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  1. Culture
11 February 2022

Why we’re obsessed with catfish scams

From The Tinder Swindler and Sweet Bobby to Inventing Anna, a new genre of shows feeds our collective fascination with relationship fraud.

By Ash Sarkar

Scammer exposés have me in a chokehold. And if you’ve even a passing relationship with Netflix or investigative podcasts, chances are you’ve been captivated by them as well.

This week Netflix’s feature The Tinder Swindler became the first documentary to top the streaming platform’s weekly film chart. It charts the activity of Simon Leviev (neé Shimon Yehuda Hayut), who used Tinder to pose as the billionaire son of a diamond magnate, swindling women out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Like Netflix’s other bizarro true crime smash, Tiger King, The Tinder Swindler has gone viral, spawning dozens of memes: from people smearing their foreheads in ketchup in an homage to the photos Leviev staged of his supposedly injured bodyguard “Peter”, to tweets mocking the hyperbolic phrasing of Leviev’s messages. And it joins Tortoise Media’s podcast Sweet Bobby (an account of Kirat Assi, a woman from Hounslow, west London, who was catfished for a decade into a coercive relationship by her cousin, Simran Bhogal, posing as a man called Bobby) and Inventing Anna (a new Netflix drama based on the story of Anna Delvey, a “socialite” who defrauded several wealthy friends) in a growing trend cashing in on our collective fascination with criminals using false identities to exploit friends and romantic partners.

Part of this interest, no doubt, stems from the fact that the internet has transformed the composition of our social world. All of us have access to the very same technology which allowed Simon Leviev and Simran Bhogal to pull off their stunning deceptions (Tinder, Instagram, Facebook). There has been a note of admiration for the sheer nerve of scammers such as Leviev and Delvey. There’s a part of us which enjoys the audacity of the catfish, and what con artists expose about the collective delusion that we’ll be rewarded for hard work. The internet also confers the opportunity to fulfil our fantasies of sleuthing. Scammer exposés give us voyeuristic insight into being both criminal and cop.

But within the sub-genre of romantic scams there can be a distinct lack of empathy for the victims. Shortly after The Tinder Swindler hit Netflix, many viewers tweeted to express shock, and even disdain, that any woman could be so gullible. “I’m really trying to feel sorry [for] the women on #TheTinderSwindler but I can’t!” wrote one Twitter user. “Why would a billionaire ask YOU for money?!” When Assi spoke of her years-long ordeal, during which her “boyfriend” Bobby had several near-death experiences, cancer and an induced coma, even her loved ones suggested that she’d been recklessly credulous and gullible. Despite Delvey conning her friends out of tens of thousands of dollars, we don’t feel the need to compare ourselves to her victims in the same way. There is something about romance scams which appeals to our sense of worldliness and superiority. We love an opportunity to sit back and think: “That could never be me.”

If you’ve spent more than ten seconds on Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok you’ll be familiar with the concept of “main character syndrome” — a way of viewing oneself which has its origins on social media. It describes a tendency to perceive oneself as the protagonist of a movie, and treat others merely as the supporting cast. “Main character syndrome” is the screaming baby sibling of what used to be called “being the centre of attention”. 

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There’s an uncharitable reading of The Tinder Swindler’s victims, or Assi of Sweet Bobby, which says that they were all too willing to believe that they were the protagonist of an increasingly outlandish romance plot. That they wanted to believe that they were special, and special things happen to special people. Indeed, Bhogal, the catfisher at the heart of Sweet Bobby, seemed to think that the decade long scam she had ensnared her cousin in was something they both wanted. According to Assi, “She honestly believed we were both in a dark place and living in this alternative reality or this fantasy world that she created was bringing us both some kind of happiness or joy.”

But the idea that victims of romance fraud — whether financial as in The Tinder Swindler, or the psychological manipulation of Sweet Bobby — are simply casualties of their own narcissism fails to take into account the depth of their suffering. It’s not simply a matter of wounded pride. Cecilie Fjellhoy, one of the Tinder Swindler’s victims, talked about checking herself into a psychiatric ward after contemplating suicide; Assi’s career, studies, friendships and hopes of having a family were left in tatters after Bhogal’s deception. 

No protagonist would choose those storylines for themselves. The problem isn’t main character syndrome, but something I’d call “love interest syndrome”. It’s more prevalent than we’d care to admit. Love interest syndrome is a model of heterosexual romance where women distinguish themselves through loyalty and resilience. The love interest has few needs of her own. It’s you and your man against the world, and if you stick out life’s trials and tribulations (his, not yours) with patience and understanding, you will be deemed worthy of sharing all that he has won by labouring through adversity. Commitment is its own prize, more precious than rubies: but if there are material gains to be had after demonstrating that you’re not a gold-digger, then all the better. Love interest syndrome is, of course, a fantasy. But it’s a potent one and all of us, to some degree, have some investment in the idea that our present suffering will be rewarded with love and security.

Maybe these women weren’t uniquely naive. Maybe they were self-deluded in the way that many of us heterosexual women are. And perhaps this explains the appeal of romance scam exposés. Our culture’s prevailing modes of thinking about romantic love are almost comically opposed to each other. On the one hand, there is an elevated sense of threat. The writer James Greig has described how the internet has produced the phenomenon of “concept creep”, where language that has origins in psychology (“trauma”, “love-bombing”, “gas-lighting”) becomes popularised, watered down and misapplied. The increased awareness of issues of abuse, coercion and emotional violence has left us in a state of perpetual alert that we might be victimised at any moment. 

These anxieties have become particularly acute with the prevalence dating apps, where the idea of meeting someone in the hope of finding a sexual or romantic connection comes utterly devoid of accompanying context. No amount of internet sleuthing can provide a cast-iron guarantee that the man I’m meeting off Hinge is who he says he is. But, as Donald Rumsfeld might have said, the “known unknown” of linking up with a stranger is weighed against the “known known” of struggling to meet someone through your existing network of connections.

Then, on the other hand, social media is awash with videos, stories, posts and reels that present romance as being indivisible from extreme acts of corniness. The pomp and grandeur of celebrity engagement announcements has filtered down into civilian social media culture. There are proposals — and, therefore, conventions of posting — for asking someone to prom, or to be your girlfriend, or to move in together. Each step in the evolution of a relationship comes with spectacle, some act of theatre that demonstrates to an audience (imagined or real) that someone has deemed you worthy of love. These same proofs of affection can, at the same time, be pathologised as signs of coercion and love-bombing. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Fjellhoy and Assi found something plausible in the increasingly preposterous scenarios that their scammers tried to embroil them in. We’ve been subject to programming that compels us to associate love with grand gestures, rather than the banal minutiae of sharing your life with someone every day.

Romance scam exposés put us in contact with our own vulnerability — and as the response to victims of romance fraud demonstrates, we are simultaneously fascinated and repelled by that yearning for love which puts us within the power of others. Romantic love is inherently undignified. It makes idiots of us all. And while no one has offered to take me on a private jet to Sofia on the first date, I’ve ignored my own fair share of what others would call “red flags”. Why? Because I really wanted to be loved, the way I thought everyone else was and was convinced I never would be. Our faith in the transformative power of being wanted exists in exquisitely painful tension with the gnawing sense that we are fundamentally undeserving of such an experience. We are made vulnerable and gooey where unreasonably high expectations of love combine with a perilously low sense of self-worth. The real scam is heterosexuality.

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