In 2018, the Federal Trade Commission received more than 21,000 reports about online romance scams, totaling $143 million in losses. As the number of dating sites and social media apps has gone up, so too has the number of romance scams reported — from 17,000 in 2017, 11,000 in 2016, and 8,500 in 2015. Last year, the median loss reported was $2,600, which is seven times higher than the median loss for other forms of fraud tracked by the FTC. Most affected are people over the age of 70, for whom the median loss rose to $10,000.
Online romance scammers work individually and in teams, often creating fake profiles using real people’s photographs in order to form close (if internet-based) relationships with unsuspecting victims, whom they eventually ask for money — because they’re overseas in the military, because they’re sick, because they’re trying to buy plane tickets home, etc. Given victims’ presumed complicity in these scams (because, technically, their money is given voluntarily), and the resulting stigma, it’s likely that online relationship scams are much more prevalent than even FTC reports suggest. The Cut spoke to the victim of one such scam, Debby Montgomery Johnson, now 60, who lost more than a million dollars to a scammer between 2010 and 2012.
How did you meet the man who would eventually scam you?
My husband passed away suddenly in 2010. I’d been married for almost 26 years, and he had a sudden heart attack and died. That threw my life into a tailspin. Lou left [for a short trip] on a Wednesday, and I got the call Thursday morning. There was no closure. Lou and I had been in the military, and when we went off on temporary duty, we always said “Good-bye, and see you soon.” It was kind of like that. Lou left that morning, and said “I’ll see you tomorrow,” and then we [Deb and her four children] never saw him again.
He had started an internet company, and I was thrown into running it, in addition to my own job as a treasurer for one of the local schools. My friends, after about six months, said, “You know, you need a life.” I didn’t really like dating when I was 16, and I certainly didn’t want to do it at 52, but they said, Try online dating, it’s safe, you can do it from home, you can basically stalk and see who’s out there. This was in November 2010. I had friends who’d met their spouses through online dating, and my mom said “Oh, one of my best friends met her husband online,” and we’re talking, like, 75 year-olds. So I figured well, heck, if it can work for them, then I can certainly try it.
I’d never heard of anybody being taken by an online romance, I’d only heard the good stuff. So I kind of went into it trusting that what was going to happen would be good. The first couple of guys that reached out, I thought, Oh my gosh, they can’t write, they can’t speak, they can’t do anything, what am I doing here? Then I was contacted by a fellow who was from London, who was an international businessman and a widower.
He must have seemed different, in a good way.
At that point, I knew there was a difference between the divorced guys, and the widowed guys. There was just a different way they felt about my situation, because they’d been through it. So I felt comfortable. He contacted me through the dating site a few times, and then he said, “Look, I’m traveling.” He was in Houston, and he had just gotten a big contract in Malaysia. He was a contractor in the hardwood tree business.
I looked at his company website. I really did some due diligence, because I had been an Air Force intelligence officer, I’d been a senior branch manager at a bank, and I’d had some legal training, so all that kind of kicked in, and I started looking around to see who he was. I called the company he said he was a contractor for, and they didn’t know who he was. But again, I wasn’t anticipating anyone not telling me the truth, so I just figured, well, he’s an international contractor, maybe they don’t have those guys listed on the company roster.
Right, and if it’s a legitimate company website…
I felt like I understood what he was doing, because at the time, I had investments in trees in Costa Rica. Now, he didn’t know that. So for me, that was kind of a sign, that this gentleman works in a business I have an investment in.
Did he tell you he was based in one place, or was he moving around all that time?
He was in between Malaysia, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur — the hardwood trees were there and they were being shipped to India.
So how did you grow closer to this person that was physically unavailable?
He said if we get onto Yahoo chat, then [we could do] instant messaging. I thought, Well that’s kind of cool. So he set me up on a Yahoo chat, and we would talk for hours at a time. I had an online journal, because I love to journal, and I copied and pasted every conversation that we had into my online journal. I have 4,000 pages of printed volume that chronicle our two years together.
What did you talk about?
We talked about everything, we talked about kids … For me, looking back now, it was very therapeutic, because I could write so much more than I could ever articulate in speech. I told him everything that was going on in my life: how I felt, how I felt about being married all those years, the ups and the downs and the disappointments and the love. For me, it was a great way to get out all the grief I had from Lou dying without actually having to worry about a physical relationship.
My husband was 6’4”, 300-some pounds, a big guy — bold, audacious, brilliant. There were times when, rather than pitch a fight, I would just say, “Okay, okay, I’m sorry.” My relationship with Eric online … every time he listened to me, and let me talk and put my feelings out there, that filled a hole.
What was the timeline he gave you as far as when you might meet, or when his work would allow him to be in the United States again?
The promise was if that when he finished up this job, which was very big, he was coming home. He had a sister and a son who were in London, and they were going to come here with him for Christmas. I even went to the point of getting hotel reservations for them. Well, then there was a delay, so I had to cancel the hotel. That happened multiple times over those two years — there were plans for him to get here, and then he couldn’t.
How did you rationalize those delays in your mind?
Having my own company, too, I realized that sometimes, you don’t get paid until you finish the job. When he said he wasn’t going to get paid until it was done, and expenses came up — there were customs problems, there were tariffs, there were things I wanted to know more about. I would always ask, so I also got to know his attorney, whose name was Peter.
How did you communicate with Peter?
There were times when I literally had three Yahoo chat messages going: one with his sister and son in England, one with him, and one with his attorney.
Looking back on it now, I’d love to be a fly on the wall to know how he did that. I used his sister’s conversations to find out more about him, and then I would ask him about her, because she lost a husband too, and I wanted to get to know her. I wanted to get to know his son. It was extraordinary — I’d have these conversations with his sister and her son, and there was a difference in the way the son spoke, and the way the aunt spoke, which made sense. I felt like I was talking to a 10-year-old vs. a 50-year-old. It just drew me into their family, and brought him into mine.
When did he first ask you for money?
He had a friend who was an engineer, and he was having trouble getting onto the [dating] website, and he asked if I’d mind sending a check into the company so he could start the dating process. And I was like, “Well, sure, the more men, the merrier!” — not knowing that I was just enabling another scammer to be credible on the dating site. I didn’t know any of that, so I said sure.
How much was the check for?
$93.43. The next time he asked was because he was getting paid, but the money was coming here to the states, and he needed to have a power of attorney for the banks over in London. When he asked me to help him out with it, I thought, Okay, now, I don’t like contention, I don’t like arguments, but I do recall that that was probably the first little tiff we had, when he asked me for about $2,500. I was like, Mmm, I don’t really want to do this, and he goes “Deb, this is really important,” until I caved on that. I [told myself], okay, you’ve got the money, just go ahead. That happened, and then another $2,500…
What did he tell you those other early sums of money were for?
They were for setting up the power of attorney, or for paying a tariff, or a customs dispute somewhere. There were multiple times when either Peter’s daughter got hurt, or Eric got hurt, and I would help out with certain things. Looking back on it now, it was absurd, but when someone you think you’re in love with’s child is hurt, and they’re stuck in Malaysia, and they need help, that’s what I did. I’d send the money to Hong Kong, or to his attorney to help out the family. The more I could do for him, the faster he’d be able to come home to me. That’s what I was thinking. And there was always the assurance that it would get paid back, and it was just a matter of time.
At some point, there had to have been a critical mass, where I had given so much to him that I had to keep going, because if I stopped … I’d lost so much already. One more time, one more time, this is going to be it. He’d always assure me that this was going to be the last time.
Did those sums continue getting bigger over time? How did you come up with the money?
I actually got my parents involved toward the end. We had to get $100,000 from somewhere, and I didn’t have any more. He asked if there was anybody in the family that could help out. He said we’d get it back, and we’ll pay them really good interest, and so I — yours truly, the frugal Yankee who doesn’t give money away to anybody — I was so invested at that point that I talked to my dad, and my dad talked to my mom. They gave me $100,000, which to this day is the only money I truly regret, because they’re 84 and 89, and I would love for that money to be in their bank account.
How did it impact your relationship, once they knew they wouldn’t get that money back?
Our relationship is so open and so close now. I never would’ve had that if this hadn’t happened. I’m always looking for the positive in it.
What finally brought the relationship to an end?
On September 10, 2012, Eric came online, and he posed the question, “How do you feel about forgiveness?” Over the two years we’d had a lot of very spiritual conversations, so when he asked me that, I sort of put on my spiritual hat, and I told him how I felt. But at that point, [I was also wondering], Did I do something wrong? Why are we talking about forgiveness? He said, “I have something to tell you that’s going to hurt you, and it’s important for me to know that you’ll forgive me for this.” At that point, I thought, Oh my gosh. I’d had my husband confess one thing to me in our marriage, and it wasn’t very happy. So I was like, “Eric, are you sure you want to do this?” And he said yes. That’s when he proceeded to say, “This has all been a scam.”
I asked him to prove it to me. The only way he could prove it to me was to come on live, and show me who he was. For two years, he’d told me he couldn’t Skype, he couldn’t do video, and now, he shows me how to enable the camera on Yahoo Chat. I was sitting at my desk, looking at a picture of who I thought he was on my screen, and up pops this dark-haired, dark-skinned young man with a big smile on his face.
What did he say??
“How are you doing, it’s so good to see you, can we keep this going?” I’m going, “Are you out of your frickin’ mind? What are you talking about? You have lied for two years. You’ve stolen over a million dollars from me.” He goes, “I know, I’m sorry, I hope you can forgive me for that.” Instantly, when I saw him, the romantic story [we’d built] was gone. Instead, I saw him from my banker point of view, my intelligence point of view, my paralegal point of view, and thought, How do I catch him? I had my cell phone right beside me, and I was able to take a picture of my computer screen. I have a picture of the real Joseph. His name is Joseph.
You say the romance part fell away, but you must have been heartbroken.
I was devastated, and I called my parents. They were like, “We’ll be there tomorrow.” I had my 4,000 pages of journal, I had meticulous financial records — if at anytime in my life I was really good at keeping records, it was during that period of time. Presumably, my journal was going to be family history. I was going to show my kids how this whole thing came about.
Did you want to report him?
I called up the FBI and made an appointment. I took all my records with me, and sat down with them, and told them what had happened. They said, “First off, we have to tell you that in Palm Beach County, more men get taken for over a million dollars than women, and they’ll never tell, so we thank you for telling. It’s incredible what you’ve got here for documentation. But unless you get him here to the United States [he’d told her he was in Nigeria], we can’t do anything for you.” I’m like, Well, shoot. If the FBI can’t help me, then nobody can help me. That’s when I shut down. I told everybody things were fine, it just didn’t work out, and I didn’t say a word about it. My parents knew, but my kids didn’t know. My siblings didn’t know, my friends didn’t know.
What made you decide to go start telling people?
I went to a speaker training with a women’s group I belong to, because I wanted to be able to speak more authoritatively about my company, because I always felt like it was Lou’s company. At lunch I was with some girlfriends, and somebody mentioned online dating. I must have rolled my eyes, because they asked what that was about. So I told them, and within half an hour they were like, You’ve got to tell that story. “Deb, you have to tell that story because my mom was taken for $80,000.” Another one said, “I’ve been taken in person by a guy, twice.” For a year they were living together, but he had another family up north. Another was in a Ponzi scheme twice. They said, “You have to tell, because there are intelligent, well-trained women out there being hurt, and nobody knows, because they’re not going to tell.”
So over that weekend, I came up with an ending to my story, and I wrote my book, The Woman Behind the Smile, in three months.
How did people respond to your story? I have to imagine you received some criticism.
Once I started talking about it, I only had one woman look at me and say “Boy, that was really stupid. I would never have done that.” You can never say never, because when you’re in a vulnerable situation, you don’t know how you’re going to react.
Then I had women calling me and emailing me and saying they’d gone through the same thing. I got an email from a woman a couple weeks go — she had lost a million four in less than eight months. These guys are very well trained, and they are good at their jobs. They’ve got the story down. They are not amateurs, and it’s unfortunate, because good people are being abused financially, socially, emotionally, and it’s really tough.
It’s a really interesting position to be in, because I’m not a trained therapist, but I have empathy for the women who’ve gone through it, because I know how they’re feeling. The gift that I had is that he confessed and came online in person, and I saw him. Most victims, the guy walks away, and you never hear from him. If that had happened to me, I would have felt like my husband died again.
Do you think you would have kept going and giving him money if he hadn’t confessed?
I was running out of money. I could only do so much. I’d sold my retirement accounts, I’d sold some trees I had, some silver I had. At the time, eight years ago, you could sell old jewelry, old gold, so I had run through all of that. It was getting to the point where I was like, I can’t do this anymore, and that was devastating, because I wanted to help him. He was my buddy.
If the scammers are usually international, and your money was technically given willingly, how do you prevent this from happening to other people?
I don’t think the dating sites do a good enough job in warning people, especially the dating sites for people over 50. Some of them, there’s no disclaimers at all about scams, and if they do have it, then it might be a little thing at the bottom of the website. If my business hurt people the way this has hurt me, I’d be out of business. I don’t think it’s being acknowledged as fully as it should be.
I guess sites could argue that they’re only a venue, not an enabler.
I’m not anti-online dating, but I think it’s overrun with scammers. It’s a huge, huge business. Mandy Ginsburg, the head of Match Group, recently went on CBS This Morning, and they asked what Match does about people who get scammed. She [basically] said, Well, we tell users not to send money. That’s all well and good, but if it was your mother that had been taken, what would you do to prevent it? They’ll turn it around and say, “Well, it was your fault.” I take full responsibility for what I did. But if I had known at the time that it was out there, I would have at least been more alert to it.
And if you feel like you have only yourself to blame, a lot of people won’t want to confess this happened to them, too.
They’ll never talk, because many times they’re professional women that are in business somewhere, and they don’t want their clients to know, their friends to know, but it can wipe them out. My girlfriend up here in southern Florida lost her home, she lost her savings, about $600,000 for her. She’s now living in a room in an apartment, and she’s 67 years old. Do you know how hard it is to find a job at 67? And her family just thinks she’s ridiculous. When she read my story and called me, and knew she had a partner in crime, it changed her life. Now she knows she’s not the only one. There are millions around the world, but so few are telling their stories.