Surviving a Romance Scam with Debby Montgomery Johnson
Many are resigned to stay silent about the pain of being scammed, but today’s guest helps empower others by vulnerably communicating her experience and sharing specific warning signs.
Today’s guest is Debby Montgomery Johnson. Debby is founder of The Woman Behind the Smile, Inc. She is a best-selling author, international speaker, entrepreneur, podcast host, former Air Force officer who served at the Pentagon, and is a woman on a mission. In her book The Woman Behind the Smile, she shares her personal experience with a love that turned to betrayal and financial disaster. She removes the mask of shame and shows others how to do the same.
I’m really excited to talk to you because there are very few people that want to come forward and share their stories of how they were a target for a scam. Can you give us a little bit of background of who you were before this ever occurred?
Absolutely. This happened, actually, in 2010-2012. We’re going back a little bit of time. At that moment, my husband had passed away suddenly. We’d been married for almost 26 years.
I’ve had a varied background with work. I had been an Air Force intelligence officer and imagery analyst. I’ve been a senior bank manager for many, many years. I actually was trained as a paralegal right after I got out of college, had a bachelor’s degree in political science. I had a varied background. I’m also a mom of four, grandmother of four. That was my greatest accomplishment—the family. It’s interesting, they’ll become a big part of my story going forward.
I had some really good training when I was younger. After Lou died, I ended up running his business. I was basically thrown into running our company because he didn’t have a follow-up plan for what would have happened if he were to die—the follow-up plan is me. I had to learn quite a lot relatively quickly because I did have a job working at a school district as a treasurer, again working with money. His company paid the bills and I needed to figure out how to run his business. I did that pretty effectively until all this fell apart.
Let’s just jump right on into the story. Can you tell us your story and how it unfolded?
Sure. It started 10 years ago when my husband passed away suddenly. I was thrown into running his company. I would work my business or my job in the morning. I’d come home after going swimming. I swim every afternoon to try to get control of what was going on, because when Lou died, he died suddenly. I said, I was thrown into running his company, I didn’t know everything I needed to know.
I spent a lot of time looking into my resources, his clients, the customers—everybody figuring out what to do with that. I was really working 20 hours a day. I had very little time to grieve. I’m one of those fixated-type people with the four kids. I make things run. I wanted to make sure that everything was working fine, and I was fine.
I say that now, looking back, that I really wasn’t fine. I pretended to be fine. I pretended to be self-sufficient. Everybody thought I was doing OK. Until some friends of mine, about six months after Lou died, said, “You need a life.” They didn’t mean a working life, they wanted me to get out and about.
Well, Lou’s company was an internet business, so I was able to do it from my house. I was really isolating myself once I left the school district because I was safe in my house. When they said, “You’ve got to get out,” I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t party a lot. I didn’t see going out was an option for me. That’s when my friends said, “Try online dating; it’s safe. You can do it from your house.” I used to say I would stalk people. I wasn’t really stalking, but I looked to see what I liked.
I was 52 at the time and I was looking for someone between 55 and 65. I really didn’t like what I saw. A lot of the guys, if you know the wife-beater shirts, were showing up in the wife-beater shirts and the motorcycles. Not that they’re the same thing with the motorcycle, but it just wasn’t my kind of a guy.
Then, when they start to write, I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh, they can’t write any better than a 5th grader.” My husband had been very smart, very well read, and very well written. The bar was pretty high.
When I stepped into online dating, I went into a faith-based site. It really doesn’t matter which sites you go to, but I just thought that that might be safer and that would have men that might relate to me. I, again, was very particular. I put out a profile that was very transparent, very open. I talked about my family. I don’t think I talked about my business. I did say that I was a widow. I’ve learned a lot since this—what to put in a profile, what not to put in a profile.
Anyway, I stepped into this very carefully. I like to say that I dipped my toe into it. I was contacted by a couple of different people on a different website. It might have been eHarmony, Match, or one of the big ones. I recognize that those aren’t the kind of guys that I wanted to continue a friendship with or whatever.
I went back to the website and I was contacted by a very good-looking young man. We’re talking 55. He was from England, he was international, he was a businessman. He looked athletic. He wrote very well. He was a widow. He had a son and a sister. His sister and son lived in England because he traveled. It was fun. I like the way he wrote, and I liked what he was saying in his emails to me. That’s how it started. It just started very carefully, cautiously, on the faith-based site.
I’m kind of curious. In a lot of romance scams, the progression from, “Hi, it’s nice to meet you,” to, “Oh, my gosh, I love you, let’s get married,” sometimes seems to be in a matter of days. It sounds like that took a longer process in your experience.
It did. I do recall, what happens very quickly is they move you off of the dating site. The way he did that was to take me onto Yahoo! chat. I knew nothing about Yahoo! chat back then.
He was in Houston when we started this and then he had just got a job, a contract. He’s moving hardwood trees from Malaysia to India. A side note there is that the business he was in hardwood trees, I actually owned investment trees in Costa Rica. He didn’t know that when the story started. As he was describing to me what he did, I googled the company and all these things—I could kind of relate to what he was doing.
He was moving from Houston overseas. He said, “Let’s go on the Yahoo! chat. I can get it anywhere.” It’s very easy. It was like instant messaging. To me, it was amazing because I could hear that ding, ding, ding of Yahoo! chat in the middle of the night. I would jump out of bed and I’d come in. The way we communicate mostly is through writing. We can write for hours and it was fun.
We progressed. It did go relatively quickly, there was one time, I recall now, when I was thinking, “You’re saying your feelings for me are really fast. It’s coming very fast.” Of course, I’ve just lost my husband. I wasn’t ready for someone to start telling me that they love me right off the bat. That was something I did notice—he jumped in a little bit quick.
That’s when they start calling you my darling, my wife, at some point, my honey. I mean, all these words that they could really be talking to anybody. They don’t have to remember your name when they say that. He was just saying the right things and feeding my ego.
It’s interesting. I did have a friend who is a social psychologist—social worker—that a few years after this happened, she was kind of digging deep into me. I’m the kind that didn’t really bring my feelings out, especially when I was talking about this. She said, “Deb, you appear to me to have withheld a lot of your heart.” I didn’t like contention, so I didn’t want to bring things up and I would just stop them. She said after a while, “It sounds to me like you feel like you weren’t listened to in your 26 years of marriage.” That’s probably true.
When I got into this relationship, his name was Eric Cole. He listened to me. For two years, we wrote to each other. I’ve got 4000 pages of a journal; I chronicled this whole thing. Throughout that time, I would tell him about the kids. I tell them about how I feel, about how I got mad after Lou died because he left me alone. I could really express my feelings through this. The blessing of this whole thing is that over those years, I felt that that hole that had not been listened to and that was a blessing. Like I said, he was very good at listening and responding back. We had great dialogues in our emails.
It almost sounds like you learned how to express yourself more during this time.
I did. I could talk about anything. There were a few times when I got a little bothered. He was asking a lot of questions about my business and he wanted me to help them write a business plan. I was wondering why in the world is he doing this and then thinking, “Well, maybe he’s trying to get into my company or something.” Later on, I learned that he was really just learning business. He wanted to know how to do some e-commerce business.
We talked about everything from family, to my parents, to the kids—you name it—and his family. It was very interesting. I typed very quickly.
On Yahoo! chat, there were multiple times, one night in particular, I had an open chat with his son and sister, who I thought were in England, and then his attorney, who is somewhere in the world. Then, he was in the Far East somewhere. I’d be going back and forth between these three people. I would be asking his sister and son questions to try to get to know him a little bit better. When his attorney got involved, it was amazing. I felt like there was this whole family being built and it was very interesting to be able to do that. I’d like to know how that was done now, but it was fun.
At what point did things shift from just building a relationship to something a little more sinister?
Well, I never actually thought it was sinister. Again, I’d never heard of an online scam prior to that, really. My mom had had girlfriends who were in their 70s meet their mates. I never felt like there was anything sinister.
There were a couple of times that I call them pink flags. They would have been red to some people, but when I looked into them and then asked him about things, about addresses, or a package that got sent back to me after I was trying to send his son the package, he always had a plausible answer.
It was only when he was supposed to get here for Christmas, that was almost a month-and-a-half or two months into it. We had hotel rooms and all sorts of things for him and his family. When that got canceled, that was the first disappointment.
Again, because he was an international businessman and was doing business overseas, I understood some of the hangups that he had—the customs issues, the tariffs, and those things. Whenever I was asked to help him, it was more of a business proposition. It was always the promise that he would pay me back.
I could understand. Sometimes in international business or in business, you might not get paid until the job is finished. I understood that part, that he had to get through this and he had to get these things done. The sooner he got the job done, the sooner he would get paid, the sooner he would come home to me. That’s where the energy was, let’s get this over with. With every disappointment, it was like, “OK, you’re so far into it now. Just keep going. Keep going. Is this one last time?”
At some point when you’re sending money, you get to, “Oh my gosh, I sent him this much money, I can’t stop now because then I’ll never get it back. Let’s just do this one more time.”
Speaking of money, where did the money start? Often with these, a lot of the ones that I hear it’s, “Oh, my child is sick. I need to go to the hospital.” It’s pulling on the heartstrings of a family member or something like that. It sounds like in your case, that wasn’t what it was.
It always starts with something like that. The first time he asked me for money, it was very small. It was a small amount. It was really to get one of his friends on to the dating site. He was an engineer, he was overseas, he’s having trouble. Eric said, “Would you mind sending a check into the dating site?” “Not a problem,” I said, “the more men, the better.” That was my thinking filling me. That gave that guy credibility in the dating site. That was a small amount of money.
After that, the next thing was a Western Union. That by itself had me a little bit, “Uhh.” As a banker, I just never trusted Western Union. We needed to do a power of attorney. Again, with my legal background, I knew exactly what that was. I’m like, “So why are we doing this?” They said, “My attorney needs to set up this power of attorney so that when the money is sent to me, or I’ve got it, then we can set up bank accounts and all these things in the States.”
That was the first little tip we had when I was setting up the power of attorney, or at least sending the money to Peter, his attorney, for the power of attorney. I was thinking, “Well, this is a little expensive.” I mean, I could do power of attorney for about $15, and this was maybe $2500. It started from there, and $2500 went to $5000.
Then, I went off of Western Union to sending wires. There’s always an urgency to wire. We have to get it done now. I think I just got caught up in it because I felt at some point there was this flip in our relationship where he was becoming my family or my future family.
I always say, even today, that I would do almost anything for my family. Because he was moving into that role, I wanted to help him because I wanted him to get here so that we could start the next chapter in our life together.
I know early on you had said after your husband had passed away, you kind of isolated yourself. Through this process, did he try to further isolate you from people?
Yes, he did. It started with some of my friends. Again, I kept very quiet about what was going on except for one of my girlfriends. The more she pushed me on things, then she could feel me pushing her away and she didn’t want to lose my friendship, so she just nipped it at that point.
I have four kids. I have three boys and a girl. My older boys are military pilots. At one point, I remember, I flew out to see them, maybe in San Diego. All I heard from the boys was, “Mom, don’t, don’t, don’t.”
At that point, I’m thinking, “I’m the adult here, leave me alone.” I really said to them, “I don’t really want to hear what you guys are saying. I will do what I want to do.” When they said, “Don’t send money. I’m thinking, “I’m not going to send the money.” I probably already had, but they didn’t need to know that. I stopped talking to the kids really about what happened.
It wasn’t until one of them came to visit, he intercepted a Yahoo! chat, email, or something, and just came unglued. He ripped Eric apart. I got mad at my son. I’m like, “I didn’t teach you to be that nasty, rude, and everything else.” I made him leave the house and go for a walk.
That was one of the first times I actually talked to Eric on the telephone because I was upset with the way my son treated him, that we connected. We talked. I did hear the British accent, which fed into the story that I was just trying to explain to him how sorry I was that my son behaved so poorly.
Fast forward a year or two, I was eating crow and apologizing to my son. He really did. They do try to isolate you from friends and family so that you’re only concentrating on them.
When I was talking to him in the middle of the night, my youngest son was 15 or 16 at the time. He’d be sound asleep. Eric became my lifeline and my confidant. He was my “it” at that point. It was very comfortable because I was safe in a relationship, but I didn’t have to have anybody here in person.
After being married so long, I really wasn’t ready to have a physical relationship, but I was ready to have someone that started off as a pen pal, a friend, and a confidant. This is just the person I could talk to at any time in my day or night. I felt comfortable talking to him almost about everything.
Maybe this is more in retrospect, did it seem unusual that he was so available?
No. Again, there’s the time change. I thought he was over in Malaysia. At some point, it was the middle of the night here. I could wake up at three o’clock in the morning thinking that maybe it’s 10 hours, 12 hours, whatever, the afternoon for him, to know that that really didn’t play into it.
It was just there were times when we got disconnected. The service wasn’t always so good. At least that’s what he said, because I wanted to Skype with him. We didn’t have FaceTime and that kind of stuff back then. I wanted to be able to see him. There was always a reason why he couldn’t come online and couldn’t come on so that I could see him. That bothered me a little bit. I didn’t know enough about Malaysia, Indonesia, and all those areas to know maybe the internet wasn’t so good over there.
It was always the, “I wanted to do a video chat, but I just can’t because the service is just so poor here.”
Yeah. Then, I wanted to do it with his sister and son over in England. The issue there was that their computer wasn’t up-to-date enough.
Always a very reasonable, plausible-sounding reason. “Well, gee, I have an old laptop, it doesn’t have a camera.”
Absolutely. I believed it. I had no reason not to trust that.
Cameras on every device, nowadays, I don’t think you could buy a computer without a camera on it. Ten years ago, that was really not as common as it is now.
Maybe the high-end stuff. If someone’s not techy, they’re probably not buying those machines.
All told, at what point did the numbers and the dollars start going up?
As we got more into the finishing up of the contract, there were bigger, bigger issues and a lot of them were tariffs. They had something to do with moving these hardwood trees from Malaysia to India. He was going to get paid. Then, the money was being moved and the money got held up. We had to pay whatever it was to get the money out.
Looking back, it just seems so ridiculous. When you’re in the middle of it, there’s such urgency, just like I said, to get this over with, to do whatever we could to get him through, to get it through Mexico, to get him out of India, to get wherever it was.
There were large sums. It escalated up to $50,000 to $100,000 at a time. This is where I really want people to know, I didn’t have that money sitting in the bank. I had a company, yes. I sold my retirement accounts. I traded those out. I sold jewelry. I sold some of the trees that I owned.
There were ways because, again, I felt like he was family. I wanted to make sure I can get him here. I was going to do anything I could to get him here. There was always that promise of, “I’ll pay you back. We’ll be OK.” I borrowed $100,000 from my parents, which I look back on, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, why did I do that?”
My parents even felt like he was part of the family. Yes. My dad at one point was thinking, “Well, this sounds a little weird.” But a year and a half in, he was thinking, “This couldn’t possibly be a scam. This has been going on for way too long.”
When we actually lost some money, that’s my biggest regret—what happened to my parents. I’m actually buying them a house next month. I had to make amends for that, even though I paid them back over the years.
Eric was asking me to borrow from whoever I could and that was tough. I was a little bit embarrassed at some point because I was trying to get money back that I had lent to people. When you lend money to friends, basically it’s a gift. I couldn’t get it back because they couldn’t ever help me back.
I went to a couple of friends. They were business people and said, “OK, can you help me with my company?” Because the company was going to help Eric and fortunately they said, “No.” Eric was always saying, “Do you know anybody else that can help you? Is there anybody that you can call that you can get the extra money?” Thank goodness it only was stopped with my parents. Over those two years, I gave them a lot of money.
Do you mind saying how much the total was?
No, I don’t mind. This is going to make everybody go, oh, it was actually $1,080,762.
Exactly. I didn’t know it was that much until the end or towards the end when I actually sat down. I had phenomenal records. I kept incredible records and I added it all up. When I saw that amount of things, oh my gosh, I am the traditional damn yankee who doesn’t give money away to anybody. For me to have given him that much was unbelievable to me. To even be able to find that amount of money, I still kind of go…
As we probably rightly should.
Absolutely. I also realized—I learned this at a young age—we had a fire in our home when I was 15, that my last suit has no pockets and I can’t take the money with me. It would be nice to have it in the bank now to be able to help children and grandchildren. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about how this whole thing happens.
I was even asked one time if I could reverse time, go back, and not have this happen, would I do that? Honestly, I would let it happen the way it happened. Again, I can’t take the money with me. I am actually doing fine right now. I’ve remarried and am doing OK.
There are so many people out there that need to hear this story. I was interviewed once and a woman in Indiana said, “Deb, do you believe in god?” “I do.” She said, “This happened because god knew that you would speak up and you would tell the story.”
At that point, I realized if I could just help one person, either not get involved in this or recover from it, then it was worth the whole two-year adventure and the million dollars. It’s not about the money, it’s about what I learned about myself, what I’ve learned about what is going on in the world, and how to help somebody else. That’s my purpose: to help one other person.
That’s very much the premise of the podcast. This is a labor of love. After hearing so many stories, all these different scams, and all these different things going on, I was like, “Well, I’m in a position where I can afford to pay for the podcast production. I can afford to not run advertising. I have a business which can support this as a—I don’t want to call it a non-profit because it’s not, but that I can support the costs of the podcast, the production, and everything that revolves around it because I’m in the same position. I just don’t want people to fall for these scams.”
I think a lot of it is people just aren’t aware of all of these things. A great example that I talked about was I used to work in a corporate office before I was self-employed. I was kind of the person who got the correspondence from the building owner. The building owner contacted us. Over the course of a couple of years that we were there, there were two things that really stood out in my mind.
There was one where they said, “Hey, if anyone comes in asking to inspect the fire system, don’t let them in.” That’s weird, that’s just odd. Why would someone want to inspect the fire system? Not that somebody would want to inspect the fire system, but how could that be a scam? Well, they would come in, have you sign a document saying that they inspected, and it really wasn’t a document saying they inspected. It was you who were signing the authorization for them to charge you $2000 for the inspection or something like that.
Everyone just assumed, “Oh, the building owner sent them in. Sure, I’ll sign the document and let them go on.” When you were actually hiring a company to come in and inspect when the building manager was already doing that, you didn’t need to do it.
The other one was, “Be careful about just people walking into your office when they’re on the phone.” They come in on a cell phone, very authoritative looking, and they head for a particular direction in the office. They walk down the aisle between the employees and when no one’s looking, they grab someone’s purse, grab a laptop off of someone’s computer, and just walk out the door because they’re acting like they belong there. Like they know where they’re going, they know what they’re doing. No one pays them any attention.
Oh, my gosh. I would never have thought that that sort of thing occurred but these are the realities that we live in.
Well, what I want people to understand, too, is that when you hear of an online romance thing—“Oh, that would never happen to me.” That’s not the point because it could happen to you. It could happen to your mother, it could happen to your daughter. It could happen to your best friend. You might not know that it’s taking place. Where everybody gets scammed by somebody at some point in their lifetime. I’ve heard 60% of the time it’s by someone that you know or someone that’s in your family. It’s just really important to be aware because you might be at the perfect storm as far as emotions, the vulnerabilities.
My husband had just passed away. Many of the women I work with, they’re recently divorced. One gal out in Texas, she had worked her whole life. She was 67. She was retiring. She’s never been married. She was at a point where, “I’ve got money, I’ve got time. I really want a relationship. I want to travel.” She had been taken up for $2.5 million. Now, we’re friends because I understand what she went through. She understands what I went through.
I was telling you earlier, the reason I do this is because today I got an email from a doctor up in the Carolinas. Her story, she read my book. She goes, thank you for sharing your story. How I wish I had read it prior to going online to date. She gave me her whole story. It just sounds like it’s the playbook. It’s verbatim. The stories are the same.
The scammers are so well-trained and they swap stories with each other. They’ve got these playbooks. It’s a business. It is a billion-dollar business and they are good at it. They’re good salesmen.
I think we were talking—if these guys could do something for good, they’d be phenomenal. But, they’re good at just ripping your heartstrings out. Women and men, because Palm Beach County, the FBI told me more men get taken up for a million than women, but they’re broke and broke. At the end, they’ve lost everything. They certainly don’t need their family and friends to give them the victim’s blame.
That’s the hardest part. That’s why most of the victims, I call them survivors, don’t speak up. Too many people are saying, “Oh, that was really stupid of you to do that. Why did you do that?”
In my case, with the kids, they have the humble pie. I got yelled at by my boys, especially. I realized at that point, my oldest son, particularly when his dad died, he was thrown into being the man of the house, even though he was in flight school with the military. He was not here, but he took on that mantle of protecting mom.
After I let him bless me anew, I realized that he felt like he had let me down, that I hadn’t trusted him, and he hadn’t protected me. I also felt like maybe the boys thought that I was going to have to come live with them, which I didn’t have to.
I needed to assure them that I did this. It was for me. It had nothing to do with them. It was about my needing to feel hurt and my needing to feel loved again because their dad died suddenly. Anybody who’s been married for more than a week realizes that marriage is not always easy. There are gives and takes. Eric, he just came into my life at the right time and he knew how to manipulate that. It’s tough.
What was the point where you realized, or someone else convinced you, that it was a scam?
Oh, he made me realize. He came on one morning. It was September 10, 2012. He came online and he asked me the question, “How do you feel about forgiveness?” We have talked about that—about spiritual things many times over those two years. When you asked me that question, I sat down, put on my spiritual hat, we had this long discussion about forgiveness, and then we got disconnected, which again, wasn’t unusual.
When he came back that afternoon, he said, “Did you remember what we were talking about?” And went on. I said, “Why are we talking about forgiveness? Have I done something?” Thinking that it was me. He said, “No.” He said, “I have something to tell you. I have a confession to make.”
I always have heard that. I had heard that once in my marriage and it was not a very fun time. When he says that and he goes, “This is going to hurt you, but I just need to know that you can forgive me.” I said, “Eric, maybe you shouldn’t be telling me this.” He said, “No, I have to. I have to tell you.”
He kept on writing and he said, “I have to confess this has all been a scam.” When I read that on my screensaver, I’m seeing my handsome Eric, and I’m thinking there’s something wrong, you’re sick. There had been medical issues over those two years. I said, something’s wrong.
I said, “Now you have to prove to me that you’re lying or that you’re telling the truth. Prove to me that you’re telling the truth and not lying.” He said, “On Yahoo! chat, there is a small camera.” Well, I didn’t know that. We’ve been on Yahoo! chat for two years. He walked me through how to bring up the camera. Honestly, I haven’t used it since.
When he came on live, I was looking at my screensaver of my handsome Brit, and online comes this picture. Actually, it’s a live video of a young man with dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin, and a huge smile on his face. All of a sudden I’m thinking, “Oh, my gosh, what has happened here?”
That was the gift from god. That in an instant, my heart, my brain had just separated from those two years of story. I actually had my telephone in my hand and I took a picture of him on my screen. I have a picture of him in my book. It’s the only picture that I have of the real Joseph, not Eric.
I asked him why he did this, because most scammers don’t confess and they certainly don’t come online. He says that he had started to really fall for me and that he couldn’t do it anymore. Maybe that’s part of the scam, but I have to believe that that little bit of my light overshadowed the darkness you’ve been living in for a long time. He just needed to do that.
Eric, Joseph, whatever, whoever he was, I said, “I need for you not to do this anymore.” I don’t know that he would promise that. Then I said, “Why did you do it?” I wanted to know.
I said, “Eric, you know me. I probably would have helped you out if you had been honest about what was going on. If you have siblings that you’re taking care of,” which many of them do, many of them are taking care of family members. I said, “I’m not a heartless person. Obviously, I would have helped you.”
I said, “You just completely destroyed my trust in people, and you’ve hurt my heart. You’ve hurt my bank account.” It was devastating to me. It was worse than when my husband died, even though Lou died suddenly, that obviously upended my life.
At this time, I was part of it. I willingly was part of it. I gave him so much money and that could have really destroyed me if I had let it.
I kept him engaged. I went to the FBI the next day with my mom, dad, and all of my documentation. When they said, “Well, first off, you were a victim and they manipulated you.” I’m thinking, “I’m not going to be called a victim.” They said, “We can’t help you because he’s out of the country.”
When you hear the FBI say they can’t help you, I’m thinking, “I watch TV. I know that they can do a lot of things.”
I see it all the time.
I do. They said, “We can’t.” That’s when I just basically shut down. I shut down the story. I shut down telling anybody else. That’s why the title of my book was The Woman Behind the Smile. I just became that person that put on a smile and pretended everything was fine. Inside I was dying.
Now, I lost my husband and now I had lost who I thought was the next love in my life. I lost a lot of money. I was struggling with not being able to tell anybody. I didn’t tell my kids because I didn’t want the, “Oh mom, that was really stupid of you.” Or, “Now what are you going to do?” I didn’t want that.
I had a great relationship with my mother and dad. I still do to this day. Actually, that’s one of the benefits that came out of this. We’ve become very, very close. It was a hard pill to swallow. I don’t know how I did it, but I actually started dating again after that.
How did you make the transition from, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to be the woman behind the smile? I’m never going to tell anybody. I don’t want anyone to see or hear what happened,” to now coming on a podcast? I’m not the only podcast you’ve been on and you’ve been on national television telling your story. What was that transformation that happened?
I had gone to a business speaking training. I belong to the Women’s Prosperity Network—it’s a women’s organization in South Florida. I’ve gone down to one of their businesses speaking to learn how to better speak about my company because it was actually Lou’s company and I didn’t know a whole lot about it.
We manufacture vitamin supplements for diabetics. He’s diabetic, I wasn’t. He was taking the vitamins, I wasn’t. I needed to learn how I could convincingly tell people about this great vitamin. I was having lunch on the first day with a girlfriend and she said something about online dating. Now, she tells me that I rolled my eyes at her. Yeah, what’s that all about?
I told her the story very quietly. She looked at me. There was another woman at the table and they were just riveted. They’re like, “You have got to tell the story.” The one friend said, “My mom was taken for $480,000 and she’ll never tell. Another friend of mine,” she said, “I was in a relationship for a year with a man. We were engaged, he had another family up north.”
I started hearing all these stories and they’re like, “You have got to move, change what you’re talking about, come up with the story, and how you can get it out in a bigger way.” By the end of that weekend, I presented the end of my story saying, “I invite you all to the movie premiere of The Woman Behind the Smile.”
They’re going, “How do we get tickets?” I’m like, “I just made that up.” They said, “No, you’ve got to make this your mission. You’ve got to write your book, and you’ve got to go out in a bigger way.” Again, if you can only protect or save one person, then it was worth it. It has turned into much more than that.
Valentine’s Day is a huge time for love and online love. That’s when this first started hitting. It was years ago around Valentine’s Day. The story came out originally in the Palm Beach Post. People were just…it was incredulous. How could this happen?
Then, they start hearing that this is happening to a lot of people. My mission really moved forward when after the Palm Beach Post article, I was put in contact with an organization in Miami called SCARS which is a Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams. They’re an international non-profit that has been, for years, working with victims and survivors around the world.
I met with Dr. Tim McGuinness, the founder. We became fast friends in our mission to help be a victim’s advocate. There’s a lot of cyber security information and people out there, but very few, if any, except for us, work with the victims and their families in educating and trying to help them move forward.
Once I got engaged in all of that, I just found my passion. My mission, my purpose in life, came out of this really painful experience. I get so ginned up, revved up, when I’m speaking about it.
I realized after one time when I was presenting—actually at a Women’s Prosperity Network thing—and a woman gave me what I call the stink eye. I’m thinking, first off, it wasn’t very nice because I started thinking something’s going to happen to you one day. It always does. Karma returns. I’ve got to make something good out of this.
Once I started talking about it, I got the buy-in from people. I could see people bobbing their heads because they just needed to know that this had happened to somebody else and they weren’t alone anymore. That’s why I did it.
I realize I’m not talking to that woman that’s giving me the stink eye. I’m talking to the five other women around her that understand that their mom went through it, their sister went through it, their friends are going through it. They don’t know what to do. Who do they talk to about this? You don’t want people to know that you’re a smart business person and you got swindled out of a million dollars. It happens. It happens a lot.
I think that’s even the genesis of where the original Nigerian scams started—it was faxes sent to accountants. These were highly educated financial planners and CPAs. It was very well-crafted.
That act has come back around because last year before we shut down for COVID, one of the biggest scams in the world was called BEC, which was Business Email Compromise. They were going right for the letter from the CEO, to the CFO, to the accounts payable, and it was usually a Friday afternoon. At quarter to five, wire such-and-such to the client right away. This is immediate, blah-blah-blah. And then you think, “I’m doing something important for the boss.” You let him know that you sent the wire out and he’s like, “Wire for what?” It would be $100,000, $200,000. Scammers are making bigger money on one of those than they would make on a hundred relationship scams.
I forget her name, but one of the women from Shark Tank, her company…
She was in real estate. I’m having this brain cramp.
Yes. For her and her accountant, $100,000 here, $200,000 there—this was normal operations. It was totally inside the normal course of their business and it was just a fluke. The confirmation, like, “Oh, yeah, I sent that.” “Wait, sent what? Huh?” It was honestly incredibly fortunate for her that it may be because of who she is or just the timing of it, the money didn’t actually get transferred into the scammer’s bank account. It hit somewhere else first and they were able to stop the process and get the money back, but that’s totally the exception to the story.
The same thing happened when Rick Scott was governor of Florida. I lived in Florida. His wife’s company was taken for $600,000, but they were able to get it back. That’s the thing, I think if they had a Match group or some other dating sites—if their mother was taken, it would become a big issue, but they’re not hearing about it.
I actually spoke to someone up at the Senate Committee on elder abuse and they’re not hearing the numbers. If people reported it as much as it happens, I think we would be floored. The dollar amounts would be in the multi-billions. Very few people report it, so I don’t think they really understand how pervasive a problem it is.
I had done an interview with Kelly Paxton on embezzlement. From her discussions of talking with people that were victims whose companies were embezzled from, she was saying that 70%-80% of those embezzlements never get reported because it was a family member or they like the person. They just wanted it to go away. The owners of the businesses didn’t want people to know that they had been taken, so I just want to make it go away quietly and send this person off to do it to someone else, unfortunately.
I could have done that. I could have just shut up and gone away, and it would still be eating me up to this day if I had done that. The girl that wrote to me today said that she told her kids, and her kids pulled a Dr. Phil on her where they came in and said, “Mom, look at this business”. That’s valuable at some point. I really feel for the women typically that are on TV that are being outed that way. It makes the family feel good but it doesn’t make the person that’s being victimized really understand what’s happening.
You can’t understand it that way. You were so entrenched in this other person’s life that it would be like me coming to you and saying your marriage is not for real. This was as real to me as almost anything was in my life. You either have to stop the person before they get really involved, or you have to wait until the end when they’re broken. You can’t pull them out of it in the middle. You think you can, but like my girlfriend said, “There was nothing I could do short of losing you as a friend that would have helped out any.” I said, “You’re right. You couldn’t have said anything to me to convince me that Eric wasn’t a real guy.”
And if you lost her as a friend, that wouldn’t have convinced you. You would have said, “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
Except now, bless her heart, she separated from her husband, started to do online dating. She moved right next door. I am her dating buddy. I wish I had someone too that was objective that could look at what I was doing because she contacts me and goes, “You’ve got to look at this.” I’m like, “That’s a scammer right off the bat. I can feel it. I can see it.” And she’s like, “No, no, no.”
I’ve had several friends who have sent me pictures of people that they’ve been in contact with and they’re starting to fall for these guys, and I do that reverse Google search or I do a picture search, and I can find these scammers in a minute. I’m like, “Stop.”
I had one girlfriend who lost her husband and she hadn’t gotten any insurance money yet. I told her, “The scammer is waiting for you to get some money.” When I showed her that his picture had been used by 12 different profiles, she’s like, “It’s the real guy and his picture’s been stolen.” I’m like, “Of course it’s a real guy, but that picture you’re looking at is a guy that’s had identity theft. It is not the person you’re actually talking to.” The hardest part is to convince the woman or man that the picture is not the real person.
I had a woman in the UK two weeks ago who got really angry at me because she’s convinced that there was this young fellow who’s a former military sniper. He got out of the military, living at home with his family. She’s convinced that he was putting on his social media that he was at home because he was really still overseas and I’m thinking, “I can’t help this woman.”
She got mad. She reported me to Tim because she said, “She’s not helping me.” I’m like, “I can’t help her; she doesn’t want to hear what I have to say so she’s not ready to be helped yet.”
One of my early interviews for the podcast was with Jeffrey Hayzlett who is a fairly well-known CEO. Let me age him down so I don’t insult him by accident—early sixties, salt-and-pepper hair, just a really good-looking guy. His likeness has been used in a ton of scams.
He is now, at this point, getting contacted by friends and families of women and men who say, “I know that you’re not the person that my family member is dating, but they think they’re dating you; can you please talk with them and tell them that it isn’t you?” He’s done video chats with people and they’re like, “You’re just lying to me to save face publicly, but you really do love me.”
It’s tough. I did an interview; the fellow’s name was Bryan Denny. Bryan’s a former army colonel. Bryan’s likeness has been used by thousands of scammer profiles—it ruins his day. He’s like, “Deb, I can’t tell you how many women I have broken up with.” He’s happily married with a son in college.
He’s going after Facebook. He and Cathy Waters have their own group going towards, not the victim side, but more of the impersonation side. That’s the one thing I like to tell my friends. If you’re looking for online dating, you will not see a guy in military uniform or a girl that is going to be on online dating. It just doesn’t happen.
I’m a former air force officer. My kids are on active duty and I’m like, “The kids are not allowed to be doing that. They can’t publish their pictures online. These scammers are not military. They are not.” For me, that’s stolen valor, and it just irks the heck out of me.
When I was talking with Tim about this, he said, “It’s very effective, especially in the Far East—Malaysia and the Philippines—because they’re looking for American soldiers to rescue them from where they are.” Same here—it’s not just the Malaysian women. The women I know have gotten taken by guys in the military. They’re honest, trustworthy, patriotic, good-looking guys, and they look great in uniform—but it’s not them.
Part of the scam is an appeal to authority. Whether it’s, “I’m representing a government institution,” or, “I’m a police officer,” or, “I’m in the military.” It’s just so ingrained in us: I need to respect this person, I need to be supportive of them because they’re an authority. It’s just the way that we’re wired.
People that aren’t in the military don’t understand necessarily that our service guys are not going to ask you for a plane ticket home. They’re not going to ask you to send money so they can take care of their kids. They’re not. I know that because I was in the service. Many people might not know that because they hear that they’re not paid enough and all this kind of stuff, which is certainly true too.
But because they don’t know enough about the service and the services that are provided to our military, they’re thinking, “I want to help them. They’re doing a good job. This guy’s a doctor for the UN, or he’s fighting in Syria against the Taliban.”
What really got to me is when I understood the money that had been sent could possibly be funding Boko Haram or terrorism. I’m thinking, “Holy moly, I would never do that. I’m not helping some young guy, or some guy whose son or daughter is sick. I’m funding terrorism.”
I think that’s really one of the reasons my boys became unglued—because they’re coming up for security clearances and they’re like, “Mom.” I was like, “Guys I wasn’t giving to a Nigerian knowingly.” And I said, “I have security clearances higher than yours. I went to the FBI. If they want to come after me, they can come talk to me,” I said. We’re not going to come after you but my boys, again, were trying to protect and I love them dearly.
It changed our relationship, though, for the good because it really made me treat my kids as young adults. I’m doing that to my parents right now. I’m in the middle generation now, where I’m talking to my parents as the adult in some of the financial decisions that are being made. It’s an interesting transition in family relations, especially when this happens because a lot of people are afraid to tell their kids.
I said that’s the first group that you need to tell—your family members—so that you can have some support from people that love you. They have to understand exactly what’s happened. And if need be, I sent them my book and I’m like, “Read it and then give it to the kids.” They’ll see it and they’re like, “That’s not my mom, but it’s somebody that happened to.” And then when mom starts to tell them her story, they’re not blindsided and they have an idea that somebody else that was fairly intelligent got taken too. It humanizes the situation rather demonizes us as victims.
During this conversation, I was writing down all the warning signs that I could think of that you mentioned. You also mentioned what not to put in a dating profile, so we’ll come back to that. The warning signs that I wrote down—and if there are ones that I missed let me know—we’ve got: quickly moved off the original platform, quick feelings and pet names, plausible excuses for why certain things can’t happen, a cancelled visit, and the sending of untraceable funds via Western Union, because I don’t know anyone who’s ever used Western Union except for fraudulent means.
They actually were sued. There was a class action suit and I did get a little bit of money back from that.
No, actually several thousand dollars. There was one who I think had done maybe $45,000 over the whole scam and she was able to recover some of that.
I’m not bashing Western Union at all, but they’re franchises and some of these franchises very possibly were owned or run by scammers. That really irked me, so be careful.
So we had urgency. Anytime there was money involved, there was urgency. There was isolation, but it sounded like it was more on your part than on his part.
He encouraged it because he couldn’t have people changing my mind.
So we do have isolation. We had poor internet service, so they couldn’t video chat.
That has actually changed. Some of the younger folks are being taken on Instagram videos, Snapchat, and those things. Here’s something interesting. When I was interviewing Colonel Denny, I was going to do it by video and he said, “Deb, I’m not going to do the interview with you if it’s video.” I’m like, “Why? It will be great.” He’s a good-looking guy. He said, “Because scammers can change what I’m saying.” I think, “OK we’re done with that video.”
And that’s true because a lot of women will come to me and say, “I’ve video-chatted with him.” I say, “Have you been watching Netflix recently when you’re watching a show and it’s actually being done in Denmark? They’re speaking in English, but if you really look at their lips, they’re speaking Danish. They’re not speaking English but our brains are making us think that we’re seeing them speak in English. I’m sure it’s the same online, in the way these scammers are changing what they’re doing. We’re hearing what we want to hear, not what they’re actually, saying so be careful.”
That was some original advice I’d always give people. If they’re unwilling to do a video chat then that should be the biggest red flag on the planet.
Yeah, and then they’ll say that they’re not in an area where they can video chat—Syria, Lebanon, Iraq.
To me if they’re in Syria, Lebanon, or Iraq, then they’re not available to be in a relationship.
Yeah, they want money for a ticket to come home.
Brett was even talking about this. With deep fakes now, if there’s enough video of a person out there, it won’t even look like it’s dubbed. It will look legitimately consistent. I’m still going to throw out poor internet service and won’t video chat as a warning sign, but not to say just because they will video chat that it’s guaranteed that they’re not a scammer.
I think a lot of it, too, might be the age groups because the fifties and up are not doing Snapchat and all the things on the phone. We’re looking for maybe a Skype or a FaceTime. The younger generation—twenties or thirty-somethings that are being taken—are the ones that are really relying on the technology on the phones to do those things, I think more so than the fifty-somethings and up. There are different age groups too that are getting taken in different ways. It’s a whole other discussion on that.
Did I miss any warning signs?
No, that’s a very good list.
Let’s come back before we close. You talked about what not to put in an online dating profile. I have one in my mind, but I think you’re going to say it, so I won’t say it. So what should you not put in an online dating profile?
The first thing is that you’re a widower or divorcee, because I’m thinking if you’re on a dating site, you have to be single and it doesn’t matter. It’s very interesting now because when I was looking at widows versus divorcees, I did feel that there was a difference in the men and the way they were going to be looking at a relationship if they had lost a wife or if they were divorced.
And there are good relationship signs out there that indicate that people who have a spouse pass away are more likely to build a new relationship more so than someone who’s been divorced.
Although, I remarried and my husband had been married for 28 years but it was an amicable divorce. If it had not been, that’s when I saw the difference in the way the divorced guys related to me versus the widows. Scammers are always widowers, they’re not divorced. They’re all widowers, because that brings in that story where there could be a child involved and that kind of stuff.
What not to put: don’t put that you own a company, or that you’re a business person because they don’t need to know about your finances. If they think that you’ve got some money, they’re going to go after you. If they find out you don’t have money though, the next iteration of scam is that you become a money or package mule. There’s a whole other story wrapped around that.
You don’t have to tell them about your finances. Be transparent, but just be careful. When you’re seeing those pictures, do your due diligence on the pictures because the pictures that we’re getting from the very effective scammers are really good pictures.
You mean that the person is particularly attractive or it’s just a well-done photo?
Particularly attractive, good-looking guys. It’s not the guys in the wife-beater t-shirts.
It’s almost like if somebody stands out significantly amongst the field of prospects, is that kind of a warning sign?
Yes, I would definitely check their pictures by Google search because the guys that women have been dealing with recently are very, very good-looking men and it turns out that they’re models or international guys. Their pictures are out there. When I did the Google of my Eric’s picture, I couldn’t find it.
Again, the scammers now are getting very creative because with Google search, if you flip the picture, it’s not going to pick it up. There are ways for them to change the picture so it’s not going to get picked up. Just be really careful if he’s really, really good-looking. I’ve got really good-looking friends, but just be very careful if it’s a staged picture, professional picture, or a military picture. There’s a good chance it’s a scammer.
And then the person’s in exotic locations doing exotic things.
Yeah, we don’t have too many doctors in the UN that are working with the military over there and need a trip home. Most of them are international in some way. They’re doing business internationally, they’re not available here in the country, or they are in the country but they’ve lost their living. That’s what happened to me, he was actually here in Houston and was leaving. It didn’t happen that way, but it was a good story.
That’s the story, yeah. That makes sense of why the calls happened at unusual times. It helps lay the groundwork for poor internet connection, hard to reach, can’t video chat.
Here’s another thing. I’m looking at this doctor’s email to me. She said the way they’re sending money today is through bitcoin. That wasn’t around when I was doing it.
That’s what I classify as untraceable funds—whether it’s Western Union, cryptocurrency, gift cards, I’ve even heard of credit on gaming platforms.
This happens a lot now on Words With Friends.
Because people will let their guard down. They’re not viewing the person they’re playing the game with as a potential scammer, it’s just a person they’re playing Words With Friends with.
We were talking earlier about this pandemic. People are looking for friends, or someone to communicate with, to enjoy, and no one’s thinking that it’s a scammer. It’s just a picture. We would not go out and give $100,000 to a guy sitting on the street who we didn’t know, but I gave $100,000 to a guy that I fell in love with online and I never met him, never saw him until the very end. It’s not logical, but that’s the thing. I always say my heart ruled my head. My head got hijacked.
That’s what these guys are experts at doing.
They certainly are.
What resources can you recommend to people who either think they’re involved in one of these, or think their relative is involved in one of these?
I do want to say, go to anyscam.com or againstscams.org—the websites for SCARS, the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams. I’ll be transparent: I’m on the board of directors. I work directly with them. There’s so much great information there for families, friends. It tells you what kinds of scams are out there, who to report it to.
Report it to IC3, which is the FBI’s website. They’re not going to get your money back, but they’re building their database. The first thing we tell people is to report it to the local police. Again, they’re not going to do anything for you but you can get an informational report, so go in there not looking for them to help you. Get an informational report that, at least in the state of Florida, can help you get rent assistance or some sort of government assistance. People that have been taken in a really big way have lost a lot of their finances. It’s very possible they’ve lost their home, they’ve taken a mortgage out on their home.
Talk to your bankers. They’re not going to help you, they’re going to tell you there’s nothing they can do, but just report, report, report and then put that behind you. The next thing I’d say is write your story down. You have to figure out a way to release the emotion of it, and for me it was journaling, writing it out, writing my book. It was doing something.
And then find somebody that you can really trust—a friend, a family member—someone that’s not going to shame you, that’s not going to blame you, that’s just going to listen to what you have to say, and then help you move forward. You can’t do it alone. If you try, you’ll be isolating and depression has led to many suicides, and it’s sad what it could do.
I have a Thursday show called Stand Up And Speak Up, and it gives people an opportunity to hear that we’ve all had something that we’ve hit rock bottom on. And with baby steps you can find hope, move forward, and have a successful life again.
A friend of mine I interviewed last week said, “If we really think about it, all of us have made $1,000,000 in our lifetime. It may not be in the bank and we might have lost it, but over a lifetime we’ve done it. And you can do it again. We have to get out of the victim mentality that woe is me and realize that there’s energy in what we’re doing. Just find the positive energy and find someone that you can really love again.”
That was the biggest thing, I think, with a lot of the women that I deal with that have shut their hearts off and were like, “We’ll never do this again, we’ll never trust anybody again, we’ll never fall in love again.” And I’m thinking, “That’s true. If you think that, that’s what’s going to happen.”
Honestly, I started dating my husband in January, and the scam happened to me in September. I don’t know how I did it, except I didn’t want the scammers to get the best of me. I told CJ right off the bat what had happened and he told me something in his lifetime, which was very vulnerable to him. I said, “Our deal is we tell the truth from the get-go. I need an honest guy after being scammed for two years. I need someone that tells me the good and ugly, but it’s honest.”
We’ve been married five years and he’s the sweetest guy ever, and my greatest supporter. When I started coming up, he was like, “You’re the husband of The Woman Behind the Smile. I said, “You’re the good guy, the guy everybody wants to call on now because they want that hope that it could happen to them.” And it can, if you’re just really careful.
I think that is a great way to close out the episode. If people want to find you and your book, where can they find it, and what is it called?
My website is thewomanbehindthesmile.com. They can write to me at [email protected], particularly if someone’s been a victim, I encourage you to write to me. I will write right back and get you in touch with people that can help.
The book is on Amazon and it’s called The Woman Behind the Smile: Triumph Over the Ultimate Online Dating Betrayal. We’re coming out on Audible, maybe by December, and the Audible will have podcast messages in between the chapters, and I’m really excited about it because it’s kind of a follow-on to what’s happened since I wrote the book.
My show on Thursdays—Stand Up and Speak Up—you can find it on Facebook. And at The Woman Behind the Smile, just register to get the calling information. Thanks for asking.
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