No one would have guessed that Debby Montgomery Johnson, a former paralegal, Air Force intelligence officer, and bank teller, would be taken for over a million dollars by a scammer on an online Latter-day Saint dating site. In fact, no one would even know if she hadn’t spoken up about it. Debby could have continued to hide behind her smile, keeping her secret buried deep.
But for Debby, unexpected healing has come from sharing her story. Though she knows firsthand the feelings of shame, embarrassment, and guilt that many scam victims experience, telling her story has opened her eyes to the realization that hundreds of men and women alike have been scammed. And most times, they don’t say anything to anyone.
Now, eight years after the scam, Debby’s mission is to provide a voice of warning to those who might fall victim to scammers, as well as give hope to those who have been hurt by scammers. “He took my power away by scamming me, but I got it back,” she says. “Every time I talk about it, I get it back.”
Debby’s story began in 2010 with the unexpected passing of her husband, Lou. After being married for 26 years, the sudden loneliness of being a widow was crippling. In an attempt to drown out her feelings, Montgomery threw herself into a rigorous work schedule. Other than spending an hour each day swimming laps at the pool and getting four hours of sleep at night, most of her time was dedicated to working her part-time job at the school district and taking on the heavy task of running her late husband’s business. “I didn’t want to think about what was going on,” she recalls. “And so I just kept busy.”
After six months of running on anxiety and empty energy, Debby’s friends encouraged her to get out of her shell and start meeting people. Having heard success stories of women her age who had met their husbands on Latter-day Saint dating sites, and after some convincing from her friends, Debby decided to give it a try. She logged onto LDS Planet and created the perfect profile in hopes of meeting someone compatible. “For a widow with four kids, I didn’t want to come across as having too much baggage, and I wanted to look pretty perfect. So I dipped my toe in by putting everything out there. I was so transparent,” Debby says.
At first, the men who reached out to her were not quite what she was looking for. On top of that, she was afraid of facing the old dating anxieties she had experienced as a young single adult.
But on November 14, 2010, she got a message from someone promising. Eric Cole was a British businessman who worked internationally. He had his Ph.D., was strong in his Christian faith, and was very family-oriented. And his profile picture, unlike his other 50-year-old counterparts, was quite attractive.
A Love Story in the Making
“We kind of just clicked,” Debby remembers. “We had hours and hours of instant messaging.” Though he had been living in Houston for a while, he told Debby he got a job that was taking him over to Malaysia. Claiming that internet was spotty in the areas he was working, he asked if they could talk over Yahoo Chat since it would be easier for him to communicate. At the time, the distance felt safe for Debby. Having been married for so long, she didn’t feel ready for a physical relationship; she was just happy to have some ability to put herself out there and build connections.
Though they were only able to speak over the phone a few times due to time differences and poor cell service, Eric and Debby continued to get to know each other over email and Yahoo Chat. When they did speak, he had a delightful English accent, and Debby continued to feel that Eric was a “genuinely kind, open guy.” Every few months, she would copy and paste their conversations into her online journal, which she printed into hard-copy books, thinking it would be the perfect way to document their love story for family history. Over the course of the next two years, she would print over 4,000 pages of instant messages between them.
Eric told her that his business entailed contracting large amounts of hard wood trees, which was fascinating to Debby. And, from watching her late husband run his own business for years and then taking it over herself, she knew that running a business involved taking risks. “Sometimes you have to pay in advance before you get paid back, you know,” Debby explains. “That’s just part of it.”
So after a month of talking, when Eric asked for help to get an engineer onto a company website, Deb was willing to help out and sent a $45 check. A few weeks later, when he was having problems reaching his attorney, he asked for help again. Debby, who typically didn’t give money away freely to others, rationalized her concerns by remembering that his work in Malaysia would only be for a short period of time. “I was like, ‘Well, let’s get this over with,’” Debby says. If she could help him out, he would be able to come back to the United States sooner.
But his time in Malaysia continued to be extended, and Debby continued to send money. In the meantime, Debby got to know his sister, who supposedly lived back in England with Eric’s son. “I got to know them via email, and there were times when on Yahoo Chat I would have three open message boxes: one to his sister and son in England, one to his attorney, and one to him,” Debby recalls. “Thinking back now, I’d love to be a fly on the wall. . . . How in the world did they do that? But at the time, I thought I was speaking to three or four different people. I got to know about Eric through his sister. . . . I would ask questions about him, and I would ask questions about her to get their story, you know, figure out who they were.”
When people at the bank or even her own children questioned her about sending large sums of money, Debby didn’t want to hear it. Of course she knew him; by this point, she had been with Eric for over a year. “Eric became an important part of my life. He became part of my family. And so I did everything I could to support him,” Debby says. “It was really a great adventure. The only tiff we had at one point was where he had asked me for some money, and I got really uncomfortable with it, but I did it anyway.” After investing so much in him already, she felt like she needed to see it through. He would be home soon, she thought. It would all be worth it.