As long as social media and online dating apps exist, there will always be catfishing. And Netflix’s latest viral documentary The Tinder Swindler has made a compelling case study of one particularly notorious catfish.
Catfishing is a term that originated from a 2010 documentary of the same name. It is used when a person, also known as the catfish, creates false identities on social media to trick other people into a romantic relationship or to steal money from them.
In Netflix’s The Tinder Swindler, the catfish is Israeli conman Shimon Hayut a.k.a. Simon Leviev. He disguised himself as a son of a billionaire in order to lure Cecilie Fjellhoy, Pernilla Sjoholm, and many other women into sending him hundred thousands of dollars to support his lavish lifestyle.
While there may still be thousands of Simons looking for their next preys in many parts of the world, you can protect yourself from all of them by, first and foremost, being informed.
To help you with that, PhilSTAR L!fe interviewed five Filipino catfishing victims on the different kinds of catfish they encountered while online dating and how you can avoid them from the get-go. (Some of the names in this story have been changed to protect identities.)
Catfish #1: The smooth-talking swindler
Thirty-three-year-old Joyce met her own version of Simon Leviev in 2017. It all started when the man, disguised as a bearded American named Kelvin Conner, sent her a message on Instagram.
“He was kinda cute so why not? Harmless flirting lang naman,” Joyce recalled to PhilSTAR L!fe. “I kinda fell for him, to be honest,” she added.
Joyce was captivated not just by his seemingly good looks, but moreso, his cunning ways. Kelvin made sure to shower her with sweet words every day and let her in on what’s going on in his life regularly.
The catfish claimed that he is from Texas and works in an oil rig. He said his wife passed away when she gave birth to their daughter, who is now living with his deceased wife’s mother. He also mentioned flying to Hong Kong for a drilling project.
Somewhere along the way, he moved their conversation from Instagram to Google Hangouts, and Joyce didn’t mind. Little did she know, Kelvin was already setting her up for his primary goal—to loot money from her and keep the conversation untraceable.
Shortly after, Kelvin gave Joyce access to his bank account “since hindi daw stable ang internet niya.”
“He just asked me to log in and do the transfers for him,” she continued. “For a few times, he made me transfer funds to several non-profit organizations. And I Googled all these orgs, and legit siya. They exist!”
With the same bank account, Kelvin ordered Joyce to purchase a machinery he said was essential for one of his projects.
After a few weeks biglang tumawag, nag-video call pa. Umamin siya na he wasn’t who I thought he was. He’s a Nigerian. Super na-shock nalang ako na wala akong nasabi.
“A few months after, biglang nagka-problem with buying this certain machine kasi nire-reject ng bank ‘yung fund transfer,” Joyce recounted. “As in todo guilt trip, saying na malalagot talaga siya sa employer niya. On top of that, he said he can’t even send money to his daughter and the grandma is sick.”
The fraudster then forced Joyce to “help him out” by purchasing the machinery with money from her own bank account. A total of $4,000 to $5,000 (P205,000 to P257,000) was swindled out of her savings.
“Every time na I question stuff about him or mga sinasabi niya, todo gaslight siya! Just like how Simon would get mad at Cecilie and Pernilla, but through text. Siya pa ang galit na galit,” Joyce said. She decided to cut ties “when he didn’t pay back what he promised.”
But it wasn’t the end for Kelvin. “After a few weeks biglang tumawag, nag-video call pa. Umamin siya na he wasn’t who I thought he was. He’s a Nigerian,” Joyce continued. “Super na-shock nalang ako na wala akong nasabi.”
Trust your gut! A true boyfriend or girlfriend won’t borrow money from you or make you take out a loan. Run at the first sign of red flag. Don’t wait until you’re emotionally invested to cut things off.
Joyce later discovered that her money was transferred to a woman based in the U.S. “Baka na-scam din niya and binabayaran niya,” Joyce said, adding, “What happened was lapse of judgment ko talaga, but I learned my lesson.”
Asked for her advice on avoiding being catfished, Joyce said, “Trust your gut! A true boyfriend or girlfriend won’t borrow money from you or make you take out a loan. Run at the first sign of red flag. Don’t wait until you’re emotionally invested to cut things off.”
Catfish #2: The broke college student
Twenty-five-year-old Jared has long been looking for a girlfriend both offline and online. He thought the odds were finally in his favor when he met Andrea on Tinder.
Andrea is what Jared described as your usual fun-loving Gen Zer. She was 22 years old and was graduating from college when they met in 2020. She enjoys going to the beach clad in her bikini, which Jared saw on her profile photo on the dating app. She’s a doting cat parent too.
“I was the one who sent a message first. Halos every day magka-chat kami or video call. Nagkakakilanlan. Minsan may landian,” Jared said.
Apart from being sweet and sunny, Andrea implied that she was strong and independent. She told Jared that she has been living on her own “and hindi siya sinusuportahan ng magulang niya.”
But Andrea proved to be otherwise when she began manipulating Jared to send her some money. “Two months after we met, nagstart na siyang magsabi sa akin ng problem niya about her tuition fee. Naawa ako so I helped her,” he recounted.
Masyado kasi akong bumibigay agad dahil sa jowang-jowa na ako, e. In the end, ako lang ang nawalan.
“P1,000 lang naman usually binibigay ko because she said ‘yun lang ang kulang niya. I sent it through GCash,” Jared said, noting that the scheme went on for months. “Pati nga pagkain niya e, minsan nagpapa-deliver ako when she says she’s craving for something,” he added.
Jared kept convincing himself that he’s doing all that just to help Andrea, but he also knew something was off. “I was having doubts kasi hindi ko naman siya gaanong kakilala. Parang there's something inside of me, telling me na baka napupunta lang kung saan ‘yung pera,” he said. “Aside from that, nag-aalaga siya ng pusa na pinagkakagastosan niya. ‘Tapos wala siyang pera? It doesn’t make sense.”
He stopped getting in touch with her when he realized she was taking advantage of him and “nagpaparinig na siya sa akin na magbigay pa ulit ako sa kanya.” The catfish seemingly noticed the distance and likewise pulled away.
Jared said the experience taught him to avoid lending money to people online, especially to those he barely know. He elaborated, “Be wise lang in helping. Masyado kasi akong bumibigay agad dahil sa jowang-jowa na ako, e. In the end, ako lang ang nawalan. Just see to it that whenever you make decisions, you do it with logic rather than emotions.”
Catfish #3: The cheating husband
Thirty-four-year-old Stella is one of the lucky ladies who found their forever match on Bumble. Yet before she and her husband vowed to live happily ever after, Stella stumbled upon a few frogs pretending to be ideal men. One of these was a family man who disguised himself as a bachelor.
“I swiped on him because his profile introduction seemed interesting,” Stella recounted. “He’s a Pinoy in his mid-forties. I like older men, that’s why I set the age range to 30-45.”
“I remember his profile said he graduated from the University of the Philippine College of Engineering so I got interested,” she added.
Stella said “hi” to him via personal message and recalled chatting with him only for a very short time “because he invited me on a date right away.”
What’s worse, he was married with kids pala.
“We had dinner in Alba in Makati and then chatted over coffee in Commune,” Stella said. On that evening, she found herself catching feelings for the guy—or at least what he pretended to be.
“After our first date, I searched for him on Facebook using his Viber number and I found out that he was using a fake name on Bumble,” Stella continued. “And what’s worse, he was married with kids pala.”
Right there and then, Stella blocked the catfish on Bumble and Viber. “I was so sad because I almost became a home wrecker,” she said.
Now that she’s happily married to a man who proved to be true to his profile, Stella only has lessons to impart with other single women looking for true love online: “Do not ignore red flags. The catfish that I dated used only ones in black and white or naka-side view. Always be in the lookout for those photos, as well as inconsistent messages and questions that are too personal.”
Catfish #4: The pickup artist
Many people refer to dating apps as a place for hookups. While 41-year-old West joined OkCupid almost a decade ago to find a wife (which he did eventually), he wasn’t exempted from being the target of sex-hungry individuals.
One memorable incident was when he met a male OkCupid user who pretended to be female. “These type of catfish use an alias, they don’t use a profile pic that has their face on it, and often times, they use ones with a woman in a bikini standing by the pool or by the beach,” West said.
I called at the wee hours of the night and found out that he’s a guy!
He tried calling his match several times, but to no avail. “He has many reasons why he won’t or can’t answer so I used my friend’s phone instead,” he told PhilSTAR L!fe. “I called at the wee hours of the night and found out that he’s a guy!”
But West was in for a bigger surprise: “After revealing his true gender, the dude had the audacity to convince me to give ‘it’ a try!”
West made the call to that pickup artist when he “least expected it.” He said doing so is key to knowing the real person behind every profile.
He elaborated, “When you are chatting up to the wee hours of the morning, ask for a video chat. If they cannot show their face, then say goodbye. It’s either they are married, in a relationship, or worse, catfishing you.”
Catfish #5: The forever 25
Marjorie was only 21 years old when she joined Badoo in 2014. There, she met a guy whom she described as her type. “He’s handsome; loves art, coffee, and eating in restaurants; and he’s street smart. He introduced himself as 25 years old and he’s pure Pinoy,” Marjorie recalled.
She swiped right first and, shortly after, received a message from him that says, “Hey! Thanks for swiping right ah [red heart emoji].”
“Kinilig ako honestly,” Marjorie admitted. “So I replied, ‘Are you open to meet up?’ To which he replied. ‘Sure, sa weekend.’”
Marjorie and the catfish spent the following days chatting with each other. And it wasn’t until she saw him in person that she found out the truth —that he was 53 years old.
While being catfished or lied to is a big no-no for dating app users, Marjorie chose to keep her catfish company.
Like any victim of catfishing, Marjorie was shocked. Unlike most of them, though, she decided to stick it through.
“He is handsome and attractive so I still went out with him,” Marjorie said. “I just listened to him throughout our date until he admitted that the reason he was catfishing was because he was grieving the death of his wife and wants some company, but does not know where to find it.”
Marjorie and the widower had eight more dates after that. “We stopped communicating with each other when he said that he felt guilty because I was kind towards him. He also gave me some money as an apology,” she recounted.
While being catfished or lied to is a big no-no for dating app users, Marjorie chose to keep her catfish company because “I learned that men are also experiencing self-esteem issues,” she said.
“Instead of getting mad at them, I would rather know their reason behind catfishing. A lot of men choose to be tough, but inside they are broken too.”
“Still, that should not be an excuse to keep on catfishing,” she noted. “As a woman, if you feel like there is something wrong with the conversation, block the account. Listen to your intuition.”
Catfish #6: The Photoshopped chic
Apart from being swindled out of money or tricked into having a one-night stand, you know you’ve been catfished if your match doesn’t look the same as their profile photo.
Take it from West, who, apart from meeting a pickup artist, chanced upon a woman whose display picture seemed to be Photoshopped or excessively edited.
The woman caught West’s interest with her bikini photo, along with her “lovely voice and great personality” that she manifested each time they talked over the phone.
Pictures are no longer reliable. If it’s too good to be true, it is definitely not true.
“Turns out, she is about 80 pounds heavier in person and looks way, way different from her profile pic,” West said. “I only found out when we met in person.”
He then told the woman that he’s not his type and “it’s over.” He explained, “I trusted her and she betrayed me. How can I trust you again? Trust is non-negotiable. If you can't be trusted now, how can we move forward, knowing you lied to me when I was getting to know you?”
West, who’s happily married for eight years now, has this for advice: “Pictures are no longer reliable. If it’s too good to be true, it is definitely not true. Meet up after a month or two of chatting and make sure you have many things in common first. It’s best to tag a friend along during your meet-up and ask your friend what he thinks of the person afterward. Sometimes they see what you don’t.”