Latter-day Saint Woman Taken for $1 Million by Online Dating Scam Speaks Out to Help Others Find Healing, Stay Safe

The Truth Revealed

One morning in September of 2012, Debby logged on to chat online with Eric just as she always did. But this time, Eric had something specific he wanted to talk about. “How do you feel about forgiveness?” he asked. Having had many conversations with Eric about the gospel, before, Debby says, “I put on my scriptural hat; I got all my books; I got out The Miracle of Forgiveness. . . . For hours, we spent writing about forgiveness.”

As the conversation continued, however, Debby started to sense that something was wrong. “Did I do something wrong?” she typed. “Why are we going into this conversation so deep?” Eric responded, “I have a confession to make, and it’s going to hurt you.”

This sent a jolt through Debby that brought back a flood of memories and emotions. “The reason for that is because at one point in my marriage, my husband confessed that he had an affair,” Debby shares. “It was just something that I hid forever because I didn’t want to disparage anything.” Now that Eric was saying this, she braced herself for the worst.

“This has all been a scam,” Eric typed. The confession was so unexpected that Debby had trouble believing it at first. “I’m saying, ‘Huh? You’re lying. You’re sick. Something’s wrong,’” Debby remembers. “And then I said, ‘If that’s really true, Eric, now you have to prove to me that this is a lie and a scam.’”

Over instant messages, he walked Debby through how to use the live video call feature that had been on Yahoo Chat all along so she could see his face. As the camera came up on Debby’s computer screen, the man staring back at her was not the handsome Eric that had been on her screensaver for months. Instead, she saw him for who he really was—a Nigerian man who had taken over a million dollars from her.

It was only after this reality hit that the banker and intelligence officer inside Debby kicked into action. “I don’t know how I did it, but I had my cell phone right beside me, and I took a picture of my computer screen,” she says.

Bouncing Back

Debby brought the picture, a record of her bank transactions, and her 4,000 journal pages of instant messages to the FBI immediately. “They listened to my story and they were just very kind,” Debby remembers. But because the scammer was out of the country, there was nothing they could do.

Debby remembers thinking, “Oh my gosh, if the FBI can’t do anything, then nobody can. And I shut down. I put up that mask, I put up my smile, and I became fine. I did not let anybody know how I was really doing. And I hid it for years. . . . The whole shame, guilt, beat up, you name it. The whole heartache, the financial fiasco.  . . . I mean, my heart was ripped out from underneath me again.

But Debby kept this heartache hidden for the next two years. It wasn’t until online dating was brought up in a conversation with a friend over lunch that she finally opened up. “I must’ve rolled my eyes at her and she was like, ‘What is that about?’ And so I told her the story. And she said, ‘Deb, you have got to tell this story.’ I said, ‘No. I’m not ever telling anybody what I did.’ She goes, ‘You have to tell this story because my mother was taken for $80,000 and she never told anybody.’”

As Debby began to share her story more, she was shocked at how many other people were suffering silently. Recalling their encouragement, Debby says, “They said, ‘You have to tell this story because so many people are being hurt by particularly online scam or scammers in general, but nobody wants to talk about it, and until we do, we can’t protect other people.’”

“The more I started talking about it, the better I felt about me,” Debby says. Though she couldn’t stop the scammer, she felt empowered to be able to prevent it from happening to other people. Finding her voice again brought hope and healing not only to her, but to hundreds of other scam victims.

Sharing Her Story

Debby has now shared her story over radio, television, and at public speaking events. She even wrote a book documenting her experience titled The Woman Behind the Smile: Triumph Over the Ultimate Online Dating Betrayal.

“We all have a story,” Debby says. “And if we don’t share the stories, that person sitting beside you might be going through the same thing thinking that he or she is alone, and they’ll never talk. But if they find out that you’ve had something happen to you, they’re willing to open up. And that’s such a healing thing, to be able to open up and share in a positive way.”

Debby shares that since sharing her story, she’s been able to help scam victims who were contemplating suicide. Of one woman who got in touch with her, Debby shares, “She says I saved her life because she really considered suicide. [She] mortgaged her home; she was scammed twice by the same man for over $600,000. . . . [But now] she’s just a completely different person—you know, not financially, she’s working her way out of it. But because she knew that she wasn’t alone, she’s been strong enough to be able to speak up and try to heal.”

As Debby looks back on the experience, she can see in retrospect the red flags that she never paid attention to. But even still, she realizes that out of all of the things that should have kept her from being a victim, “it just proves that these guys are extraordinarily well-trained and manipulative. And they know what to say and how to say it.”

“I went to the temple and I prayed about every time I was going to send him money,” Debby says. “I kept getting the feeling like, ‘It’s okay. It’s okay.’ And I look back and you could really question your faith when you’re having that realization.” But having a more eternal perspective has helped Debby come to peace with this.

“I had a woman who was a minister in Indiana on a radio show one time say, ‘Deb, this had to happen to you because God knew that you would talk about it. And you’ll be okay. You’ll get through it, but this had to happen to you and you had to open your mouth and tell people about it.’”

And Debby is okay. Though her business isn’t quite where she’d like it to be, she has recovered enough to be somewhat financially stable, and she is happily remarried. “I look back, and I’m not sorry that it happened, period. I mean, I could definitely use the money,” she admits. “But the experience was something that I know I’m supposed to use to help others going forward.”

If you choose to use online dating sites, here are some tips to protect yourself from scammers:

- Remember that just because it’s a Latter-day Saint or Christian site doesn’t mean it’s safe. While faith-based sites can help you find compatible people with common beliefs, keep in mind that scammers can take advantage of your trusting nature if you aren’t careful.

- Avoid disclosing whether you have been divorced or widowed on your profile. New profiles with these indications are targets for scammers who are looking for individuals who are more vulnerable to emotional manipulation.

- Run an online search about the individual you are chatting with. A quick Google search can help you know quickly if someone really is who they say they are.

- Never send money to someone you are corresponding with from an online dating site, even if the reason and amount seems reasonable. Always run the situation by a friend or family member who is less emotionally invested.

- Avoid moving the conversation off the dating site too early. Because online dating sites are trying to catch scammers, scammers will try to move your conversation off the site as early as they can. This allows them to have more information about you (like your email or phone number), plus it makes it less likely for them to get caught.

- Keep in mind that working overseas is a common storyline scammers use. Whether it’s for work or military service, making repeated excuses not to meet you in person are definitely a red flag.

- Beware of profiles with military uniforms. Military pictures are used heavily for scam profiles because of the trustworthy connotation associated with them. Typically, military members aren’t allowed to use their military pictures for profiles anyway, so this is always something to watch out for.

Image courtesy of Debby Montgomery Johnson
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