Q&A: How the Tinder Swindler reporters broke the story

The Tinder Swindler, on Netflix, is a gripping documentary feature about Shimon Hayut, an accused Israeli con man who, the film alleges, posed as a billionaire diamond dealer’s son, enticed women on the dating app across Europe, invited them to join in on his lavish lifestyle of private jets and island vacations, and eventually manipulated them into giving him a total of more than $10 million. 

The film, directed by Don’t Fuck with Cats producer Felicity Morris, was an instant sensation. But its backbone is shoe-leather journalism: a months-long investigation by Erlend Ofte Arntsen, Natalie Remøe Hansen, and Kristoffer Kumar, published in 2019 in Verdens Gang, Norway’s largest newspaper.

The reporters first got the tip from Cecilie Fjellhøy, one of the women who alleges Hayut defrauded her. They pored through the couple’s WhatsApp archives, tracked down Hayut’s public records in multiple countries, and flew to Israel and Germany to verify details. 

The story they produced is sharp and inventive. While social media sleuthing has become its own kind of pop culture genre, the three did the kind of work that journalists and news organizations do best. CJR spoke with the VG team to discuss their work. The following has been edited for clarity. 

 

When you first received the tip about Simon, what did you think? What made you decide to pursue the story?

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Erlend Ofte Arntsen: The first thing that happened was that Cecilie reached out to us in June 2018. It was just a simple email, but full of pretty interesting words: private jets, luxury hotels, the son of a billionaire who scammed her. And she was able to give us two massively important troves of documents, her WhatsApp history and her credit card statements. 

Natalie Remøe Hansen: Yeah, the entire relationship between Cecilie and Simon was documented every day, every minute, for months. We would be able to tell the story as if it were unfolding in real time—the format and layout of the audio clips and messages along with the reporting—which was incredible. We could make the reader really feel what Cecilie was feeling, and truly understand what happened to her and why. 

Kristoffer Kumar: This was a good story we could tell through good journalism. It checked all the boxes: good story, solid documentation, lots of visual elements. And Cecilie was a great source. She was really communicative in an extremely good way.

 

It’s always so important to cultivate trust with a source, especially for something that’s intimate and sensitive. What was that process like with Cecilie and the other women? 

Remøe Hansen: I think it meant a lot to Cecilie that we had good control over her story. We had read the material thoroughly and had really invested time in listening to what she was telling us. She’s from Norway, so she knew about VG, which is a big newspaper. But it was important for us and her to not rush anything; we took as much time as we needed, and let her review before we published.

Ofte Arntsen: Generally speaking, working on such a sensitive story for a period of one year of course led us to have discussions about everything, what’s confidential, what’s not. They were all really understanding of the importance of getting all the facts straight, getting the picture right.

 

What about safety precautions? There were moments in the story when things could have taken a turn, like when Pernilla confronted Simon in the parking garage. How did you plan for those?

Ofte Arntsen: The night before Pernilla [Sjöholm] decided she wanted to fly to Munich to meet Simon, we were very concerned, as journalists. She was very adamant and 100 percent sure she wanted to go through with it. At that point, you don’t want to make decisions for anyone else. So I was totally hands off. We decided to go with her, discussed everything with our bosses, and so on. We knew we would do everything possible to make sure we avoid unsafe situations. 

Remøe Hansen: I was texting with Pernilla all day, the day we were in Munich. She named me on her phone as someone else so in case Simon read it, he wouldn’t understand anything. And we had a constant dialogue going throughout the day. We tracked her location. So when it was time for them to go to dinner, we followed closely and kept track. 

Kumar: We were really excited, because this was the first time that we’d be able to see this guy in person. And, of course, we had a lot of footage of Simon from the material we got from Cecilie’s phone. But it was really important for us to capture footage of him on our own, for our story. And it was also very important for us just to see how he was in real life, and whether this image matched who he was from the photos that we’ve seen before. So we took all the precautions that night in the parking garage, but I think I felt safe. We all were careful.

 

When the story broke on VG, what reaction were you—and the women—hoping for? What were you expecting? 

Remøe Hansen: I think with a story like this, you have to try and make people understand what kind of situation these women were in. We use a lot of time talking about Simon as a nice person. We don’t flatly say he’s a criminal or that the women were naive—we want to make people understand how they fell for him, how they could possibly give away such a big amount of money. We told them they’d get both good and bad comments, and they were prepared.

Ofte Arntsen: It was a big point for us before publication that we specifically talk about reactions on social media. They could be called certain things. Now the story will be out there, and it’s always raining cats and dogs on social media. How do you prepare for something like that? How would the world react? 

Remøe Hansen: After we published in 2019, the story did get a lot of attention. Much more than we were used to. We chose to publish in English as well as Norwegian because we expected that there would be more victims, at least all over Europe. And we did get lots of emails and phone calls, because back then Simon was still at large. We also got a lot of calls from production companies who wanted to make this documentary. But that decision was entirely up to Cecilie and Pernilla.

 

And now that the Netflix documentary has blown up, it’s getting much more attention again, two years later. This genre of online catfish scams and internet true crime is becoming increasingly popular. Is it fair to say this story is first and foremost a journalistic endeavor?

Kumar: I think this story stood out because of how crazy it all was. It also got a lot of recognition because it was told in a way that dragged the reader into it. It happened on a mobile phone, and the viewer experiences it through the mobile phone. This could actually happen to anyone, you know—a guy that you were in love with keeps sending you these messages, voice messages, or videos, constantly. Stories about crooks are often told in black or white, in movies as well as in traditional journalism. This was a story that was different from both.

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Paroma Soni is a CJR fellow.

TOP IMAGE: Felicity Morris, Bernie Higgins, Cecilie Fjellhøy and Pernilla Sjoholm attend a special UK screening of 'The Tinder Swindler', ahead of its launch. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Netflix)