Press/Media Organization: ABC 33/40 WPEC

Published Date: 04/27/2022


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Woman loses $1M after her 2-year online love interest turns out to be fake


Woman loses $1M after her 2-year online love interest turns out to be fake

LAKE WORTH, Fla. (WPEC) — Experts say thousands of single people 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 over $1 million.

She thought her new boyfriend was British, a world traveler, a Christian. Turned out, “he” was never real, and instead, a team of computer savvy Nigerians was pulling the strings the whole time.

Since her first TV interview with WPEC in 2015, Johnson 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.

Johnson 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 Johnson. “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; Johnson knows that now. But for two years, she was in love with him, and they never once met in person.

During what Johnson 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, Johnson and Cole were exchanging love letters, flirty text messages and talking on the phone late into the night.

Cole even sent Johnson pictures of family members that turned out to be images pulled from the internet, some she even had “calls” with.

Johnson would later learn, the scam artist had accomplices.

WPEC’s Mike Magnoli: Your guy was plural? Was a team?

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.

Cole began asking for financial favors. Could Johnson wire him some money because he was abroad? Did he have a way to exchange currency quickly?

Then there were business deals: Cole promised he was about to make a fortune for their future, and Johnson should get in on the action. Sometimes Cole had family emergencies – he needed to fly to Europe to be with his boy.

All told, over the course of their cyber-relationship, Johnson sent Cole more than a million bucks.

Then one day, “Eric Cole” came clean: he was actually a young man from Nigeria, revealing Cole was his invention.

“What the scammers did for me, to me, in two years, that’s being done in six months or less,” Johnson said.

Johnson has a list of warning signs to be on the lookout for. They might be a clue you’re being scammed.

Be weary if the person 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.

If the person 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.

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.

Beware if he’s the “crying shoulder” type. Scam artists know a breakup or a death means the victim is down and easy prey. Johnson says don’t identify yourself as “divorced” or “widowed,” just “single.”


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