Crimes of the heart: The big business of online romance scams

(WXYZ) - Online dating scams cost people in Michigan nearly $7.5 million dollars, and it’s a crime law enforcement is almost powerless to stop.

Debby Montgomery is a former air force intelligence officer, who was trained to keep national secrets.  She’s also a former bank executive who was trained to detect fraud.

“It’s not what you know.  It’s what your heart is telling you. I don’t know.  You can’t turn your heart off sometimes,” said Montgomery.  

She fell head over heels for a romance scam, and has thousands of pages of love letters to prove it.

His name was Eric Cole, a British contractor who traveled the world... or so she thought.

“It was fun.  It was like I was 16 again, and my heart was just full of butterflies,” said Montgomery. 

She never dreamed her love letters would later be at the heart of an FBI investigation.

“A lot of things happened over 2 years as you can imagine, and I sent him a lot of money,” said Montgomery.  “It was $1,080,762 dollars.  That’s a lot of money.”

“That’s not the first 7-figure loss that I’ve even heard of,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jason Manar.

According to the FBI, Americans lost more than 1.3 billion dollars in 20-16 in romance scams.

“It’s very much like a business… there are bigger operations that are almost call center like, where you have individuals in rows and lines of computer monitors that are doing nothing but sending out these messages in the hopes for a response or reply,” said Sp. Agent Manar.

Lonely after her husband’s death, the 52-year-old Montgomery joined a faith-based dating site, where she matched with Cole.  After weeks of living in e-harmony, Cole asked for help.

“It was maybe $40 dollars.  It wasn’t very much,” said Montgomery.

As Montgomery’s heart grew, so did Cole’s requests.  

“Yes, I fell in love with the idea of this man,” said Montgomery

Two years and one million dollars later, Cole confessed:  it was just a scam.  His name was Joseph and he lived in Nigeria.

“I put up a smile and pretended that everything was fine, but inside I was just dying.  I was hurting, I felt stupid, I felt used.  I felt all those emotions that come up with being taken advantage of,” said Montgomery.

Montgomery took her records to the FBI, but unless she can get the man she knew as Cole to the U.S., nothing will happen.

“I think there needs to be a lot more to be done to protect the profiles and to protect… women like me,” said Montgomery.

They want you to fall in love.  And once you're in love, they own you,” said Licensed Private Investigator Reggie Montgomery (no relation to Debby Montgomery).

PI’s like Reggie say don't be afraid to research your possible love interest’s name, phone number and email through Google.  Run their profile picture through a Google image search, and check their name in online court records.

“You'd certainly like to know if the guy you just had coffee with and you thought was pretty cute was involved in a stalking case,” said Reggie.

Experts say if you haven’t met face to face, or if you haven’t known the person for a long time, never, ever send them money. 

Also read the fine print on the dating site, most of them don’t run background checks on their users.

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