‘It Was A Gut Punch’: Inside The Cruel World Of Online Romance Scams

In 2019, lonely and lovesick Americans were swindled out of nearly half a billion dollars by scammers set on taking advantage of their vulnerability.

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ROMANCE SCAMS: Manipulation, Deception and Digital Extortion
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ROMANCE SCAMS: Manipulation, Deception and Digital Extortion

Cyber scams are siphoning off trillions of dollars from the global economy and reining them in is difficult. Most of the perpetrators are oversees where U.S. authorities lack jurisdiction. Experts say that more than 2000 people fall prey to cyber scams every day. Romance scams make up some of the most devastating of these crimes because the damage is both financial and emotional. Stories of real victims in this episode show the heavy toll that romance scam manipulation takes from victims.

A decade ago, Debby Montgomery Johnson was suffering the ultimate heartbreak. Her husband of nearly 27 years had recently died of a heart attack. And for the first time in decades, the Florida widow was on her own.  

Roughly six months after her spouse passed, Johnson decided to give internet dating a try. In 2010, the former military intelligence official and banking executive met a mysterious man on a Christian dating website. His name was Eric Cole. The 55-year-old claimed to be a successful entrepreneur from London, who, like Johnson, was recently widowed.

Johnson said she was “enamored.” The internet stranger was charming, attractive, and knew how to make her laugh. 

“Eric just presented himself very professionally,” Johnson, now 62, told Oxygen.com. “The pictures were very athletic. It was very intriguing having a very international businessman who was a widow, too.” 

Debby Montgomery Johnson 1

Falling asleep alone at night, she said, had become a chore. However, her crippling grief, accompanied by insomnia, was replaced by an exhilarating new companionship; late-night online chat sessions with Cole became a staple of her work week. For the first time since her husband died, Johnson felt a semblance of peace. 

“The endorphins were just overflowing,” she said. “We could have these great conversations. We would chat for hours — hours — in the middle of the night. It was the one time I wasn’t sad.”

The pair soon moved their exchanges off the dating site onto Yahoo instant messenger, where Cole continued to pepper Johnson with affection. He referred her as his “sweetheart.”

“I am your man and my love for you is endless,” he wrote in a series of messages obtained by Oxygen.com.

Their virtual dates, Johnson described, often took place between midnight and 4 a.m. in between grueling 17-hour work days in which she balanced her job as a school district treasurer with running her late husband’s online health supplement company.

“That would be the only time to release the emotions I had of him dying,” Johnson said. 

Cole presented himself as a prominent globetrotting contractor and jet-setter who split his time between Houston, Texas, and Malaysia.

As the online couple began mapping out their future, Cole began asking for money. Johnson obliged. At first, the transfers weren’t for big amounts.

“It starts small,” she stated. 

Johnson said she began sending him $1,500 installments via Western Union. The money, he insisted, was for a variety of things: his family in the U.K., living expenses, food, and hotels. The amounts gradually increased. In one instance, she sent $7,000 to supposedly cover legal fees for her new boyfriend. 

Johnson later borrowed $100,000 from her father and wired it to Cole to cover outstanding tariffs he supposedly owed for exporting building materials in India.

Debby Montgomery Johnson 2

“The shipping company is levying a tax on the shipment which is now sitting in port,” Cole wrote her. “Us contractors are solely responsible for every expense incurred but don’t worry the profits will be mouth watering. ... You will get paid back as soon as I get to the states.”  

But in September 2012, Montgomery received a cryptic — and heartbreaking — message from her online crush.

“What do you know about FORGIVENESS?” he wrote in an instant message. “I know this will break you down on the inside. ... I confess to you my wrong deeds of scamming you all along.”

He concluded by messaging, “It is sad but there is no Eric Cole.”

Johnson was wrecked. 

“It was a gut punch,” she said. “It was worse than my late husband’s passing because I was part of it. And I gave him a million dollars. It was awful. Being part of this scam ripped my heart out. Talk about having the rug pulled out from under you emotionally, spiritually, and financially. It was devastating.” 

Then, to her surprise, the scam artist revealed himself on a live video chat. A man, purportedly in Lagos, Nigeria, smiled back at her. His name, he said, was “Joseph.”

“When I saw him, I thought, ‘Holy moly, what did I do here?’

But the damage — both emotionally and financially — was done. 

After nearly two years, the relationship had drained her life savings. Johnson had sent Cole more than $1 million in the short timespan. Johnson liquidated retirement accounts, sold tens of thousands of dollars in jewelry, and unloaded investments to fund her fake boyfriend. In the end, Johnson found herself $50,000 in debt to the Internal Revenue Service. The foreign conman was never caught. 

“The FBI told me they were sorry I was a victim of manipulation and unless I could get him to the States there was nothing they could do,” Johnson said.

She suspects multiple people assisted her perpetrator in executing the scam.

Each year, thousands of Americans become entangled online romance or confidence scams. In 2019 alone, such digital fraudsters conned $475 million out of their victims in the U.S., according to the FBI

“Everybody in the United States is either a victim of a romance scam or knows someone who is a romance scam victim,” Tim McGuinness, a relationship fraud expert and founder of Society of Citizens Against Romance Scams, told Oxygen.com.

McGuinness said the financial hardships suffered by relationship scam victims can drive many to addiction, homelessness and, in some cases, suicide. Many suffer in silence, he said. 

The elderly, as well as lonely and emotionally vulnerable individuals, such as those who have undergone a major life trauma such as losing a loved one, are particularly susceptible to online romance scams

“The brain becomes hijacked,” McGuinness explained. 

In 2017, Renee Holland, a 58-year-old Florida woman, blew much of her family’s savings after being duped by a phantom American soldier on Facebook. She swallowed a bottle of vodka and sleeping pills after learning she had been conned instead of telling her spouse.

“There’s no way I can go home and tell my husband,” Holland, who survived the suicide attempt, told the New York Times.

She later confided in her husband, Mark Holland, who admitted to the Times that he was “angry,” though he tried to remain compassionate.

Apart from the shame, embarrassment, and stigma that accompany being bilked in such an intimate way, coming forward can be difficult for many victims, experts said. In Holland’s case, it proved deadly.

On Dec. 23, 2018, after speaking with the New York Times, Holland was gunned down by her husband Mark, who also fatally shot her 84-year-old father before turning the firearm on himself.

Bryan Denny

Romance scam perpetrators frequently pose as deployed military service members, overseas oil drillers or successful business people. In many cases, the targets of these scams — the online daters themselves — aren’t the only victims.

“Despite our best efforts, the same images are constantly used to replicate thousands upon thousands of fake profiles that take advantage of people every day, every hour, every minute,” Bryan Denny, a military veteran who works with the Alliance to Counter Crime Online, told Oxygen.com. “And a lot of those are still up and active. It’s the same pictures used multiple times.”

Denny, who served in the U.S. Army, said thousands of fake online profiles have been created using his image. He estimated his picture has been used to fleece more than $350,000 from victims. 

“Every week Bryan has had to face breaking up a ‘relationship’ that he never knew existed,” Kathy Waters, a romance scam victim advocate, told Oxygen.com.

“I get a number of messages every day, from women that are searching for answers,” Denny said. “Sometimes I’m just confirming what they already suspect: they have been talking to a scammer. Other times, it’s more brutal. It’s breaking someone’s heart, it’s telling them they have been taken advantage of both financially and arguably worse, emotionally. Knowing some of these people will never recover it’s hard to take. It never gets easier.” 

A military background is the perfect cover story, some experts said.

“The military is a great story to use when executing a romance scam,” Waters said. “The scammer can say he’s deployed in another country — usually on a peace mission — away from any funds, unable to use a type of FaceTime because of the area he is in.”

Scams originate in a range of countries. Nigeria and Ghana topped a list compiled in a 2018 study of online dating fraud authored by cyber security researchers at the University of Bristol, followed by Malaysia, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the U.S. Researchers examined IP addresses associated with scam profiles on specific dating sites, though they cautioned that data from a broader set of dating websites would give a clearer picture of where frauds are originating from.

Because of the often large geographic gulf, only a sliver of fraud cases are ever successfully prosecuted and victims are rarely, if ever, repaid.

“It’s very difficult to actually catch these guys and punish them,” Johnson said. “Women who are bilked in these types of situations — financially and emotionally — are often terrified to come forward because they’re afraid of what people are going to think of them."

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