Press/Media Organization: CBS 12 News
Published Date: 04/26/2022
Author(s): MIKE MAGNOLI
Romance Scam: Woman lost $1M, her 2-year online love interest was just an illusion
LAKE WORTH, Fla. (CBS12) — (This story is one in a series of reports from the CBS12 News I-Team. On April 28 and 29, tune in for Scam Alert Days: Special content, on-air and online, full of warning tales about bad actors and swindlers, who come in many forms, but all have one goal in common: They’re out to siphon your dough.)
Experts say thousands of singles become victims of romance scams every week; there are millions around the world who have been affected by this trend.
Deborah Montgomery Johnson was a widow, looking for new love after the death of her husband. She logged onto a dating site, then fell head over heels for an international man of mystery and was tricked into sending him north of a million dollars.
She thought the new boyfriend was British, a world traveler, a Christian. Turned out, “he” was never real and a team of computer savvy Nigerians was pulling the strings the whole time.
Since her first TV interview with CBS12 News in 2015, Deb has been the guest on many national programs; she’s become a victim rights advocate. She even joined a group called SCARS, or the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams.
But Deb has been on a mission to warn singles about the con-artists who lurk on dating apps and websites, the stories of cases keep on coming. The numbers are only going up, as seen in the recent Netflix documentary, The Tinder Swindler.
“Every second, somebody is being scammed by somebody,” said Montgomery. “We have to have some support for the victims, so they are willing to speak up because nothing will be done. If governments and social media sites, if they don’t know how many people are being taken, they’re not going to take it seriously.”
The man in the profile picture was an illusion; Deb knows that now. But for two years, she was in love with him, and they never once met in person.
During what Deb describes as a time of “grief and vulnerability,” at the suggestion of friends, she created a dating profile on LDS Planet. There, she connected with “Eric Cole.”
Soon, Deb and Eric were exchanging love letters, flirty text messages, and talking on the phone late into the night.
Eric even sent Deb pictures of family members: images pulled from the internet, fake people, some she even had calls with.
Deb would later learn, the scam artist had accomplices.
Mike Magnoli: Your guy was plural? Was a team?
Deborah Montgomery Johnson: I’m sure he was. In my story, there was the sister and the son…and the lawyer… and after it fell apart, I was thinking, ‘How’d they do that?’ It’s organized crime, it’s not one guy in a café in Nigeria, these are office buildings full of university trained sales people basically.
Selling an emotional connection. Totally fabricated.
Eric began asking for financial favors. Could Deb wire him some money because he was abroad? Did he have a way to exchange currency quickly?
Then there were business deals: Eric promised he was about to make a fortune for their future, and Deb should get in on the action. And sometimes Eric had family emergencies- he needed to fly to Europe to be with his boy.
All told, over the course of their cyber-relationship, Deb sent Eric more than a million bucks.
Then one day, “Eric” came clean: a young man from Nigeria revealing Eric was his invention.
“What the scammers did for me- to me- in two years, that’s being done in 6 months or less,” Deb said.
Deb has a list of warning signs. To you single ladies, these are four things you should be looking for; they might be a clue you’re being scammed.
1) Be weary if the guy says he is in the military. Stolen valor on dating sites and apps is rampant and law enforcement agencies say people are so inherently respectful of the military, if there’s one picture of a guy in a uniform, women are prone to believe him.
The military is even trying to rein this in. In Deb’s case, she came from a military family and the scam artist pretended to have a similar background.
2) If the guy isn’t calling you by name, only uses terms of endearment like “Sweetheart” and “My love,” Deb says that could mean he’s running multiple scams at once and can’t keep track of the victims.
3) If you haven’t met the person in real life, after about two or three weeks, you should start to wonder if something is suspicious.
4) Beware if he’s the crying shoulder type. Scam artists know a breakup or a death means the victim is down and easy prey. Deb says don’t identify yourself as “divorced” or “widowed,” just “single.”
• CBS - USA, • LOCAL TV, • VIDEO, • WRITTEN ARTICLE, 2022, and Debby Montgomery Johnson