EDITOR’S NOTE: EastIdahoNews.com originally posted this story in 2018. We are publishing it again today due to an increased number of reports our newsroom has recently received about similar scams.
IDAHO FALLS — It started with $40.
He needed the money to help his friend, and Debby Montgomery Johnson didn’t think much of it.
After all, she had been dating Eric for nearly two months, and they were in love. They chatted online for hours every day. She had seen photos of the handsome British man and he filled a large void in her life after the sudden death of Debby’s husband.
Two years and over $1 million later, Debby’s world would come crashing down as she learned Eric was a Nigerian con artist, and she was left to pick up the shattered pieces of her life.
It was 2010 when Debby’s husband, Lou, unexpectedly died while on a business trip. They have been married 26 years and were the parents of four children.
“I was thrown into being a single mom, running his company, which I knew nothing about, and doing my job at the school district,” Debby recalls. “The first six months I just worked and worked and worked. I was angry at Lou for dying, I was sad at Lou for dying, I was questioning everything that was going on, and I had no life but work.”
The then 52-year-old says she became extremely lonely sitting at home in the evenings with nobody to talk to. Her friends eventually persuaded her to try online dating, and she created an account on LDSPlanet.com.
“None of the guys at first were good, but then a 55-year-old widower from London named Eric came along,” Debby tells EastIdahoNews.com. “He was a businessman doing work in Houston at the time, and we got along great.”
Eric and Debby chatted through the dating website, but he persuaded her to move their conversations to Yahoo Messenger — a popular platform at the time — where they could instant message for hours.
“He had a British accent. I never saw video of him, but I had multiple pictures, and he was a very good-looking man,” Debby says. “He showed me pictures of his son, his sister, his dog, and I had pictures of his home.”
She is a former U.S. Air Force officer with legal experience. She had also worked at a bank and didn’t consider herself vulnerable or naive. Eric was charming, and there was nothing suspicious about his story.
Eric and Debby began chatting daily for hours. They talked about everything, and when they weren’t talking, she couldn’t wait to get back to her computer.
“I felt so attached to him over time. He became my life and the reason is that over the 26 years I was married to Lou, I didn’t like contention,” Debby says. “If something came up that I didn’t want to argue about, I would just stuff it down inside. It was like I had this big hole in me when Lou died about not being listened to, and Eric filled that hole. He was brilliant at listening.”
Two months into their relationship, Eric casually asked Debby if she could send $40 to help a friend set up an online dating account. She didn’t think much of it and sent the money.
“A couple weeks later he asked me for money to help him out with a job he was doing in Malaysia,” Debby says. “I had a company where I know you have to put money out before you get paid, so it wasn’t anything abnormal. At no time did I expect to be scammed. I didn’t know about scammers. I hadn’t heard about them. We were just business people.”
The dating continued and their relationship deepened. Debby kept every conversation between the two of them and copied them into an online journal. She hoped to use it for family history purposes and ended up with 4,000 pages of journal entries.
“He was what I needed. He was the therapy that I needed. He became my best friend,” she says.
As their time together increased, so did Eric’s financial requests.
Debby says she never saw any red flags, only “pink ones,” but one particular situation seemed a little suspicious.
“His attorney, who I got to know online, needed help with funding to get power of attorney (for the business),” Debby says. “That was really the only time that we might have had a little bit of a tiff because I don’t give money away freely to anybody. I questioned why I needed to do this and then he wanted me to go to Western Union.”
Debby eventually wired $2,500 because she figured it would resolve Eric’s problem and they could move forward.
But that $2,500 led to another $2,500, and the amounts became larger and larger.
“Over time I was funding large amounts of money because everything you could imagine with his business came into play,” she says. “Tariff, custom, inspection problems – you name it. Looking back on it I’m thinking, ‘Deb, this is ridiculous,’ but when you’re in the middle of it, you don’t see it.”
Debby’s family knew she was dating online but she didn’t tell her parents, siblings or children about the money requests. They frequently asked why it was taking so long for Eric to visit America, and some family members urged Debby to be careful.
“The more my kids and my friends said don’t, the more I isolated myself from them,” Debby says. “Because my company is an internet-based company, I worked out of my home. I’m at my computer all day long, and I didn’t need people around me.”
Eric took control of Debby’s life, which is exactly what scammers want, but she couldn’t see it and was just looking forward to meeting him face to face.
It was Sept. 10, 2012. Eric logged online and asked Debby a simple question: How do you feel about forgiveness?
She says she pulled out her scriptures and religious books and for hours, the two discussed the topic.
Then their internet connection dropped out.
“He came back a few hours later and asked if I remembered what we were talking about,” Debby says. “We revisited the subject of forgiveness for about an hour and I asked him if I had done something wrong. He said, ‘Deb, I have something to tell you. I have a confession to make and it’s going to hurt you.’”
Debby says it felt like “she had a knife in her stomach” because during her marriage to Lou, he had confessed to an extramarital affair. She was bracing for the worst.
“He then confessed that it had all been a scam, and he had experienced this spiritual awakening that he couldn’t go on anymore,” Debby says. “When he blurted out what was going on, I told him I didn’t believe him and that he was sick. I told him if this is a lie, he had to prove to me that it’s a scam.”
Eric then proceeded to tell Debby how to turn on video chatting, a feature they had not used in the past. She set up her webcam and microphone and then a screen popped up.
“I was looking at my desktop and then appeared this dark haired, dark eyed, dark skinned young man with a big smile on his face,” Debby recalls. “I’m looking at it saying, ‘Oh my gosh, what has just happened here?’ In an instant, my intel hat kicked in and I had my phone right there so I was able to take a picture of my computer screen. It’s the only picture I have of him.”
Debby quickly learned Eric was really named Joseph and that he was using her money to take care of his siblings, or so he said. He asked her if they could continue their relationship because he was in love with her.
“I said there’s no way we’re going to keep this going because you lied to me for over two years, and you have over a million dollars of mine,” she says. “He said he would try to pay me back and he had used money to take care of his siblings. I don’t know if any of that is true or not, but that’s the story he went with.”
The next day, Debby walked into the local FBI office with her parents, 4,000 pages of journal entries and a 3-inch binder containing financial transactions she had made with Eric.
She told investigators everything.
“Their mouths were on the floor and then they said, ‘We can’t do anything for you because he’s not in the United States,’” Debby says. “They said if you can get him here, we can do something for you, but not if he’s in Nigeria.”
Debby says she walked out of the FBI office and “shut down. I put on a mask and put on a smile and hid from the world.”
She began educating herself on Nigerian scams and learned there are training schools for scammers to attend. They are taught the psychology of a scam and how to play their victims.
“These guys are so well trained that it doesn’t matter who you are, how smart you are, how much of a financial background you have,” she says. “If we could be as good as they are at their job, we’d be millionaires.”
Four months after Eric confessed, Debby met her current husband through friends. Surprisingly, Eric occasionally kept in touch with her until he learned she had a new boyfriend.
Debby didn’t tell anyone about the experience until she was eating lunch with friends a few years ago. They encouraged her to write a book and, after learning how many people become victims of online scams, Debby wrote “The Woman Behind the Smile: Triumph Over the Ultimate Online Dating Betrayal.”
She now lives in Florida, runs a website and travels the country sharing her story. Eric never returned a penny of Debby’s $1,080,762 but she is thankful she received some sort of closure following their relationship.
“He confessed in person. Most women and men that get scammed – the scammer walks away. They have no closure. they don’t know if they died, if they have gone away, they really don’t know if they’ve been scammed,” she says.
In 2016, consumers lost more than $230 million in online dating scams, according to the FBI, but the amount is likely higher because it may be embarrassing for victims to report they’ve been scammed.
“Most people think the victims are middle-aged women who can’t get a date, but I have worked with men and women of all ages — doctors and lawyers, CEOs of companies, people from the entertainment industry — who you’d never think in a million years would fall for these scams but do,” Barb Sluppick told Consumer Reports. Sluppick runs Romance Scams, a watchdog site and online support group.
Debby is sharing her story to warn others about the dangers of online dating, and she believes her two-year ordeal taught her who she really is.
“What happened to me was terrible, but it didn’t define who I am. I gained power over it and I gained a voice over it and my purpose is now to help others,” Debby says. “This can happen to anybody and it is happening.”