that,” Venter says.

“So, online dating helps you to find love, but [maintaining] the love is a challenge for all couples… All couples will eventually have the same conflict, intimacy, and vulnerability challenges.”

There was a time when online dating was frowned upon and something many chose to do discreetly. Now, with millennials having entered dating spaces and digital communication having become such a big part of our lives, online dating has become normal. It can be daunting at first, but, as writer Lane Moore wrote in a piece for Cosmopolitan, “Like sex, it’s horrible at first, but then it gets better.”