How One Romance Scam Survivor Moved Past Shame and Loss to Help Others
Very few people want to share their stories of being targeted by a scam. Losing money to a scam can make us feel gullible, ashamed, and afraid. We worry that other people will think we’re at fault for falling for an obvious scam. But one romance scam survivor realized the opposite. Sharing her experience with scams has not only helped her recover, it has helped other people identify romance scams before they get too deeply involved.
See Surviving a Romance Scam with Debby Montgomery Johnson for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.
Debby Montgomery Johnson is the founder of The Woman Behind the Smile, Inc, and the author of The Woman Behind the Smile: Triumph Over the Ultimate Online Dating Betrayal, a personal story of her own experience as a romance scam survivor. A former Air Force officer and senior bank manager with paralegal training, she is now a best-selling author, international speaker, entrepreneur, and podcast host. Her mission is to remove the mask of shame around romance scams and help others do the same.
The Tragedy that Started it All
Debby was married to her husband Lou for almost twenty-six years when he passed away unexpectedly. She worked as a school district treasurer, but it was Lou’s company that really paid the bill. When he died, she suddenly had to figure out how to run that business on her own. She had to learn quickly and figure everything out from scratch.
Every day, she worked her job in the morning, came home, and worked on Lou’s company. She spent a lot of time trying to figure out what even needed to be done with this company. There was no time for her to grieve because she was working almost twenty hours a day. She pretended she was fine and self-sufficient, but she definitely wasn’t.
After six months of this stress and excessive work, her friends said she needed a life outside of work. Debby didn’t smoke, drink, or party, so she didn’t feel like “getting out” was an option. But her friends suggested online dating. It was safe, they said, and she could do it from home. Her husband had been very smart, well-read, and well-written, so the bar was high. Debby wasn’t really impressed with the kinds of guys she saw on dating sites. But she decided to give it a shot anyway.
Debby went on a faith-based dating site and created a profile. She was very transparent and open, and talked about her family and that she was a widow. She was contacted by a lot of guys who just weren’t her type. The type of men with pictures wearing wifebeaters and riding motorcycles weren’t the kind of men she wanted to keep talking to.
Eventually, Debby was contacted by “Eric Cole.” “Eric” was a good-looking man, fifty-five years old, and a businessman from England. He looked athletic, wrote well, was a widower, and had a sister and son who lived in England while he traveled for business. Debby liked the way he wrote and what he said. She started out very cautiously, but talking to Eric was fun.
A common tactic of romance scammers is to move the conversation from the dating site to somewhere else. Eric moved their conversations to Yahoo! chat. He used the excuse that he had a new international business contract and he could use Yahoo! chat from anywhere. Debby didn’t know this was a red flag. In fact, she enjoyed it. She enjoyed using instant messaging and hearing the notification sound of Yahoo! chat letting her know that he wanted to talk. They could write back and forth for hours.
Their relationship progressed relatively quickly. This is another common tactic of romance scammers. Debby even recalls at one time thinking that his feelings for her came very fast. She had just lost her husband and wasn’t ready for someone to say he loved her right off the bat. So she did notice that he jumped in very quickly.
Playing the Long Game and Building Trust
Debby and Eric talked for two years. She has four thousand pages of journal entries chronicling the whole thing. She told him about her kids, how she was feeling, and how she was mad at her husband because he died and left her alone. Talking to Eric helped her process her feelings about her husband’s death. Over the years, Debby hadn’t felt like she had been listened to. But Eric was very, very good at listening.
They talked about anything and everything. But sometimes the questions seemed a bit weird to her. Eric would ask a lot of questions about Lou’s business, and once he asked her to help him write a business plan. She wondered why he was asking her all of this, curious if he was trying to get into the business. Later, he said he was just looking to learn more about e-commerce, so Debby overlooked her worries.
Over Yahoo! Chat, Debby had several conversations with Eric’s son and sister and his attorney. The chats went back and forth between these three people. Debby asked his son and sister questions to get to know them better. She felt like they were building a family together.
Money Gets Involved
The first time Eric asked for money, it was a very small amount. He wanted to help a friend get on a dating site. This friend was overseas and having trouble with the payment, and Eric asked if Debby could send a check to the dating site. Debby agreed easily.
The next time he asked for money, he wanted it sent through Western Union. That in itself made her hesitate. When she worked in banking, Debby never trusted Western Union. Eric claimed he needed to get a power of attorney set up so that when he receives money from his latest business venture, he can set up bank accounts in the United States. It seemed strange to Debby that he needed $2,500 when she could get one set up for $15, but she sent the money anyway.
From there, the amounts of money increased. The method changed from Western Union to wire transfers. There’s always urgency with wire transfers. Debby got caught up because at some point, there was a change in the relationship. It felt like Eric was part of her family, or her future family. And Debby would do anything for her family.
Whenever he asked for money, it was always like a business proposition. There was always a promise that he would pay her back. And she understood – sometimes in business, you don’t get paid until the job is finished. At some point, it felt like she couldn’t stop giving him money or she’d never get any of it back. But above all, Debby wanted to help him overcome these various obstacles so they could start a new chapter together.
I just got caught up in it because I felt at some point … he was becoming my family or my future family.Debby Montgomery Johnson
Romance Scam Red Flags
During the two years she talked to Eric, Debby never thought there was anything sinister going on. She hadn’t heard from any romance scam survivors, or even heard about online scams before. Some of her mother’s friends had met new spouses online and had no problems. She didn’t know what to watch out for or even that she should be watching. But looking back, she sees a lot of warning signs.
I never actually thought it was sinister … I’d never heard of an online scam prior to that.Debby Montgomery Johnson
Moving the conversation off of the dating site quickly and seeming to develop feelings quickly are two tactics Eric used. There were also several of what she calls “pink flags.” They would have been red flags to some people, but when she asked Eric about them, he always had a plausible answer.
He always had a reason for why he couldn’t come on video. He claimed to be in Malaysia on business, and the internet in Malaysia not being very good was a great excuse. Debby also wanted to video chat with his sister and son in England, but they claimed their computer wasn’t up-to-date enough. She wanted to be able to see him, and it bothered her a little that she couldn’t. But she didn’t know that this was a sign of a romance scam.
The first true disappointment was when he was supposed to come for Christmas. Debby got hotel rooms and planned all sorts of things for him and his family. When it was canceled, it was majorly disappointing. But because he was an international businessman doing business overseas, she understood some of the problems he had with customs and tariffs. She wanted to help him finish his work and come home to her.
Isolation in Romance Scams
One thing that many romance scam survivors have in common is that the scammer tried to isolate them from other people. Debby isolated herself after her husband’s death. Eric tried to isolate her further. It started with friends – she only told one of her friends about Eric. The more that friend pushed her about things that seemed suspicious, the more Debby pushed the friend away. Eventually, in the interest of keeping the friendship, the friend stopped pushing.
Debby has four kids, and her older boys are military pilots. At one point, she flew out to see them in San Diego and told them about Eric. Her kids told her that he was probably a scammer. Debby responded that she was the adult there, and she would do what she wanted. She stopped talking to her children about what really happened. When one of her sons came to visit and intercepted one of Eric’s messages, he responded to it ripping Eric apart. Debby made him leave the house and take a walk, and apologized profusely to Eric.
They do try to isolate you from friends and family so that you’re only concentrating on them.Debby Montgomery Johnson
Eric became her lifeline and confidant. And after having so much conflict with others about their relationship, there were few other people she could talk to. After being married for so long, she wasn’t ready for a physical relationship yet, but she was ready for someone who started as a pen pal, friend, and confidant. Eric seemed perfect.
Moving Into the Endgame
As Eric got closer to finishing up his contracts in Malaysia, the issues got bigger and bigger. A lot of them were tariffs. There were issues exporting things from Malaysia to India, or the money he was supposed to be paid got held up and he had to pay a fee to get it out. The sums he asked Debby for increased. She was paying $50,000 or $100,000 at a time.
Looking back, it just seems so ridiculous. When you’re in the middle of it, there’s such urgency.Debby Montgomery Johnson
Debby didn’t have that money sitting in the bank. She cashed out retirement accounts, sold jewelry, and sold property. At that point, she felt like he was family and was going to do anything to get him home to her. She even borrowed $100,000 from her parents. Looking back, she can’t believe she did that, but her parents felt like he was part of the family too. Eric kept asking her if there was anyone else who could help or who would let her borrow money to send him.
In total, Debby sent him $1,080,726. She didn’t even realized she’d given him that much until towards the end, when she sat down, went through her detailed records, and added it up. When she saw that amount, she was shocked. She isn’t the kind of person to give away money. To have given him that much was unbelievable, even to her.
The Scam Revealed
On September 10, 2012, Eric came online and asked Debby how she felt about forgiveness. They had talked about spiritual things many times over the past two years, so Debby engaged and they had a discussion about forgiveness. Then Eric got disconnected, which wasn’t unusual.
When he came back online that afternoon, he asked if she remembered what they had been talking about. Debby said she did, and asked why. Had she done something? Eric said no, it wasn’t her. He had a confession and it would hurt, but he wanted to know that she would forgive him. Debby had heard that before in her marriage, and it wasn’t a good time, so she asked if he really wanted to tell her. He did.
Then “Eric” confessed that it had all been a scam. Debby immediately thought he must be sick. He’d had some medical issues over their two-year relationship. She told him of her concern, and said she needed him to prove it.
On Yahoo! Chat, there was a small camera icon. Debby had never noticed it before. He walked her through starting a video chat. Debby was looking at her screensaver photo of a handsome British man. But when the live video comes through, the person on the other end is a young man with dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin, and a huge smile. In an instant, Debby’s heart and mind separated from two years of a story about a man who didn’t really exist.
The Real “Eric”
Debby had her phone in her hand and snapped a picture of the screen. That photo is in her book. It’s the only picture she has of the real Eric, whose name is actually Joseph.
She asked him why. Most scammers don’t confess or show their real faces. Why did he? He said that he had started to genuinely fall for her and couldn’t continue the scam. Debby still isn’t sure how true that is. It could have been another phase in the scam. But she likes to believe that a little bit of her light overshadowed the darkness he was living in.
Debby told him that she needed him to stop scamming people. Then she asked why he did it. He’d gotten to know her – if he had siblings or family to take care of, she would have helped. She wasn’t heartless. But instead, he chose to destroy her trust in people, hurt her, and hurt her bank account.
It was devastating, even worse than when her husband died. When her husband died, it was sudden and upended her life. But this time, she was willingly a part of it. She gave him so much money, and suddenly learning that she wasn’t in a happy relationship and instead was a romance scam survivor could have destroyed her if she let it.
A Romance Scam Survivor and the Woman Behind the Smile
The next day, Debby and her parents took her extensive documentation of the scam to the FBI. They said that she was a victim and he manipulated her, and she disagreed. She didn’t want to be called a victim. She was a romance scam survivor, not a victim.
Then they told her they couldn’t help her because he was outside the country. Debby watches TV and is aware of the news. She knew the FBI could do a lot. It seemed like they were choosing to not even try.
That’s when Debby shut down. She stopped telling people that she was a romance scam survivor. Her parents knew, and in many ways it brought them closer together. But she didn’t tell her friends. She also didn’t tell her kids. She didn’t want to hear them say it was stupid of her to fall for it or ask what she was going to do now.
Debby became “the woman behind the smile” – putting on a smile and pretending everything was fine. But inside, she felt like she was dying. Debby had lost her husband. She lost the man she thought was the next love of her life. And on top of that, she’d lost a lot of money. It was a very hard pill to swallow.
Opening Up about Being a Romance Scam Survivor
Debby is part of the Women’s Prosperity Network, a woman’s organization in Florida. She went to a business speaking training to learn to be a better speaker about her husband’s company. While there, she went to lunch with a friend and another woman. At this lunch, her friend said something about online dating, and Debby couldn’t help but roll her eyes. Her friend asked why.
So, in a quiet voice, Debby told her story of being a romance scam survivor. Her friend and the other woman were riveted. Her friend shared that her mother lost $480,000 to a romance scammer, and she would never tell the story. The other woman mentioned a friend who was engaged to a man she met online, only to later find out he had another family. They both agreed that Debby had to tell her story.
Debby changed what she was learning to speak about in the training. For her presentation at the end of the training weekend, she presented her story. She ended it with, “I invite you all to the movie premier of The Woman Behind the Smile.” Immediately, they all asked where they could get tickets. When they found out she had just come up with it, they told her that this was her mission. They encouraged her to write a book and share her romance scam survivor story in a bigger way.
If you can only protect or save one person, then it was worth it … it has turned into so much more than that.Debby Montgomery Johnson
A Growing Story
Debby’s romance scam survivor story first came out in the Palm Beach Post, a local newspaper in Florida. People were incredulous. How could something like this happen? But then they started hearing that it happened to lots of people.
After the Palm Beach Post story, Debby was put into contact with the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams, or SCARS. It’s an international nonprofit working with romance scam survivors and victims all over the world. There is a lot of information on cybersecurity and how to protect yourself, by very few organizations work with victims and their families to help them move forward. There, Debby found her passion. Her mission and purpose in life came from this painful experience.
Once Debby got up to do a talk, and a woman gave her a nasty look. But once she started talking, most of the audience were engaged. People were nodding because they needed to know it had happened to someone else and they weren’t alone. That’s why Debby does it. She isn’t talking to the woman giving her nasty looks. She’s talking to the five women around her whose mom, sister, or friend are going through this and don’t know what to do.
We’re not hearing about romance scam survivors nearly as much as we should. Nobody wants to admit that they’re a smart businessperson and still got swindled for a lot of money. Very few people report it, so nobody understand how pervasive it really is.
If people reported it as much as it happens, I think we would be floored. The dollar amounts would be in the multi-billions.Debby Montgomery Johnson
It Can Happen to Anyone
When you hear about romance scams, it’s easy to think that would never happen to you. But that’s not the point. It could happen to you – it could happen to anyone. But it could happen to your mother, your daughter, or your best friend. And even if it happens to you, you might not realize it. It’s important to be aware because if you’re in a storm of emotions and vulnerabilities, you may not notice.
Everybody gets scammed by somebody at some point in their lifetime.Debby Montgomery Johnson
Debby was targeted by a romance scam after her husband’s death. She works with many romance scam survivors who are recently divorced. One woman she worked with was never married, retiring, and ready for a relationship and to travel – she lost $2.5 million. A doctor in the Carolinas read Debby’s book and wrote that she wished she’d read it earlier. Her romance scam encounter sounded almost identical to Debby’s, like it was from the same playbook.
Scammers are well-trained, share methods, and have playbooks of stories that work. It’s a billion-dollar business. They’re good at coming into your life when you are vulnerable, breaking your heart, and taking your money. And it’s not just women who are targeted. The FBI has said that men get caught by these scams just as much as women, and often lose more money.
The Difficulty of Intervening in Active Romance Scams
A woman wrote to Debby just today and told her about how her kids pulled a Dr. Phil-style intervention to try to convince her she was talking to a romance scammer. These tactics make the family feel good, but it doesn’t help a romance scam survivor understand what’s happening. They are so entrenched in the scammer’s story that it would be like Debby coming up to you out of nowhere and telling you your marriage is actually fake. Debby’s relationship with Eric was as real to her as anything else in her life.
You can’t pull a person out of a romance scam in the middle. You either have to stop them before they get really involved or wait until the end, when they’re broken. Several of Debby’s friends told her that there was nothing they could do, short of losing her as a friend, to convince her that Eric wasn’t real. One of Debby’s friends was talking to a romance scammer, and Debby did an image search to show her that profile picture was being used by twelve different profiles. The friend said the picture must be stolen. The person in the picture is a real person, but he had been a victim of likeness theft and wasn’t actually the person her friend was talking to.
The hardest part is to convince the woman or man that the picture is not the real person.Debby Montgomery Johnson
Sometimes people aren’t ready to hear the truth. A woman in the UK reported Debby to the SCARS board for not being helpful when Debby refused to believe the person she was talking to online was a real military sniper. If someone isn’t ready to hear what Debby has to say, there’s not much she can do to help.
Military Romance Scams
In her quest to learn about romance scams and help romance scam survivors, Debby talked to Bryan Denny, a former Army colonel whose likeness has been used in thousands of scammer profiles. He always tells people that in online dating, you won’t see photos of a soldier in uniform. Debby is a former Air Force officer and her kids are on active duty, and she agrees. Active duty military aren’t allowed to publish those kinds of photos online.
Pretending to be a soldier is a great cover for romance scammers. Especially in the far East, people are looking for American soldiers to rescue them from where they are. But even in other places, people view soldiers as honest, trustworthy, and patriotic. Also, many people don’t know what services are available for military personnel. They don’t know that a soldier won’t need to ask for a plane ticket home or money for their kids. People are generous and want to help people in the military, so they give. But what really got to Debby is the fact that not only are you not helping real service members, that money may be funding terrorism or similar ventures.
Warning Signs of a Romance Scam
In Debby’s relationship with “Eric,” there were several things that as a romance scam survivor she recognizes as warning signs of a scam. Quickly moving off of the original platform, quick feelings and pet names, plausible excuses for why certain things can’t happen, and canceled visits were all warning signs.
Sending money via untraceable methods is another one. In Debby’s case, it was Western Union. There was a class action suit against Western Union for enabling scammers that Debby actually recovered several thousand dollars from. And now there are cryptocurrencies offering new ways to send untraceable funds.
Urgency is another warning sign, especially when money is involved. Isolation is a big one, as well. The scammer doesn’t want you talking to anyone who could help you realize it’s a scam. Also be cautious of pictures showing really attractive people. Check them with reverse image search. And be aware that image search isn’t perfect – if the scammer flips the original image, for example, Google won’t pick it up.
Just be really careful if he’s really, really good-looking … [or] if it’s a staged picture, professional picture, or military picture. There’s a good chance it’s a scammer.Debby Montgomery Johnson
When interviewing Colonel Denny, Debby wanted to do a video chat, but he declined video because scammers could make it say whatever they want. Have you ever watched a show that was filmed in a different language and then dubbed into English? They’re speaking English and our brains make us think we’re seeing that, but if you look closely at their lips they’re not. The same is true of scammers. It can still be a warning sign, but just because they’re willing to video chat doesn’t mean they’re not a scammer.
What to Do if You or a Loved One is Involved in a Romance Scam
Debby recommends visiting anyscam.com or againstscams.org. They are the websites for SCARS, the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams. They can tell you what scams are out there and who to report it to.
You can also report it to the FBI at IC3.gov. They’re not going to get your money back, but they’re gathering information to make cases. Also report to your local police. They can’t do much for you, but you can get an informational report. At least in Florida, that informational report can help you get financial assistance if you need it. Talk to your bank as well. Again, they won’t help, but it’s important to report.
Once you’ve reported it, find a way to release the emotion of it. For Debby, journaling and writing her book helped her process it. Find someone you can trust who isn’t going to blame or shame you and tell your story. You can’t do it alone, and trying is extremely isolating. Take small steps forward, and you can find hope and have a successful life again.
Flourishing as a Romance Scam Survivor
Debby learned she was a romance scam survivor in September. In January, only four months later, she started dating the man who is now her husband. She doesn’t know how she did it, but she didn’t want the scammers to get the best of her. They built their relationship on honesty and vulnerability.
Now they have been married for five years. Her husband is very sweet and a great supporter of her and her work with other romance scam survivors. He is a great guy all the way around, and he’s proof that there’s hope. Even if you’re a romance scam survivor, a good relationship can happen to you.
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