ARKANSAS, USA — Romance scams pull at your heartstrings and steal your wallet. It’s a crime that happens every day of the year but this valentine’s day the FBI wants to bring awareness to this crime.
“He said I have a confession to make and when I heard that it was like a gut punch,” said Debby Montgomery Johnson.
That’s when Debby Montgomery Johnson found out the man she met on a faith-based dating site had been scamming her. Over two years of chatting online with the man she’d given more than a million dollars to. She originally knew him as “Eric” from London. He was actually a man in his 20s, more than 4,000 miles from London in Nigeria.
“Looking back it’s just unbelievable how the story was crafted but when you’re in the middle of it you’re seeing family and feeling those family…I mean if anything happened to any of my kids, I would feel horrendous if I couldn’t help and so I was just trying to help him through the situation,” she said.
Johnson who has since written a book and shares her story publicly about the scam says the scammer started by asking her to send a check into the dating site to help get his friend on the site. She thinks that was a test to see if she would do it. A couple of weeks later he needed money to set up a power of attorney and the reasons went on.
“For me, what people would say are red flags or even yellow flags, I would call pink flags because I asked, and he always had a plausible reason. They are one step ahead of us for that,” she said.
Red flags to look for are if they aren’t willing to talk, video chat or meet you in person and of course if they ask you for money or personal information.
“The people who do this, they are commonly in contact with maybe 100 or more people at a time. They only need to get a fraction of those people to provide funds to them or items of value for it to be profitable,” said Special Agent Jim Dowson.
The FBI says in 2021 Americans lost a billion dollars to romance scams. They say the crime ramped up from 2015 to 2020.
“In 2015 there were about 12,000 victims and in 2020 it was up to about 24,000 victims. And losses from Americans went from about 200 million dollars in 2015 to 600 million dollars in 2020,” he said.
David McClellan is the CEO and founder of socialcatfish.com that helps people verify who people are.
“We think of romance scams as people just handing over money. Sometimes what will happen with these scams if they’ll actually send gifts now. These scams are evolving, so every time something stops working these scammers will make tweaks, essentially to their playbook,” he said.
Johnson is also on the board of SCARS which stands for the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams which is a nonprofit offering victim support and education. She wants people to know they are not alone, and this really can happen to anyone.
“The experience for me has been priceless only because I’ve been able to turn it around and use it for some good. If I can be there for one person, it made it worth it for me,” said Johnson.
If you have fallen victim to a romance scam or any type of scam you are asked to call the FBI or local law enforcement to report it. The FBI says the sooner they know about it the more likely they could recover some of the stolen money.
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