HIS NAME WAS ERIC COLE. HE was good-looking, smart, articulate, an international businessman with a British accent.
He wanted to befriend Debby Montgomery on an online dating site.
Why not? she thought. At age 52, she had been widowed six months earlier. Her husband died suddenly after 26 years of marriage. She had been isolated, working long hours, trying to learn and take over his business. Her friends were all pestering her to “get a life” and try online dating. She chose a faith-based site because she thought it would be safer. She accepted Eric Cole’s invitation.
At first, “I just thought it was really fun,” she said. The relationship deepened. The future looked promising — until it wasn’t. Eric Cole turned out not to be an international businessman with a British accent after all.
He was a 30-something man from Nigeria.
And Debby Montgomery Johnson was out more than $1 million.
When the FBI told Ms. Johnson, of Palm Beach County, she had been manipulated and would never see her money again, she shut down and an emotional wall went up. She determined she would be “the woman behind the smile” and pretend everything was fine. No one must ever know.
In Charlotte County on Florida’s west coast, Paula Menz, 71, who retired after a 28-year career as a nurse, joined a different dating site. She had been married for 16 years; her husband died five years ago.
Her online beau was an engineer who said he was based in Florida, but traveled overseas on business. After a few online exchanges, he said he had to go on a business trip. When they connected again two weeks later, flattery and the terms of endearment quickly started flowing on his side. Money started flowing from her side. He called her “my queen.” That is, until he asked her to open up accounts at several banks, deposit money, and then have it transferred to an account number he provided. One of the banks flagged the transaction and called the sheriff’s office. Paula Menz was out thousands of dollars — she declines to divulge the exact amount. Law enforcement told her the man may have been a terrorist and her money may have helped fund a terrorist group, she said.
She was horrified. “If I could have hid in a corner and just curled up, I would’ve,” she said.
The amounts may differ, but both women were victims of a romance scam that stole their hearts and took their money. The twists and turns the scam takes in each case may vary, but the steps they follow are the same, as is the result.
Except, in Ms. Johnson’s case, the end result was writing a book that now warns would-be victims what to look for, called “The Woman Behind the Smile: Triumph Over the Ultimate Online Dating Betrayal.”
“It is amazing to me that I get emails weekly from women saying, ‘I wish I had heard your story before,’” she said.
The scammer adopts a fake online identity, usually using photos stolen from other people’s profiles on other social media. They connect with a victim or victims and pretend to build a romantic relationship. “The criminals who carry out romance scams are experts at what they do and will seem genuine, caring and believable,” according to the 2021 report from the FBI’s Internet Crimes Complaint Center. “The scammer’s intention is to quickly establish a relationship, endear himself to the victim, gain trust, and eventually ask for money. Scammers may propose marriage and make plans to meet in person, but that will never happen.”
The number of victims and losses are skyrocketing statewide and across the country. Men as well as women are targeted. They can be all ages. But the majority of victims, and those who lose the most money, are 60 or older.
Nationwide, there were 24,299 victims of confidence fraud/romance scams of all ages in 2021, according to the FBI’s complaint center report. They lost nearly $1 billion, a 59% increase in losses over 2020.
In Florida, there were 1,738 victims of confidence fraud/romance scams of all ages in 2021.
They lost more than $70.4 million. That was a 75% increase in losses from 2020.
For the elderly in Florida (categorized as age 60 and over) there were 704 romance scam victims who lost $47.1 million.
“Romance scammers are slick; they spend hours honing their manipulation skills, rehearsing their scripts,” said Rodney Crawford, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI Tampa Division.
“They look for the vulnerable and the lonely, on dating websites, apps, chat rooms and social networking sites. They build a relationship and then start telling lies to gain access to financial and personal identifying information. There’s no typical victim in this crime. We’ve seen college professors, retired lawyers and business executives fall for this scheme.”
The Tampa office of the FBI covers 18 counties in central and southwest Florida, including Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties. The Miami office of the FBI covers nine South Florida counties, including Palm Beach County. They provided these numbers:
¦ Lee County: There were 53 romance scam victims in 2021. They lost a total $4,227,292, an average loss per victim of $79,760.
¦ Collier County: There were 40 victims last year. They lost a total of $3,703,798, an average of $92,594.
¦ Charlotte County: There were 20 victims who lost $1,224,200, an average loss of $61,210.
¦ Palm Beach County: There were 130 victims who lost $5,459,534, and average loss of $41,996.
The Federal Trade Commission also compiles reports on romance and other scams in its Consumer Sentinel Network. In the past five years, losses from romance scams nationwide were more than in any other FTC fraud category. In 2021, the FTC reported losses hit a record $547 million for the year. That’s a nearly 80% increase compared to 2020.
The FTC numbers do not include the FBI numbers. However, there may be some overlap. It’s possible that someone who reported a romance scam to the FBI also reported it to the FTC, or vice versa.
COVID-19 is often cited as a reason for the increasing numbers. After all, the common thread behind these scams is the desire for human connection, whether it’s friendship, companionship or love. Human connection has been hard to come by over the last two years.
“It has nothing to do with how smart you are or how well trained you are or your race, religion, creed, whatever,” Ms. Johnson said. “It’s at that particular moment in time. Something’s happened in your life and you’re a little bit vulnerable to it. The pandemic has been a huge gain for scammers because people are looking for friends. They’re looking for communication with others.”
Ms. Menz also bristles at the idea of victims being labeled. “We’re not stupid. These are educated women,” she said. “I don’t like it when people say we’re desperate. We’re not desperate. These scammers have a system.”
Ms. Menz said she wasn’t interested in marriage. She was interested in companionship, the kind of relationship where she had her house, he had his house.
After their initial contact and her engineer’s “return” from his business trip, he quickly moved her off the dating site to private texting and emailing.
This is also common in romance scams, the FBI said.
Then the endearments began: “You’re beautiful. You’re just what I’m looking for,” he told her.
“Who doesn’t want attention?” Ms. Menz asked. “Who doesn’t want to hear that? Before you even know it, you get brainwashed. “
At first he wanted gift cards. In 2021, more people reported paying romance scammers with gift cards than with any other payment method, according to the FTC.
Then her beau was out on a business trip and owed his employees money. He asked her to help. “Somehow, he got stuck in Turkey,” Ms. Menz said. Another man, claiming to be her beau’s lawyer, contacted her. The lawyer said if she didn’t help, her boyfriend would go to a Turkish jail.
Her beau had lost his wife and had a daughter with leukemia. She needed a transfusion. He needed more money for her care.
This is also an old standby, according to the FTC: pleas for help while claiming one financial or health crisis after another, sometimes involving a sick child.
By this time, her engineer was saying “I love you,” and even referred to her as “my wife.”
Ms. Menz asked him for a photo of him with his ID. He sent one. Later, the police told her the ID had been Photoshopped onto the picture.
After she opened the bank account and a transfer to the account number her beau gave her was flagged by the bank, both the sheriff’s office and the FBI got involved. She remembers sitting in the bank, stunned, unable to move.
It turned out there were other women involved who were being scammed by the same people.
“They have their gangs, their groups,” she said. Within the scammers’ group, people are set up with different jobs to pull off the scam, she said.
But they were overseas. “How can you even catch them?” Ms. Menz said.
She was told by law enforcement: “You are the victim. No one is blaming you for this.”
But she felt she was being judged for it.
The scams are geared toward seniors, she said. “So it’s very traumatizing. It’s very overwhelming,” she said. “We can kick ourselves in our butts ourselves. We don’t need to be judged.”
It’s like scammers are taking a fishing pole, she said. “They’re out there — let’s see who’s gonna bite. There are hundreds out there.”
Actually, there are many thousands and she is right. What happened to her, to Ms. Johnson and so many others is called “catfishing,” based on the movie and the MTV reality show of the same name.
Debby Montgomery Johnson’s story began when romance scams were probably just starting to register on the online scam radar. Her husband died in 2010. Her online relationship started six months later. The elaborate scam built slowly for two years.
She thought she was being careful. Earlier in her career, she had been a banker and had also worked for Air Force intelligence. She was self-sufficient. Nobody was going to take advantage of her.
“Eric” quickly got her off the dating site, saying he was in Houston and about to go to the Far East for his job. It would be easier to get on Yahoo! Chat to contact her from wherever he was.
“Back then, I really didn’t know what Yahoo! Chat was,” Ms. Johnson said. She liked that it was instant messaging, so there was no time lag. The terms of endearment started quickly and it made her a little uncomfortable, she said. “I’m like, are you sure you know that you’re developing feelings for me this quickly?” She wanted to slow down. “But then then the endorphins kick in, the hormones kick in. And it’s very gratifying to have someone tell you that you’re pretty and smart and you know that they’re falling for you.”
It was “honey” or “dear” or sometimes “my queen,” “my sweetheart.” Later on, it became “I love you,” she said. “Your brain gets hijacked and your heart rules your head. And, you know, logic is all out the door at that point because you just feel like you’re a kid again in dating.”
She also found out later that scammers don’t use your name when using terms of endearment because they could be working many people at a time, she said. “And they don’t want to mix it up and say to you, ‘I love you, Debby,’ and your name is Mary. That would be a real telltale sign.” She wants to emphasize that she uses the word “they” when describing the scammers.
“It’s organized crime. It’s not one person.” They may be in a call center, or it may be an actual family running the scam, because it’s a moneymaking business, she said.
The vast majority of romance fraud originates in West Africa, particularly Nigeria, according to a 2018 Better Business Bureau study. The study quotes a cybersecurity expert who said that at any given time, there may be more than 25,000 romance scammers online with victims. The Nigerian frauds tend to operate in cells of 10 to 12 people, with a leader to organize efforts. “They may begin by simply sending initial contacts to thousands of people with profiles on dating sites or who are on social media,” the study said.
In hindsight, Ms. Johnson recommends everybody should have a “dating buddy,” someone who knows about the online relationship and helps you take a pause.
But she didn’t pause.
“I would wake up to what I call the ding, ding, ding of the Yahoo! Chat,” notifying her that there was a message, she said. “And it’s like Pavlov’s dog. I would jump out of bed in the middle of the night and I would run to my computer because I knew that we would be speaking. And when I say speaking and chatting back then, it was all this texting.”
She has four sons who were ages 15 to 23 at the time. Early in the relationship her older sons kept warning her, “Mom, don’t, don’t, don’t,” she said. “I was 52. I’m like, guys, I’m the adult here. Leave me alone. And I shut the kids out. I shut my friends out because Eric, the scammer, became my life and he was my confidant, my business confidant, my personal confidant.”
The first “ask” was small — under $100. “He had a friend who was an engineer and was overseas and he was having a hard time getting onto the dating site.” So she was asked to send a check to the dating site. “That was a test, I’m sure, to see ‘If she’s willing to do that, let’s see what else she’s willing to do,’” Ms. Johnson said.
Then she started to get to know others in Eric’s family, his “sister,” Mary and his young “son,” Kenny. Then there was his “attorney.”
“There were Yahoo! Chat nights when I had three open messages and I’d be going between each one of them.” She enjoyed talking to Kenny, who wrote to her about making pizza (his father’s favorite) and running out to play.
The first time Kenny asked, “Can I call you Mom?” she was taken aback. “I’m like, are you sure? Because in the story, he lost his mom when he was small, so he had grown up with his aunt.”
She always said that she would do anything for family, and that’s why she believes she was taken. “They became my family.” When it was a financial ask, and it was something that she couldn’t do by herself, Mary would come in and Mary would put up half the money. “So Mary and I were working together to get Eric home, whereas essentially, they were all working against me to get my money. But I didn’t know that.”
She did think that she and Eric would marry. “I thought he was my life, my future,” she said. Incredibly, during that two-year period, she copied every message they exchanged and stored it in an online journal that amassed 4,000 pages. She has them printed out in five volumes, “thinking that I was making family history,” she said. “You know, here we are going to tell the kids how we met and this fun relationship.”
When it was over, the grand total of the scam was $1,080,762. “I didn’t give it to him all at once,” she said. “And I’d like people to know this. I didn’t have that money in my bank account. I found it.”
She cashed in her retirement accounts with the understanding that Eric would pay her back soon. She sold some of her gold jewelry. She had investments in hardwood trees down in Costa Rica and sold that. The largest chunk of money, $100,000, was a loan from her parents. “When the scam fell apart, that was my greatest heartache, that my parents had trusted me and now I was responsible for that.” She has since paid them back, with interest.
The scam only fell apart because “Eric” confessed. They had previously had a discussion about forgiveness, Ms. Johnson said. One morning he came online and asked for forgiveness. But then they got disconnected, which wasn’t unusual.
In the afternoon, he came back online and wanted to revisit the morning’s topic. She asked him why, and if she had done something wrong. He replied “‘Deb, I have something to tell you and I know it’s going to hurt you. I just need to know that you can forgive me,’” she said. The words felt like a punch in the gut.
He continued, “I have to confess to you that this has all been a scam,” she said. “And when I saw those words, I was thinking, ‘Something’s wrong. You’re sick now, you’re lying.’ And then he goes, ‘No, this is not a lie. I’ve scammed you for the last two years.’ And I say, ‘OK, so now you have to prove to me that you’re not lying.’”
That’s when he revealed himself online, using a little camera on Yahoo! Chat that she didn’t know was there. “Visualize this,” she said. “I’ve got dual screens on my computer from my office, and I’m looking at my handsome Brit on the pictures and up pops, in the corner, this little camera. And I’m now looking at a dark-haired, dark-skinned young man with a big smile on his face.”
He was probably 30-something, she said. She picked up her phone and took a picture.
Why did he confess? “Well, he told me that he confessed because he had developed feelings for me and didn’t want to do it anymore,” Ms. Johnson said. But she’s been told that’s just another ploy scammers use.
Then he asked her, “Can we keep this going?”
She replied, “Are you out of your mind?”
Besides her online journal, she had also kept detailed messages of all the financials, “which could have been great evidence, but there was nothing they could do because he wasn’t here,” she said. When the FBI told her that she couldn’t catch him unless he was brought to the U.S., “that’s when I shut down,” Ms. Johnson said.
She did tell her parents, but no one else. She kept her vow until one weekend, when she was with some friends at a business conference. One of them mentioned that she was thinking about doing online dating. Then she saw the look on Ms. Johnson’s face. She told them her story. They said that she had to share it to help stop others from getting scammed. No way, she said.
Then she heard other stories. “I get all these stories from really brilliant women, entrepreneurs, especially, who have been taken, but no one’s speaking.” She realized it wasn’t about her anymore. “It’s about every one of my friends and their mothers that could potentially be taken. And I’m willing to be the voice of the survivor and say, this has got to stop.”
So she decided to write her book.
Ms. Johnson also works with victims and is on the board of a nonprofit victim support and education organization called Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams (SCARS), based in Miami. “There are so many things that you need to do to protect yourself. And that’s what SCARS is all about.”
The vast majority of frauds are not reported to the government, so the figures reflect just a small fraction of the harm caused by romance scams, according to the FTC’s Consumer Protection Data Spotlight.
Ms. Johnson did eventually remarry. “I knew if I shut down completely and didn’t give my heart a chance, that I would never remarry or never find love again,” she said. “So I needed someone that would tell me the truth. And I found one.”
What about the million-plus dollars she lost?
She’s fond of saying, “My last suit has no pockets.” Ms. Johnson said. “I’m not taking any money with me.”
She has grandchildren now that she would love to be taking care of. She didn’t lose her house, but she lost her retirement money and all her investments. Yet, “I’m very blessed in my life right now,” she said. “I have women that I work with that lost their homes. They lost all of their friends. They took out loans on their homes. They took out personal loans. And they are deep in debt and they do not see a light at the end of the tunnel. And it leads to depression. It leads to suicide in many cases. And that’s wrong. The whole thing is wrong. So we need to get the word out to make people aware.” ¦