LAKE WORTH —
After placing her profile on an online dating site seven years ago, Debby Montgomery deleted most of the responses.
“The guys were losers,” she recalled. “Some asked for money within a week of meeting online.”
But when she logged on to the site on November 14, 2010, one message spoke to her soul.
“I am in search of a long term relationship that…hopefully will lead to marriage…I’m willing to give my entire heart to that special lady…”
He said his name was Eric Cole, a British widower with one son, Talk2Me55 claimed. He had a PhD in education, traveled widely and lived a life guided by his Christian faith, a critical attribute for Debby, a Mormon whose husband had died five months earlier.
In the office of her tidy home west of Lake Worth, she scrutinized his photo. It showed a tall, muscular, middle-aged man in a blue t-shirt, baseball cap and sunglasses.
“So handsome,” she thought. Her friends agreed.
“Debby was all giggly,” her best friend, Denise Rosenberg, remembers.
During the next 22 months, Eric and Debby wrote each other almost every day.
“It was incredible to fall in love again at my age,” said Debby. “It was like being 16 again. Over the months, he became my whole life.”
She never suspected he would take more than $1 million from her in an online dating scam, then disappear somewhere in Nigeria.
Debby and Lou Montgomery met in Air Force Intelligence school.
He was a brilliant, brash force of nature. A “his way or the highway” kind of guy.
Debby is measured, likes routines, hates confrontation.
They married and joined the Church of Latter Day Saints and had three boys and a girl: Chris, Charlie, Jennifer and Matthew.
After moving to suburban Lake Worth in 1993, Lou started Benfotiamine.net, selling a supplement to people with diabetic neuropathy. He invested in race cars, was president of their Sunday school.
Debby worked as treasurer at Poinciana Elementary School.
“Debby has the most beautiful spirit on the face of the earth,” said Rosenberg, who lived across the street in the Lake Charleston neighborhood for nearly 20 years. “She’s the person I’d go to for solid advice.”
When Debby learned Lou had had an affair, she blamed herself for being too distracted with work and children. During their 26-year marriage, they developed their own friends, their own interests.
“Lou didn’t listen to me,” said Debby. “He was so smart, so I backed off and deferred to him.”
Debby adopted what she calls her “mask,” the placid, composed face of a woman who was always fine, whose life was under control, who was never at the mercy of a unrestrained emotion.
She kept the mask in place even when Lou died suddenly of a heart attack in April 2010, two months after canceling his life insurance policy.
Every afternoon, she swam laps at her nearby YMCA where no one could see the tears seeping from beneath her goggles.
She was 52 and alone.
Eric’s professions of love zinged straight to her heart.
He cared about the feelings she poured out through the keyboard.
“Eric became the guy I told everything to,” Debby said. “I didn’t want a physical relationship. I wanted a confidant, it was safe for me.”
He was an international broker of hardwood trees, he told her, working in Malaysia. He stood to make “millions” from a shipment of exotic trees from Malaysia to India.
When she tried to check his story by calling his company, they’d never heard of Eric Cole. He must be a subcontractor, Debby reassured herself.
“He had a lovely British accent,” Debby said, of one of their few phone conversations.
Video chats were impossible, he told her, because of spotty internet connections in Malaysia, but he sent her poems he claimed to have written.
In one called “All My Heart,” he wrote, “You’re the first thing I think of each morning when I rise…” and “I want to prove I love you.”
“I think she was blindsided by the emotional connection that was developing,” said her son, Charlie, who with his brother, Chris, warned her not to send money to Eric.
But Debby was rediscovering an identity beyond the perfect wife and mother. She could be someone’s beloved.
And she wasn’t just sending money. She was investing in a future with Eric.
She uploaded each conversation with Eric to her digital journal. Every few months, she had them printed and bound. She titled it, “A Love Story in the Making.” Eventually, there would be 4,000 pages in five volumes.
“I truly thought it would be something our kids would read one day,” said Debby.
Eric promised Debby he’d be in Florida for Christmas. Could she set up a bank account for him to deposit his profits and send him the account number? But first, the Bank of India needed some documents that would cost more than $9,000. Could she help?
“Wow, that’s a lot of money to be sending to Malaysia,” the Publix clerk remarked to Debby, as she was filling out the Western Union form. A few weeks before Christmas, Eric said he still hadn’t been paid and needed travel funds to come to the States.
Then, he couldn’t make it for Christmas because the shipping company was levying a huge tax. Could she…?
She could and she did.
On December 22, she typed into her journal, “I’m either a huge fool or this is going to be a wonderful relationship.”
Debby didn’t know it yet, but Eric wasn’t working in Malaysia, nor was he British.
He was in Nigeria, where online scammers are known as “the Yahoo boys,” for one of the email platforms they use.
Trolling the world’s online dating sites, they search for vulnerable victims, particularly divorced or widowed older women.
Many of the con men are Nigerian university students, according to U.S. News.
The scammers work in groups but pose as one person, using fake photos and scripts sometimes written months in advance, edited to take advantage of their victim’s vulnerabilities, according to the AARP, whose Fraud Watch Network tracks romance scams including internet dating cons.
Complaints of romance scams tripled from 2014 to 2016, according to the FBI, which says victims lost $220 million last year. It’s likely only a small sliver of the swindles since shame and embarrassment keep many victims from coming forward.
“The Internet makes this type of crime easy because you can pretend to be anybody you want to be,” said FBI Special Agent Christine Beining, in an FBI press release. “You can be anywhere in the world and victimize people.”
Wrapping lonely victims in smothering affection, they build trust and intimacy, even propose marriage, before asking for money, usually to help with “business” or “family” problems.
“They’re in love. They can’t imagine these people could steal and lie to them. At the time, it seems like such a reasonable request,” said Amy Nofziger of AARP.
According to The Guardian newspaper, some Yahoo boys consult local shamans to try to cast spells over victims, believing they can then more easily persuade them to send money, a practice known as Yahoo plus.
Again and again, Eric’s explanation of various predicaments sounded plausible to Debby as well as to her parents, who were helping her run the family’s business.
“The story was so compelling that you would never, ever think it was fake,” said her father, Jack Butz, a retired dentist. “She’s not the kind of girl you could slip things over on.”
Online, Eric introduced Debby to his 10-year-old son, Kenny, who lived with his widowed sister, Mary, in England.
“There were times when I would have three online conversations going on at once,” said Debby. “I started to think of Kenny as my fourth son. Mary and I became like sisters.”
Packages she sent to Mary and Kenny in the UK came back “addressee unknown,” but Eric’s explanations always sounded reasonable.
Psychologists call it confirmation bias, a tendency to look for reasons to believe the people we love.
Debby had to justify the money she’d sent by staunchly believing everything Eric told her.
Rosenberg, who is married to a police officer, became worried.
“One time, Eric and Debby were going to meet, but he couldn’t come because his son had an accident. It was the third or fourth excuse. I said, ‘Debby, open your eyes, there’s something wrong here.’ She clammed up immediately. She sent an email saying, ‘I’m done with this friendship if you’re going to be on me about this.’ It almost broke my heart,” said Rosenberg.
When Debby’s son, Charlie, questioned Eric heatedly online, Debbie asked him to leave the house.
If a bank balked at sending a large amount of money overseas, she went to another bank.
All along, she kept meticulous records of the wire transfers. $70,000. $10,000. $105,000. She wired the money to Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Kowloon, London.
She and Lou had been comfortable, but not even remotely wealthy.
“I emptied our retirement accounts,” she said, and paid crippling penalties.
She sold her gold jewelry to send Eric $5,000. She took loans on diamond rings. She sold stocks. She juggled business accounts. Eventually, she borrowed $100,000 from her parents to help the man with whom she expected to spend the rest of her life.
She was nearly broke in September 2012, when “Eric” finally confessed that Eric Cole was nothing more than pixels and a stolen photograph.
“I have been scamming you,” the words on the screen read. “I never intended for it to go this far or deep.”
“I don’t believe you,” Debby wrote back, in panic. “This couldn’t all be false.”
It was, the person writing to her said. His real name was Joseph, and he lived in Nigeria.
When Debby still refused to believe him, he typed, “Let me show you my real self.”
For the first time, he turned on his computer’s camera. Debby saw a young, chubby-cheeked man with a goatee. He was smiling.
She had just enough presence of mind to snap a picture of her screen.
She had given this man — this venal, gloating stranger — a million dollars. $1,080,762.43, to be precise.
The horror of what he’d done to her, the staggering betrayal of love, coupled with her naive trust wrenched her out of the gauzy dream in which she’d lived for nearly two years.
Yet, Eric/Joseph dared ask for one more thing.
He claimed to be born again in the spirit of God. He wanted Debby’s forgiveness.
Astonishingly, she gave it to him.
“I had to forgive him so I could move forward,” she said. “I had to forgive myself, which was harder.”
That’s not the end of the story.
Although Debby took thousands of pages of documents, account numbers and copies of money transfers to the West Palm Beach office of the FBI, she was told the bureau could do nothing unless Eric was in the U.S.
Ashamed and humiliated, Debby told only her parents and a few close friends what she’d done. Not even her children knew.
For three years, she climbed back under her smiling mask of silent perfection.
But at one of the women’s business groups she attends, she finally found the courage to tell her story to a flabbergasted audience.
She’s become a warm and friendly cautionary tale of the pitfalls of modern love at women’s conferences around the country, bolstered by her self-published book,“The Woman Behind the Smile: Triumph Over the Ultimate Online Dating Betrayal.”
The book led to a weekly internet radio show called “Defining Moments,” which airs Thursdays at 1 p.m. on Voice America.
She says she regrets little, except disappointing her children.
Although Eric promised to repay her, she’s never received a cent, yet maintains she’s grateful to him.
“I needed the unqualified love and affection I got from Eric because I didn’t have that in my marriage,” said Debby. “The hole in my heart was filled and I found my voice again. Now, if I can help one person avoid what happened to me, then it was all worth it.”
Rosenberg quipped, “I could have found her a much cheaper therapist.”
In the end, Debby also got her fairy tale ending.
Two years ago, she fell in love with and married C.J. Johnson, a handsome Lantana businessman whom her entire family adores. He loves her children and grandchildren, and most of all, he loves Debby.
And he’s real.
“It’s a match made in heaven,” she said.
Not in cyberspace.
5 Tips to Avoid Romance Scams:
*Download the photo of your new friend into Google images, to see if it appears elsewhere under a different name.
*Don’t agree to immediately move off the dating site onto Yahoo or other messaging platform.
*Do not send money to anyone you meet online.
*Be aware that if grammar, spelling or syntax seems odd, the person you’re speaking to could be in another country.
*Don’t provide personal information until you’ve met in person.