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Long-Distance Relationship is Actually a Romance Scam

A woman thinks she’s in love until her new online boyfriend reveals he’s a con-artist

Episode 69 - Women take back control from romance Scammers - social

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After the death of her husband, friends encourage Debbie, a former intelligence officer, to try online dating. There she meets a handsome man who claims he’s a British doctor living in America but working overseas. Wanting to ease into a new relationship, Debbie is happy to have a long-distance confidant. The two grow closer, texting every day. Then, two years in to the relationship the unthinkable happens: Debbie’s online boyfriend reveals he’s a scammer.  

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(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:01] Michelle: This week on The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:03] When you first start dating, I laugh when I think of the Yahoo Chat used to go ding, ding, ding, you know, I could be in a dead sleep in my bed, I'm on the other side of the house, and I would hear that, and I would get up and I would race to the computer. I just felt young again. I felt loved. I felt appreciated. I trusted him; I had no reason not to trust at that point.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:26] Michelle: Welcome back to AARP's The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Michelle Kosinski. This week, we're going deep inside the very dark world of romance scams. Each one is unique, each one is painful, but we're going to look at a few that have an unexpected twist, or several. You will meet two extremely smart women who managed to turn the tables on their scammers, and the endings are not at all what I anticipated. So first, let's welcome Debby Montgomery Johnson. Sit back, get ready, she has quite a story to tell.

[00:01:05] Debby Montgomery Johnson: I went into the Air Force as an intelligence officer, and I did that for 8 years.

[00:01:10] Michelle: That's right. To say that Debby, a business owner and mother of four adult children down in Florida, is smart would be an understatement. She had a career in military intelligence, the kind of person you don't want to be hiding stuff from.

[00:01:25] Debby Montgomery Johnson: I was able to work in DC at the Pentagon, and at uh DIA, Defense Intelligence Agency. I was down in the Navy Yard for a while. And then I went overseas to Germany for a few years, and my husband was stationed over in Bosnia at the time. He was also Air Force. And I decided to go Reserves. And then when the Reserves decided they wanted to call me up to active duty, and I was just about ready to have my, my daughter, my third child, I'm like, I'm done. So it was a great experience.

[00:01:52] Michelle: So as an intelligence officer, were you one of the people that tracks down bad guys and terrorists?

[00:01:58] Debby Montgomery Johnson: Well I was an imagery analyst. My husband was actually a, they call them Human Officer, so Human Officer, so when we lived overseas, he was actually doing the spy stuff. I was looking for Russian equipment and things in the trees.

[00:02:13] Michelle: That's fascinating.

[00:02:15] Debby Montgomery Johnson: I had really good experience, you know, as far as keeping secrets and looking for things that were hiding.

[00:02:22] Michelle: And that were suspicious.

[00:02:24] Debby Montgomery Johnson: Yeah, add that to my paralegal and banking experience, and I was pretty well trained.

[00:02:29] Michelle: So how, you may be thinking, does a woman trained by the best of the best to be suspicious, to notice things that are as hidden as they could possibly be, come to be a victim of a major, life altering, two-year long scam? And you know, if you were to read a summary of her story, you might say, okay, there's a red flag, there's another one. But the point is, when you hear her tell her story, how it happened, bit by bit, why it happened, how it felt, it shows us again starkly that this really can happen to anyone, and it happened to Debby at possibly her most vulnerable point in her entire life. Let's go back there. She had one child still at home, a teenager, she and her husband, Lou, were both out of the military and had started a very successful online company making vitamin supplements for people with nerve disorders. Debby was also serving as treasurer in her local school district. Everything was busy and going great until one day the absolute unexpected, one of those earthquakes of life that shake the very foundation and bring us to our knees. It was an April morning, and Debby had been in meetings.

[00:03:44] Debby Montgomery Johnson: I had turned my phone off, and I went on break about 10:30, and my phone was lit up with messages. And the first one was from my oldest son, who was 23. He's a, he was in the military, he's a military pilot, and he said, "Mom, Dad just died." And a long pause. And I listened to that, then I checked out the rest of the messages. You know, everybody was calling to let me know what they had heard. It happened so quickly, I had to react very quickly. I think I just went into what I call suspended animation.

[00:04:21] Michelle: It had come out of nowhere. Lou had had a heart attack while he was on a business trip. For Debby then, it was like a blur for months. She would work, come home, work some more, like 20 hours a day, and then try to sleep for a few hours. She was struggling, trying to be strong.

[00:04:40] Debby Montgomery Johnson: Honestly, in that six months I was really running on empty. The hardest time for me was between 12 and 4 at night, when I was in bed alone. And I was sad, I was, that was the only time I could grieve because the rest of the day I was busy. The only time I had for myself was on the way home from the school I would stop at the YMCA and go swimming. And I would try to get control of my emotions as I was doing laps, and it was funny, because it was very controlling. I did 10 laps of one stroke, 10 laps of another. And I'd be crying in the pool, because I was just, I was talking to Lou all the time, and no one knew that I was crying, because I was in the water. And that was my release time, but then when I come home, I'd get, jump right into the business. So six months in, my friend said, "Deb, you’ve got to do something other than work." And they said, "You know, try dating." And I was 52, and all the insecurity of being 16, 17, 18 came flooding back, you know, that you weren't smart enough, skinny enough, pretty enough. And even though I'd had all the training and was very accomplished, and I looked pretty good at 52, I just was very um, scared about jumping out like that. But I also didn't drink and smoke and party, so I, I wasn't going to go to a bar. So how was I could to meet somebody? And that's when they said, try online dating, and go to a faith-based site so that it's safe, you'll meet like-minded people, good-hearted people, and I had friends who had met their spouses through online dating and through these websites. And so I figured, what the heck? I'll just try it.

[00:06:16] Michelle: She tried two faith-based sites, but it was slow going, and she didn't really feel that comfortable with it. Plus, it was hard to imagine finding someone who measured up to the man she missed.

[00:06:27] Debby Montgomery Johnson: My husband was extraordinarily smart and articulate and well written. He was handsome, and so I was judging everybody by my perfect idea of what Lou was. I'd been married 26 years, and he had died, and I wasn't ready for the physical, but I was ready for an emotional attachment and a friend and a confidante and a business partner, that kind of thing.

[00:06:51] Michelle: And one day, up pops Dr. Eric Cole. A handsome guy in his mid-50s. Dark, wavy hair, a little graying at the temples, deep soulful eyes. He's kind of a babe. One photo, taken outdoors, shows him looking fit, standing confidently with his hands on his hips, smiling in a sporty purple t-shirt wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap. He looks tan and confident and friendly. He tells Debby he's English but based in Houston and currently working in the hardwood lumber business doing international deals. Sounds interesting. And they have common interests. Debby, with all her intelligence background, immediately does some due diligence on this guy.

[00:07:34] Debby Montgomery Johnson: I looked at the website for the company, and I actually, I called the company and said, "Do you have a contractor by the name of Dr. Eric Cole?" And they said, "No." And that, I was looking at it thinking, well maybe because he's an independent contractor they don't have him on the books.

[00:07:50] Michelle: Yeah.

[00:07:50] Debby Montgomery Johnson: Which made sense. It was a legitimate company, and it, everything sounded, you know, like it should.

[00:07:58] Michelle: He tells Debby he is just about to start a job overseas. He'll be in Malaysia for months working on a deal with India. So, he says, it'll be easier for them to chat over Yahoo Messenger. And all this is kind of perfect for Debby who wants human contact, but isn't really ready to be around a new person all the time. So long distance text chats suit her just fine.

[00:08:21] Debby Montgomery Johnson: It was great, 'cause we could get on and, and we'd be going back and forth. I had pictures of his son and his dog and his sister, and uh pictures of his home. Things that would build a profile of this is his family.

[00:08:34] Michelle: At any point, did he look or seem too good to be true?

[00:08:39] Debby Montgomery Johnson: No, he was very, I mean it was the type of man I was looking for. He was very well educated, he was from London, and everything seemed right. He was a widower, so we talked about the stories he, I asked about his wife, because I wanted to find out what he was really about. It was extraordinary because I ended up instant messaging his son, and there was, there was one night I remember, actually multiple times, when I had three Yahoo Chat boxes open. One was with Mary and Kenny, Mary is his sister, Kenny is his son. I was messaging them, and then I had Eric maybe in Malaysia, and then I got to know Peter, his attorney, and Peter was an attorney in London, but Peter traveled a lot with him, so there were times that I had all three parties, you know, groups, writing to me at the same time.

[00:09:26] Michelle: And do you felt like you were getting to know them too?

[00:09:30] Debby Montgomery Johnson: Absolutely. Oh, absolutely.

[00:09:33] Michelle: So this is not just Eric, this is four people that Debby is getting to know intimately, knowing their life stories in ongoing conversations. The first reddish flag comes up when Debby decides to send Eric's young son, who's living in London with his aunt while Eric is away working, some books.

[00:09:52] Debby Montgomery Johnson: And then the stuff a few weeks later came back to me. So I said, "Eric, why am I getting this mail returned?" And he always had a plausible reason for why something didn't get delivered or something didn't happen. And at the time it was because Mary was traveling in Ireland, she'd gone over to see family, but I felt like Mary and I were going to be sisters-in-law, and that, you know, Kenny was going to be a part of my family as a, as one of our kids. And it was incredible the over, it was two years, it was a two-year relationship. And I thought I knew just about everything. When Kenny and I were writing, it sounded to me like a child. And then when he would give the computer back to Mary, I could feel it was a different person, that it was a woman talking to me now.

[00:10:36] Michelle: And excuses, plausible excuses are Eric's specialty. He's going to come back home to the US, but then work delays him. The deal in Malaysia is delayed over and over again. There's trouble with customs and other life events. They make plans for Debby to go there to visit him, but then Eric would decide it was just too dangerous for her at the moment.

[00:10:58] Debby Montgomery Johnson: My intel brain would kick in and I would google things and I would look things up and, and so there were things that I always questioned, but he, again, he had a plausible answer to most of my objections or my questions. He always had something to tell me, and they were, I thought, legitimate reasons; disappointing, yes, but I got it. He was a way away from us.

[00:11:21] Michelle: Because love is also developing. And it is strong.

[00:11:26] Debby Montgomery Johnson: It was relatively quickly that my heart really felt a connection to him. And because we talked for hours at a time sometimes, I, I got to know him really quickly through writing, and I really opened up more through writing than I ever would have through verbalizing. I just, I believed him. I believed everything he was saying, and I just, I trusted him. I had no reason not to trust at that point.

[00:11:53] Michelle: Now, in hindsight, Debby realizes that she was pretty isolated at the time, and Eric became her everything. She sees that for the first time in really decades, she felt deeply understood, listened to.

[00:12:09] Debby Montgomery Johnson: He listened for hours. And then he would write back. There was no judgment, there was just, this is who I am, and he would write back, and this is who he was, and it filled up over those two years, it filled up that hole in me, because he listened to me. And I could feel that he loved me. The things he was saying, the songs he would send to me were just beautiful. And he wrote poetry, and now, was it his? I don't know, but you know, there were things that he just said to me at the right time and he allowed me to, to vent if I got angry about something that my, one of my kids had done or if I was frustrated by business. We talked about business. We talked about business plans. He was trying to do something for his company, and it was a multi-level relationship. It was business, it was personal, it was love, it was family, it was all sorts of stuff wrapped into one.

[00:13:03] Michelle: And then, one day comes a request, a small one. One of Eric's friends overseas, seeing the great relationship Eric had found online, wants to go on the same dating site, but it's easier to sign up and pay the fee from the United States where it's based, so could Debby please take care of that? It was $45. No problem at all. In fact, she's happy to.

[00:13:28] Debby Montgomery Johnson: I thought, well, heck, we need more guys on here. Let's go help him out. And so I, I honestly, I didn't think even about it. And I thought, the more the merrier.

[00:13:37] Michelle: So that $45 doesn't even go to Eric. It goes to the dating site as planned, but that is the first little opening of the floodgates for real. Later, Eric starts having some problems with his business in Asia. As a contractor, he's supposed to be paid after each job is completed, but there are delays on top of delays, and obstacles. Eric needs some help, and Debby is there for him.

[00:14:05] Debby Montgomery Johnson: The first time was a request for $2500 through Western Union. And honestly, that was the first little tiff that we had, because I don't give money just to anybody. I got a really odd feeling about that, 'cause I'd never done it. And he said, "Look, I'm going to walk you through it," and I could do it at the local grocery store, and we were doing a power of attorney. That was the first thing that we had to do. And I had to send them the money, and it wasn't money going to him. And that was a little unusual. It was for his benefit. But the person that I was sending the money to was one of his friends. And I said, "Well who is this guy?" He goes, "Well he lives here," I think he was in Malaysia at the time. He goes, "He lives here so he, it's easier for him to pick it up." And again, I thought, well that makes sense. And I, I wasn't sure I wanted to do it, but because it was part of get him getting paid and at that point, I was beginning to be kind of a business partner with him, like, let's get this business over with so that you can come home.

[00:15:10] Michelle: Debby agrees to what she thinks is establishing power of attorney for Eric in the US. She opens a bank account in her name with him as a beneficiary to make it easy for them to send money back and forth. That is how close she feels to this man.

[00:15:25] Debby Montgomery Johnson: It wasn't the way I would have done something here in the States, but we were talking about international banks, so.

[00:15:30] Michelle: And so then did $2500 turn into more and more?

[00:15:36] Debby Montgomery Johnson: It did, and it was another 2500, and then, you know, I think I did 10 transactions on Western Union. Not huge ones, but then it moved to wire transfers. I used one bank that I had personal funds in, and after a couple of months, I remember they, they got into the story. 'Cause I knew these guys, I was a banker, and so we'd be talking about Eric and where, where this was going, and I was very upfront about why I was doing this stuff and who it was going to, and I remember one person at the first bank said, "You know what, there might be something funny going on here, and, and we want to have our, our back office look into this." And I'm like, "Well why would you do that? You have to trust me; as a customer this is what I want to be doing." And so I ended up leaving that bank.

[00:16:21] Michelle: So what was all this money for?

[00:16:24] Debby Montgomery Johnson: Some was for living expenses, some was for actually moving, you know, getting tariffs paid, getting customs bills paid, getting through shipping things done. So I understood that in a way, that he was going to get paid when this was done. Let's get the job done so he gets paid.

[00:16:41] Michelle: Whoa. Debby's bank had almost stopped this, had almost saved her, but Debby is so intelligent, so capable and confident in her own abilities and assessments; that kind of clarity had been her career, but she just doesn't accept outside views on what's going on in her personal life. She was all in in this world she had created; one that made her feel safe and an equal partner with a future. And when I say all in, get ready for this.

[00:17:15] Michelle: And how much did you send him over these two years?

[00:17:19] Debby Montgomery Johnson: Over the two years, it was a total of, here's where the gasp comes in, it was 1 million, 80 thousand, 762 dollars. Again, that was over two years. I didn't have the million sitting in the bank. I came up with it. I sold jewelry. I turned in my retirement accounts thinking it was a loan. You know, it was always a promise of, we'll get this back before you get penalized. And at one point when, you know, I'm so invested, I'm thinking, just one more transaction. One more. If I quit now, then look at all the money I've lost. But if this is the last one, then, then he'll be here. Then he'll be home. And that's how my thought pattern went was that just this last one and he'll be home.

[00:18:04] Michelle: More than one million dollars. Money that she had to sacrifice her own future for. You just wish that some hands could have reached into that bubble and pulled her out of there.

[00:18:17] Michelle: And was it sort of, did you get so used to it that it didn't, it's like every transaction didn't seem painful to you to be giving that money again and again?

[00:18:29] Debby Montgomery Johnson: Well, I'm sure it was painful. At that point, again, I was so invested into it that it was, he needed it. He was family, and I was going to help him.

[00:18:39] Michelle: Did your family know that you were sending him money?

[00:18:42] Debby Montgomery Johnson: No. No.

[00:18:43] Michelle: Okay.

[00:18:43] Debby Montgomery Johnson: Uh, my accountant did. And he was all bought in on it, too. He figured, you know, this guy seems legit, he's got this company, he's going to come back, we're going to get paid. You know, everything that we put in, plus interest. My mom and dad got involved, and this is why I love my father and mother and, and have Dad working for me so much, is that I asked, at the very end, I asked my parents to help me, and they gave me $100,000. It's the one thing I regret the most, is that I took that money and sent it. But, you know, my father would say, two years? There's no way that this could be a scam. This has gone on for two years. Maybe earlier on they thought that it was kind of funny that he, he didn't get here, but after a while, it's just like, you know, heck, this, what kind of bad luck does this young man have? My kids, again, were between 15 and 23, and there was a time when I was visiting my two older boys, and it was early on, and they were like, "Mom, don't do this. Don't do that." And I'm thinking, you guys, I'm the adult here. Leave me alone. And the more they said don't, it's like a 2-year-old, the more I wanted to do what I wanted to do. And Eric would say, don't, "You don't have to let your kids know. You don't have to let your family know," and that's part of it is that isolation, and he became my confidante, and I became his. So if he asked me to do something, I basically did it because we were partners. He was coming home to me.

[00:20:11] Michelle: Two years. One morning Debby wakes up, just a normal day, and it all cracks wide open.

[00:20:20] Debby Montgomery Johnson: Eric came online that morning, and was writing to me and said, "How do you feel about forgiveness?" I thought that was an interesting question. We had had many spiritual discussions over the years. And so I just opened right up, and I put on my scriptural hat, my spiritual hat and we wrote for hours on how I felt about forgiveness. And then I said, "Is there something that I have done that we need to discuss forgiveness?" I don't know why I thought it was something that I had done, but he said, "No," he said, "I have something to tell you. It's going to hurt you, and I need for you to be able to forgive me. I have to tell you this." There's this gut punch, basically, because I'd heard that once in my marriage, and it wasn't very exciting. And I said, "Eric, I don't know that I want to hear this." He said, "No, Deb, I have to confess that this has all been a scam." And I'm reading that going, what's been a scam? And you know, what are you talking about? And I said, "Are you okay?" I thought he was sick. I said, "There's something wrong. What is going on here?" He goes, "No, I, this is, this has all been a scam, and I had to confess it."

[00:21:34] Michelle: Debby's love has just, like a bolt of lightning come clean, a truth so devastating she still does not want to believe it. Only now does she not trust his words.

[00:21:48] Debby Montgomery Johnson: And I said, "Well, I think you're lying." He said, "I'm not lying." I said, "Then you need to prove to me that you're not lying." And the only way he was going to prove that to me was to be able to come on live so I could see him. And he said that there was a way to come on live on Yahoo Chat, and at that itself, I think, for two years I've been asking you to come on live and you said you couldn't do it. So I said, "Walk me through how to do this." And again, he showed me on Yahoo Chat how to set up a little camera, and so on my desktop, I'm looking at my handsome Brit, the picture, one of my favorite pictures, I'm looking at that. And in the corner of my computer on this little Yahoo Chat camera screen pops up a picture of this young man who's, I'd say is dark hair, dark eyes, dark-skinned young man with a huge smile on his face.

[00:22:38] Michelle: Oh.

[00:22:40] Debby Montgomery Johnson: And I'm thinking, oh my gosh. What has happened here?

[00:22:44] Michelle: Debby showed me the picture of the real Dr. Eric Cole, whose name is actually Joseph. He's Nigerian with a round, boyish face, a dimpled chin. He looks like he's in his 20s with a big warm smile that lights up his whole face. He's sitting in a black office type chair against a nondescript gray wall. He's at work, and Debby has been his work for the last two emotional years. It's shocking.

[00:23:13] Debby Montgomery Johnson: At that instant, my heart, thank goodness, was, the story got separated from my heart, and I picked up my phone, I picked up my phone, and I took a picture of that young man. And he was smiling, and he just said, "Can we keep this going?" And I'm thinking, are you out of your mind? And then he said, "Is it because I'm young?" And I'm thinking, well, maybe, but no. You scammed me out of a million dollars.

[00:23:40] Michelle: Oh my god.

[00:23:41] Debby Montgomery Johnson: And he said, "I promise I’ll; I'll try to get it back to you." And I'm thinking, yeah, right. You know. But I said, "Why did you do this? Why did you confess?" because scammers don't confess. But he said to me at that point, he said, "Deb, I developed feelings for you, and I just couldn't do it anymore." And I'm thinking, well thank you for that. And honestly, looking back on it, I, I am, I look at it as a gift that he confessed in person like that, because if he had just walked away like most scammers do, they just kind of leave, it would have been as if Lou had died again. Because when Lou left, he left, and I never saw him again. If Eric had just stopped communicating with me, I would have felt like he had died. And I would have been feeling worse because now I've contributed, and I've lost all my money.

[00:24:33] Michelle: Is it strange that there's a young Nigerian guy that knows literally everything about you?

[00:24:41] Debby Montgomery Johnson: It's awful, you know. Because he, he has my life. I mean, I, it was interesting, I kept track of every email and chat that we did on my online journal. I have 4,000 pages of, I printed it, thinking I was having family history. I have 4,000 pages of communication between Eric and me.

[00:25:01] Michelle: Did he want to have a relationship with you?

[00:25:03] Debby Montgomery Johnson: Well, he, he wanted it to go on, and I'm thinking, uh, I don't think so. But that's when my rational mind kicked in and said, okay, I've watched a lot of FBI and those kinds of things. I was a Defense Intelligence Agency officer. If I can keep him in contact now, maybe we can catch him. And so that's why I kept, I kept in touch with him, because I had extraordinary documentation.

[00:25:28] Michelle: Debby is devasted and furious. She needs to do something. She goes to the FBI.

[00:25:34] Debby Montgomery Johnson: I showed them everything, and the first thing they said is, "We're really sorry."

[00:25:39] Michelle: Yeah.

[00:25:39] Debby Montgomery Johnson: The next thing is, "There are more men in Palm Beach County that get taken for over a million than women, but the men will never talk, and unless you can get him here to the States, there's nothing we can do to help.

[00:25:52] Michelle: Did Joseph say what he did with a million dollars?

[00:25:56] Debby Montgomery Johnson: He didn't get it. That's the thing. This is a world wide web, and the, he got some of it, but the money went to Hong Kong, and the money went to London, the money went to Malaysia; it went all over, you know to, to accounts that were some in his name, some in Peter's name, so he didn't get the majority of the money. And that's what's so frightening.

[00:26:20] Michelle: Did he give any of it back? Did he say, I have this money and I'm...

[00:26:24] Debby Montgomery Johnson: He was going to give me part of it, it was logistics at that point. And honestly, he said he was scared. He was scared that if he tried to send it to me, that perhaps he would get arrested. And I don't know what part is real after the scam, after his reveal. He did say that he had siblings he was taking care of. I don't know if that was true or not. He did stay in touch with me for several months. Not ever asking for money, always saying, "How are you?" and whatever.

[00:26:51] Michelle: Debby and her scammer are now in this sort of even plane where the truth is out, he's apparently in love with her, and she's just numb. Maybe Joseph, aka Dr. Eric, was hoping he could become Mr. Debby and move to America. But three months later, also out of nowhere, Debby's friend introduces her to a man named CJ.

[00:27:15] Michelle: And she'd done a background check, and she'd done some due diligence on him, and he was just darling. So, yeah, we started dating...

[00:27:22] Michelle: Oh. That's, like this has a happy ending.

[00:27:25] Debby Montgomery Johnson: Oh it was wonderful, and he's extraordinary and, and it was interesting 'cause Joseph stayed in touch until he knew that CJ and I were going to start dating seriously. Then he wrote to me and said, "Deb, I think this is the last time we'll be in touch."

[00:27:38] Michelle: Yeah, was it hard for you to separate, you know, your mind knowing this is a scam, oh my god, with your heart? Like, did you still feel love for this person even though he turned into Joseph?

[00:27:53] Debby Montgomery Johnson: No. It wasn't love at that point. It was concern, but I was mad. I mean, I was so careful with money until that point, and after Lou died, here's the kicker with Lou, we had life insurance for years. We paid premiums for years.

[00:28:10] Michelle: Right.

[00:28:10] Debby Montgomery Johnson: And when he turned 55, his life insurance went from $100 a month to $500 a month,

[00:28:17] Michelle: Oh gosh.

[00:28:17] Debby Montgomery Johnson: And he refused to pay it. He said, "We have investments, I'm going to do that," so he cancelled his life insurance. Two months later he died.

[00:28:26] Michelle: Oh.

[00:28:27] Debby Montgomery Johnson: So, I had no life insurance. And my goal after that was to get everything paid off as, as quickly as you can.

[00:28:36] Michelle: Right.

[00:28:37] Debby Montgomery Johnson: And, you know, get out of debt and be as frugal as possible so that you don't have anything hanging over you. That's why it was so extraordinary that I gave money away like I did. Again, I expected it to come back to me. It was always a loan. It was never, take it. It was going to come back. So when this all fell apart, and I realized that I had lost all that, I had lost my retirement, you know, I'd sold silver, I'd sold jewelry, but it was the deception part. I had lost my trust in another human being. And that was difficult for me because I am a very trusting person, or I was. The interesting thing is when I met CJ, on our second date, he sat down, and said, "Deb, I'm going to tell you something that my friends told me not to tell ya." And it was something very personal that had happened to him, and I said, "You know what, I'm so grateful you did that, because for two...

[00:29:25] Michelle: That's beautiful.

[00:29:25] Debby Montgomery Johnson: ...years I've been lied to. (laugh). He's amazing. And he said, I said, "I need to trust somebody, and I, I trust you." So I told him my story, and I said, "If you can live with me now, then this is perfect." And we never dated anybody else after that.

[00:29:41] Michelle: How long have you been married?

[00:29:43] Debby Montgomery Johnson: It'll be five years in, in October.

[00:29:45] Michelle: Congratulations. That's so wonderful.

[00:29:49] Michelle: If there is a bright side to all this, Debby is empowered by her story. She wrote a book about it called "The Woman Behind the Smile," and she helps lead an organization in Florida called SCARS -- The Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams.

[00:30:04] Debby Montgomery Johnson: It was now my mission, my passion to inform, to educate, to make aware, and to try to prevent this from happening to anybody else. And when I started, I realized that that's the way to help me heal. Not financially, but emotionally, and trust wise, I had to understand, I had to forgive myself, and I did forgive Joseph for what he did. And I just said, "Don't do this to anybody else." I'm not sure if that happened or not, because there's still hundreds of thousands of scammers, but I just wanted him to realize that he hurt me as a person, and I think he fell in love with me as a person, not as a mark, not as, you know, someone to take money from. I'm just sad that what he, what he did really destroyed me from the inside out.

[00:30:55] Michelle: 'Cause not only do you lose your money, which is devastating, but you thought this man was going to be your life.

[00:31:06] Debby Montgomery Johnson: It was worse than Lou dying, because I had given him everything. I had told him everything about me. Eric became my life in those two, in those two years. I have women contacting me that have lost between three and 600,000 dollars within months, and it is extraordinary how these guys know how to, how to get you to do that.

[00:31:27] Michelle: What amazes you most about the cases that you see?

[00:31:32] Debby Montgomery Johnson: That it's happening today so quickly. And it's very intelligent, very well-trained, well-financed women that are being taken.

[00:31:42] Michelle: She's stunned to see how skilled scammers have gotten at weaving this psychological spiderweb, just waiting for a lonely widow or divorcee to walk in.

[00:31:53] Michelle: They just know the art of love and what to say and, and it's, it's a perfect storm. It's a numbers game, too, they, they can do 100 women and maybe get 5, and they don't need a million dollars, they just maybe need $5,000.

[00:32:08] Michelle: And remember, during all this time, Debby thought she was writing to, and having deep, convincing relationships with four different people, including a woman and a little kid.

[00:32:19] Debby Montgomery Johnson: Of all the things, I really would have loved to have been a fly on the wall to see how, who all these guys were, how did this all happen? Um, because I felt like I was talking to four people, at, you know, Kenny, his sister, Eric, and, and uh Peter, the attorney.

[00:32:33] Michelle: Do you ever think about Joseph or wonder about him, wonder how he's doing?

[00:32:37] Debby Montgomery Johnson: Honestly, I, I, I don't know what happened to him. I'm not sure that I care. Um, all I care about is that he and his friends stop doing it, 'cause it's just wrong, you know, but I understand the economics of it.

[00:32:50] Michelle: Is there anything that Joseph said to you in your correspondence that really sticks out to you?

[00:32:56] Debby Montgomery Johnson: Honestly, he said so much to me that really just made my heart go is, and it was those endorphins that, you know, when you first start dating, it was, I, I laugh when I think of the Yahoo Chat used to go ding, ding, ding. You know, I could maybe be in a dead sleep in my bedroom on the other side of the house, and I would hear that, and I would get up and I would race to the computer. I just felt young again. I felt loved, I felt appreciated, and even though I'd given the money away, I, I, it wasn't about the money, it was about the relationship, and it was about family, and I, I, I would do almost anything for my family, and at that point, he'd become part of my family.

[00:33:36] Michelle: When you balked about money, did he have a way to convince you, like what, what would his reaction be when you hesitated to send him more money?

[00:33:48] Debby Montgomery Johnson: It was always, Deb, it's, we'll get it back. As soon as I get paid, we're going to, we're going to pay you back. We'll make you whole; we'll make it better. And we'll be fine. So it was this security of, he's going to take care of me when he gets here. That was my hope.

[00:34:05] Michelle: But that, isn't that makes it worse? Isn't, doesn't that make it more cruel?

[00:34:09] Debby Montgomery Johnson: Absolutely. There's, there's no heart in this on their part typically, but over those two years, his heart softened. There was a part of him that I felt the only reason he confessed is because he wanted me to know that he was real. And, and I do feel that he wishes he didn't take as much, I think, I don't know that for sure. For all I know, he could be doing the same thing now. But I felt for, for a moment, I mean why else would he confess? Why else would he talk about forgiveness? Why would he be so worried about what I did?

[00:34:46] Michelle: Today, Debby's relationship with her family and her parents who helped her through every stage of grief, is stronger than ever. And she gives some practical advice to people looking for love out there. First of all, have a dating buddy, a trusted friend you can bounce things off, tell them what's happening, someone who might be able to snap you out of it if things turn scammy. Also, if you're online or long distance dating, make sure you have a live conversation within two weeks.

[00:35:15] Debby Montgomery Johnson: If you don't see him in person within two weeks, it's a scam.

[00:35:20] Michelle: Her goal is that people openly talk about their experiences.

[00:35:24] Debby Montgomery Johnson: If there's somebody that has been through it, that can hold your hand and walk you through it, you feel so much better, and you’re like, well, I can get through this

[00:35:31] Michelle: Debby has been through an extraordinary journey, and next week, we'll go deeper, meet another strong person who never would have imagined this, but they too, managed to turn things around, and more on why even the most confident and clear-eyed among us can still fall prey.

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[00:35:54] Michelle: If you or someone you know has been the victim of a scam or fraud, the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline is a free resource available to anyone. For nearly 20 years, trained staff and volunteers have helped thousands of individuals and their family members report and recover from fraud. Call 877-908-3360. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Producer, Brook Ellis; Associate Producer and Researcher, Megan DeMagnus; our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez; and of course, Fraud Expert, Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Michelle Kosinski.

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END OF TRANSCRIPT

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free “watchdog alerts," review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.

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