How to avoid falling for a Tinder swindler or a fake German heiress

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Globally, both stories are grabbing huge audiences. “The Tinder Swindler” was Netflix’s second-most popular film and “Inventing Anna” was the most-watched TV show from Feb. 21 to 28, according to the streaming platform. Having served two years in Finnish prison, Hayut is now trying to profit off his infamy: According to Entertainment Tonight, he’s joined Cameo, a platform where users can pay celebrities to appear in video messages, and has signed with a talent manager.

Both stories are painful and juicy to watch. And although the signs of a scam may be obvious in hindsight, they’re harder to spot as they’re unfolding. We spoke to a therapist, matchmaker, a finance professor and an expert in information systems about how these con artists operate — and how to spot their red flags in real time.

It’s easier to fall for these schemes than you might think.

Long before any money is exchanged, scams like Hayut’s begin on the emotional level. “The con is making someone feel wanted,” says Joanne Frederick, a mental health counselor in Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately, romance scams are common. Victims of romance fraud lost $1 billion in 2021, according to the FBI. “While anyone can be a victim of this fraud, the bad actors are known to target women over age 40 who are widowed, divorced, elderly, and/or disabled,” the FBI said in a news release last month.

The women portrayed in “The Tinder Swindler,” however, were in their 20s and 30s. Erika Kaplan, a senior matchmaker and vice president of membership at Three Day Rule, says it’s easy to fall for these scams in part because so many people on dating apps are passive. It’s common to get matches that lead to no conversation, or conversations that never lead to in-person meetings. So if a dater finds someone who comes on strong and acts like they want them in their life, “it’s really in stark contrast to what you’re used to,” Kaplan says. Instead of assuming this interaction is fake, “you want to believe that you manifested it,” Kaplan says. “You want to believe so badly that you found the diamond in the rough.”

“Master manipulators can be really persuasive simply by being who someone wants them to be,” Kaplan notes.

And many people on dating apps are looking out for love more than looking out for scammers.

The first of Hayut’s victims that viewers meet in “The Tinder Swindler” is cast as a believer in the Disney fairy tale, exactly the kind of person primed to trust that grand romantic gestures — like whisking someone away on a private jet on a first date — are genuine. Confirmation bias, or the tendency to interpret information in ways that align with a person’s existing beliefs, is a powerful force. “If you want to see something as true, you’ll see it as true,” says Jui Ramaprasad, an associate professor of information systems at the University of Maryland’s business school. “These people wanted to find love, and this guy played into that.”

Often, Ramaprasad continues, scammers are able to identify someone’s vulnerabilities. In the case of the Tinder Swindler, that was women seeking love. With “Inventing Anna,” Sorokin’s friends wanted to be part of the glamorous life she led — the dinners, the parties, the clothes. They wanted to believe it was real.

When someone uses a tech platform a lot, they start to trust it.

At the beginning of “The Tinder Swindler,” Cecilie Fjellhoy talks about how she loves dating. Even after her story unfolds, in which she claims Hayut defrauded her out of $200,000, she admits to going back on Tinder. While that may sound unbelievable and perhaps ill-advised, Ramaprasad, the University of Maryland professor who specializes in online dating sites and apps, notes that, over time, people gain trust in a platform, “whether or not the platform has trust mechanisms” built in.

“These are women who say they want a relationship,” Ramaprasad says, and since Hayut is “giving them this fairy tale relationship, it’s really hard to separate logic from emotion.”

That Hayut was jet-setting all over Europe made it easier for him to pull off such a scam. “Online, he could do this at scale,” Ramaprasad says. “He could do this with multiple women across different geographies where those women weren’t communicating with one another.” By contrast, a jerk dating in one small area will eventually get a reputation.

The con often starts small.

“They don’t start with asking for money. They start with making you privileged to know them,” says Jaime Peters, assistant dean and assistant professor of finance at Maryville University in St. Louis. They’ll start by paying for things, establishing the notion that they can afford a certain lifestyle. Fjellhoy and Hayut dated for over a month before he asked her to take out a credit card in her name that he would then max out. And “Inventing Anna” shows the main character paying for expensive dinners and personal training sessions before allowing a friend to put down her credit card for their high-priced villa in Morocco.

Intense interest, right off the bat, is a red flag.

Early on, Fjellhoy describes Hayut’s magnetism and how she felt she’d known him for years after just their first date. While it might feel romantic when someone comes on strong, quickly — especially on a platform like Tinder where silence and passivity are so common — such love-bombing is a red flag, says Kaplan, the matchmaker. “Someone who’s really overtly showering someone else with constant flattery, constant attention … making really inappropriately quick plans for the future, ultimately it’s really just this person manipulating a very fixed environment,” Kaplan says. “It’s often people who have really narcissist tendencies or are severely insecure. They like the idea of holding a lot of people’s attention at once. It’s really a form of control and manipulation.”

If someone says “I love you,” or “you’re the best person I’ve ever met” — or makes big promises like moving in together, getting married or having children — and you’ve only been dating for weeks, Frederick, the therapist, tells clients to slow down. She suggests giving a new relationship three months before trusting the intense expressions of devotion, like a 90-day relationship probation. In three months, Frederick says, you should see whether these proclamations are genuine. And if things are moving too fast, say so. Someone who respects you will listen and adjust. “If they keep pushing, avoid that person,” Frederick says, and move on.

Look out for drama. And wild swings in personality.

Beyond grandiose promises, also beware of someone who lets you into their troubles too soon. “Inappropriately placed vulnerability — they’re telling you about their financial woes, health woes and everything else,” is a red flag, says Kaplan the matchmaker. For Hayut, this would be the fearmongering over his “enemies.” Rather than coming right out with all of their troubles, self-disclosure about someone’s personal problems should be like a table-tennis match, Kaplan says, where “they gave a little and you gave a little, and you’re both on an even playing field.” In “The Tinder Swindler,” we don’t see Hayut asking much about his girlfriends’ lives. “He showed no real interest in who they really were,” Kaplan notes. “The only thing he was interested in was their interest in him.”

And then, if a love interest or a trusted friend doesn’t behave the way a swindler expected? They lash out. Cue Hayut yelling at his girlfriends when they don’t send the money he asks for, or Delvey’s character (played by Julia Garner) yelling at her boyfriend when he lies about being in Berlin and fails to answer the phone. Such unstable displays of emotion, Frederick says, can be scary, and the perpetrator may resort to guilt trips. “They may threaten ‘I’m going harm myself. I’ll kill myself since you don’t you want to be with me,’” Frederick finds.

Before lending money to someone, get it in writing and request collateral.

At first, the request for financial help might be small, like a credit card malfunctioning once. “They always have a reasonable explanation of why it’s happening. Because you’ve built up a level of trust and romantic feeling, a lot of people do not see this coming,” says Peters, the assistant professor of finance. However, “it is never a good idea to loan or sign for items that you could not afford on your own,” Peters says, adding that open-ended requests for money — like opening a credit card in your name — are dangerous. That’s different than asking for a fixed amount. If you’re going to give a friend or a partner a loan, Peters advises putting an agreement in writing and getting collateral, like the deed to the person’s car. That way, “if something does go bad, you have something in writing to help prove your situation if you had to seek legal remedy.”

Friends may spot the red flags you miss.

On Fjellhoy’s first date with Hayut, she texted her friends to say she was hopping on a private jet with him to Bulgaria. Her friends reacted in disbelief and at least one said this didn’t sound safe, that she could be abducted. In “Inventing Anna,” Neff’s boyfriend raises alarms about Sorokin after she leaves the hotel worker with a hefty dinner bill, though Neff (played by Alexis Floyd) shrugs it off. (In the show, Sorokin later pays Neff back, but her boyfriend was rightly suspicious.) Listen to your friends and family if they raise alarms about a relationship moving too quickly, Frederick says. “Friends and family may see red flags that you don’t see.”



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