The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Swindle and scam culture are fueled by desires for clout

Ayleen Charlotte in "The Tinder Swindler." Photo courtesy of Netflix/TNS.

If you’re like me and spent the weekend procrastinating, you had time to binge watch “The Tinder Swindler” and “Inventing Anna” — two of Netflix’s latest original content releases this month. 

Though one is technically a series drama, both recount the real-life lies of individuals that swindled and scammed their way into hundreds of thousands of dollars by pretending to be rich themselves. What’s even more shocking about the fraud this documentary and series narrativize is how it maps onto society’s obsession with having status and wealth  — even if it’s artificial. 

“The Tinder Swindler'' documents the alleged activities of Shimon Hayut, an Israeli man who used Tinder to meet women and use them to fund his very lavish lifestyle. Hayut was convicted of fraud in Finland before he changed his name to Simon Leviev and continued his scheme as the supposed heir to his father’s diamond business. 

Hayut’s plan included impressing women he met on Tinder with a luxurious first date, including a getaway on a private jet, and maintaining the relationship while also traveling for “business” and dating other women. 

The true scam began when Hayut became the victim of a series of attacks and threats from a nefarious and anonymous “enemy” that, for security reasons, triggered issues with his credit cards. One of his girlfriends, worried for his safety, would open a new credit card for him in her name, even taking out loans to cover last-minute flights for him and his team. 

It’s estimated he stole about $10 million from these women. He was finally caught and arrested in 2019, when one of his victims and long-term girlfriends worked with the authorities to locate him. 

“Inventing Anna” outlines a similar story of deception. Created by Shonda Rhimes and her company Shondaland, as part of her multi-year $100 million deal with Netflix, the series' nine episodes are told from the perspective of journalist Vivian Kent, a character inspired by Jessica Pressler who first broke the story of the activities of Anna Delvey in New York Magazine in 2018. 

Anna Delvey, born Anna Sorokin, was a young Russian woman who convinced members of the New York elite that she was a German heiress worth $60 million. In her attempt to secure funding for a members-only art club in Manhattan, Delvey charmed and befriended the upper echelons of New York’s social scene. All the while, she skipped hotel and restaurant bills, ran off in a private jet and stole money from banks. 

While staying and dining at various hotels in the city, Delvey made charges to her room and cited credit card issues when it was time to pay up. Her banking scam helped cover her lifestyle and reputation as the impeccably dressed friend that always got the bill. After being left with the $62,000 bill for flights, dining, shopping and a hotel stay on a trip to Marrakesh with Delvey, a friend cooperated with law enforcement to arrest her. 

In 2017, Anna Sorokin was indicted on two counts of attempted grand larceny in the second degree, one count of larceny in the third degree and one count of misdemeanor theft of service. In total, Sorokin scammed $275,000. She was found guilty on all but two of the charges. 

Hayut and Sorokin scammed others for money under the guise of already being wealthy. Because they both took their friends and partners on lavish trips and paid expensive dinner bills, they built a reputation of wealth. Despite sketchy claims of credit card and bank issues, they evaded suspicion for years. 

While the involved friends and romantic or business partners are surely victims, they were lured into this web of deceit by the glitz and glamor of Anna's life. The trap highlights the ugliest part of our society, which overemphasizes material things and status. 

Although it's easy to feel superior to those who fell for it, it could happen to any one of us too. 

Social media does not often function as a mirror of our lives, but as a means to project a false or perhaps more exaggerated and curated version. As social media influencing continues to grow as a multi-billion dollar industry, it simply pays to have people invested in your life. 

Influencer or not, social media serves to brand ourselves. The traveler. The art lover. The animal enthusiast. The gym rat. The German heiress. The “Prince of Diamonds” (as Hayut called himself). 

For Hayut and Sorokin, social media legitimized their lifestyle to others. The women who dated Hayut spoke about googling him after they’d matched, and the yachts, designer clothes and trips around the world on private planes. It painted a picture of him before they even met. Instagram is also used as a motif in “Inventing Anna,” not only to figure out who Anna Delvey was acquainted with, but by Anna herself to maintain the façade. 

Faking it until you make it online is as easy as buying followers, staging content at mansions or on private planes or lying about brand sponsorships. It costs money, but might just work. Sorokin and Hayut are examples showing that people flock to you when you have an attractive and opulent lifestyle. 

The more recent #SurvivingSophia phenomenon shows just how easy it can be to use connections and name-dropping to get others to buy into the lies you tell. 

Sophia Nur is a 24-year-old woman who managed to infiltrate and shake up the L.A. influencer scene, similar to our other imposters. Originally from Canada, Nur, lacking in industry connections, managed to convince people that she worked in public relations, was friends with popular influencers and was in a relationship with Jack Harlow. She allegedly had flights and restaurant bills paid for by unsuspecting new friends and acquaintances, promising to reimburse them, but never actually doing it. 

Nur managed to work her way backstage at events, concerts and afterparties and into the social circles of influencers like Rickey Thompson, Denzel Dion, Olivia O’Brien and Suzy Antonyan. 

While Sophia Nur’s ruse was not as thorough as the other schemes covered in “The Tinder Swindler” and “Inventing Anna”, the premise was the same. And it’s troublesome how easy it was and how far they were all able to go. 

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

It’s clear that scamming can pay off in more ways than one. Netflix paid Anna Sorokin $320,000 for the rights to her story. A portion of the payment was used for restitution to the bank and state fines, but the remainder was unfrozen for Sorokin’s discretion as she was released from prison and awaiting deportation. 

While Simon Leviev denies the serial fraud outlined in the documentary and was not paid by Netflix, he did sign with a talent manager and aspires to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. He plans to leverage his side of the story to start a podcast, write a book or, ironically, host a dating show. 

I anticipate a documentary based on him, or Sophia Nur, in the future. 

It’s fair to say we all don’t live exactly how it looks like we do on social media, but the lengths one could go to lie is astounding. Equally alarming is how alluring a life of luxury and status can be. It may be impossible to know the reality of what we see online, but our collective obsession with people with nice things enables this kind of deception. 

The “Tinder Swindler” and Anna Delvey demonstrate that people are willing to believe a lie if it’s covered in designer clothing, desperate for a luxurious life — even if it’s superficial.