In a world where we are more digitally connected than ever, it’s important to be aware of who we are talking to. Debbie Montgomery Johnson, an advocate for victims and survivors of online fraud, never would have guessed that she would have been involved in a romance scam. After two years and one million dollars, she is here to share her story in hopes of preventing this from happening to someone else and to help others going through it. She joins us today to talk about the red flags to look out for, why we need to protect our identities, and how we can take our power back if this happens to us.
Debbie’s story reminds us that this can happen to anyone and that despite the shame you may be carrying, it is important to speak up if this happens to you. Tune into this episode and then share it with a friend so more people can become aware of this topic!
In this week’s episode, we discuss:
[01:22] About Debbie Montgomery Johnson
[03:17] How Debbie started to speak up for victims and survivors
[06:49] The impact that becoming a widow had on her life
[13:14] How she met a criminal on an online dating website
[19:13] Red flags vs “pink flags” and amygdala hijacking
[24:15] This fraud goes beyond romantic relationships
[29:28] The mental health impact on the victims of these crimes
[31:11] Why we need to protect our identity and notice red flags on social media
[34:20] How to defend a stolen profile or identity
[36:01] Meeting the criminal who took advantage of her
[40:05] The worst part of the entire experience
[46:12] The red flags to look out for
[53:31] Taking your power back
[55:21] “It’s not catfishing, it’s fraud”
[58:29] What keeps Debbie going
[1:00:29] There is a need for more laws to be in place
[1:03:57] “Beware and be aware”
[1:08:48] Debbie’s favorite date
About Debbie Montgomery Johnson
Debbie is a victim’s advocate, founder of “The Woman Behind The Smile” and the incorporated director of “The Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams”. She is also a best-selling author, international speaker entrepreneur, and podcast host. In her book, “The Woman Behind The Smile” she shares her personal experience with a love that turned into betrayal and financial disaster. She removes the mask of shame and shows others how to do the same. Many of us have something we are ashamed of which keeps us hidden from each other and the world. Debbie has a diverse background and has appeared on the Dr. Oz Show, CBS, The Mel Robbins Show, and many more.
How Debbie started to speak up for victims and survivors
At the beginning of her journey, it was really difficult to talk about what she went through. When everything fell apart, she luckily had her parents because many of her friends left her. She was full of shame and embarrassment and did not want to share it with anyone.
Then one day when she was at a business conference talking about online dating with a few friends at lunch. She started to roll her eyes as they were talking about it and they asked “What is the story with your two-year online relationship?” She told them and they said, “You have to tell other people to let them know.”
After this, Debbie started to hear stories about people who had been scammed and did not want to tell anyone. She thought “If we do not talk about this, then the other people are going to think they are alone in what they are going through” At this point, her mission opened up and she knew she needed to help others.
The impact that becoming a widow had on her life
Debbie says that during this time of her life, she became vulnerable. Her husband of 26 years suddenly passed away in 2010 and she was left with their four kids, his business, and no life insurance policy. This made a big impact on her life because she was not leaving the house, she was mourning this loss, all while trying to keep a roof over their heads.
After a while, her friend said “You need to start dating” because all she was doing was working, watching sad movies, and keeping herself going. All of her insecurities came flooding in but she talked herself into it. She picked a faith-based dating website in 2011 and tried it out.
How she met a criminal on an online dating website
As Debbie was dating, she started to get matched with men and found that many of them were lying about their age and height or were not a good fit at all. She was looking for an intelligent businessperson and this is when she met a man who said he was a widower who lived in England.
Looking back, she can see the red flag of him wanting to move their conversations off of the dating site to Yahoo chat, but at the time she was excited because this was a better way for them to communicate. They did not talk on the phone but she chatted with him and the rest of his family. He brought many characters into the story to build trust. Debbie was a former Air Force Intelligence Officer so she did have some hesitations and did her research but he always had a story to back it up.
Red flags vs “pink flags” and amygdala hijacking
Debbie said that in the beginning, it felt like a love story in the making. He was saying all the right things and validating her which got her endorphins going. Looking back this was amygdala hijacking where her heart was ruling her head. She called everything that he did a “pink flag” because there was always a reason to back it up. He was very good at coming up with an excuse and she trusted him despite looking into the lies that he was telling.
There were so many ups and downs of emotions and cancellations when it came to meeting up. Then he started to ask for money and at first, it was smaller amounts and she thought she was helping him. Then he started to need money around business which led Debbie to go down multiple rabbit holes each time. Looking back, Debbie says that these pink flags should have been black but once your amygdala is hijacked, you hear what you want to hear.
This fraud goes beyond romantic relationships
Debbie shared that the only thing that she did wrong was saying hi. These people are not scammers or catfishers they are organized criminals. They know what to do, they have been taught in universities to do this, and now they have artificial intelligence. Debbie shares that they are also on social media sites and gaming platforms.
This goes beyond romantic relationships and they may ask you to invest in cryptocurrency to make more money. You might even get money back but at some point, they are going to take all of it. We all think that we are safe and that we will spot a scam but this happens in all different areas and it’s difficult to catch until it’s too late.
The mental health impact on the victims of these crimes
Debbie shares how isolating this can be because of shame. These victims do not want to tell anyone what happened to them so they fight internal battles and some even commit suicide because they feel helpless. She shares that even if you go to the police department, they might laugh at you. This shuts you down and makes you think that you did something wrong.
Why we need to protect our identity and notice red flags on social media
We do not need thousands of friends on social media, Debbie shares. We need to stop posting so many pictures, making our profiles public, and sharing what we are doing at all hours of the day. She shares that many of these men are posing as women to get close to you, and then you can see that you have a mutual friend with someone when they create another profile. Be mindful of who you accept as a friend and always ask the mutual friend if they know them in real life.
How to defend a stolen profile or identity
If someone steals your identity for organized crime, it is very hard to defend yourself. Anyone who is a public personality has probably had their picture stolen and people think they are talking to them. Some people can hire an attorney but this is not the case with everyone. Debbie shares that even if you defend yourself, people may still believe that it is you until someone else is uncovered. This is damaging for both parties.
Meeting the criminal who took advantage of her
Debbie says that one day the man she had been talking to confessed to what was going on. She went on a video call with him; he was a younger man from Nigeria, and she tried to keep him on the call to keep him talking. He said that he needed to take care of his family and that he would try to pay he back if she did not say anything. After this happened, she went right to the FBI and shared with them that throughout these 2 years, she gave him one million dollars.
The worst part of the entire experience
Even though Debbie lost a lot of money, the worst part of the experience was the fact that her parents loaned her 100,000. Her dad believed this man to be part of the family. She felt guilty and responsible for paying her parents back, which she did, but emotionally and morally, it still hurts her. These criminals will pull your family in but then also say “Don’t tell anyone” fortunately for her, she was not isolated from her parents.
The red flags to look out for
Debbie recommends having a “dating buddy” who can look at things more objectively than you can once your hormones start going. Have them look at the conversations and see if there is anything weird about it. Start to pay attention if they give you emotional love or bring you into their families too quickly. Another red flag is if they ask for money. This seems obvious but it will happen subtly then you can lose your entire savings account.
Another tip is to check their social media. If you cannot find anything about them or their family online, then put a Google alert out there for their name so something will pop up if it is written about them. Do not accept friend requests from people you do not know.
Taking your power back
It is so important to take back your power in these situations. The first thing you can do is report it and even if you do not get your money back, you will not have them hanging over you. Debbie has seen people go from feeling helpless to taking back their power even if there are no criminal charges.
“It’s not catfishing, it’s fraud”
Many of the victims do not think that the FBI can do anything for them but this is not always the case. Sometimes the FBI can do something and Debbie shares about a case where they caught a money laundering scheme. If this woman did not speak up, they would not have opened up this case. We do not need to look at this stuff as catfishing, we need to look at it as fraud so more of these operations are shut down.
What keeps Debbie going
Debbie shares that there are days when she wants to say enough is enough and not be a voice for the victims. But when she gets a message from someone saying that it empowered them to speak up or it helped them in any way, this keeps her going. She also reminds us that she cannot do it alone and it is important for all of us to support the victims of these crimes. She also found her husband who is very understanding and helps her in the moments where she does not think she can keep advocating.
There is a need for more laws to be in place
Debbie shares that more laws need to be in place and that law enforcement needs to understand what is happening here. So many people feel safe online and children are now more accustomed to it so they can also be victims of these crimes as well.
“Beware and be aware”
Debbie shares that “beware and be aware” has been her recent tagline and it is through education that people can prevent this. We all want a cure for something but we do not want to take a vitamin to prevent it – we want a pill to fix it. But this is not going to get fixed unless we talk about it. We need to keep our ears open and listen to people’s stories to spread awareness.
Debbie’s favorite date
Debbie shared that she had a date with her husband at Denny’s and they were talking for 4 hours. He gave her their first kiss through the window and it was simple and romantic.
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