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.
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.
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.