The Human Impact of Financial Crime
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Debby’s Heartbreak:
The Romance Scam that Cost a Widow $1 Million

Debby Montgomery Johnson, 65
Fraud Awareness Advocate

At 51, Debby Montgomery Johnson led a full life.

She and her husband, Lou, had been happily married for 26 years. They were both Air Force Veterans and she now worked at a bank, while he ran his own business. With one teenager at home, one in college, and two older boys serving as military pilots, Debby and Lou were just starting to envision what life might look like as empty nesters.

Then Lou suddenly died, and Debby become a widow overnight.

“I was so mad—at Lou, at the world,” said Debby. “None of it was part of our plan.”

But Debby didn’t want the world to see her pain. Every morning, she woke up and forced a smile on her face, staying busy by taking over Lou’s business. She only allowed herself to cry at night when she was back home alone.

Her friends were worried for her and encouraged her to try online dating. In time, she created an online dating account, hoping she could find someone to talk to—a companion to fill the void of loneliness.

Soon, someone caught her eye.

Eric was a British businessman, with a son of his own and a kind smile. He was widowed, like her. And as they began chatting, she quickly discovered that he was charming and could keep a conversation going. They started talking over instant message all the time.

“Every time I heard the chirp from my messaging app, I’d run over to my computer so we could keep talking,” said Debby. “It was like I was 16 again.”

As they shared more about each other, their families, and their lives, Debby grew to trust Eric— and with that came a sense of security. When she noticed small inconsistencies in Eric’s stories, they were easy to rationalize, especially as the pair grew closer.

Just a few weeks after they started talking, Eric asked Debby for money for the first time.

It was such a small amount—just $50—that Debby didn’t hesitate. It was only later she would realize it was a test—one she unfortunately passed. With promises of repayment, she was happy to help float him cash he needed to get by.

The requests for money slowly became more frequent, the dollar amounts creeping up over time. Debby became a fixture at Western Union, regularly sending thousands of dollars to places like Malaysia, England, and India—$2,500 here, $10,000 there. When she depleted her immediate savings, she tapped into her retirement accounts, sold jewelry, and even eventually borrowed money from her parents as the months ticked by. She kept meticulous records of all the money she sent to or on behalf of Eric, but she had no idea how much it was adding up to.

After two years, she had transferred more than $1 million dollars. None of it had been repaid.

“At the time, the stories he told me felt so urgent and made so much sense,” Debby said. “It went on for so long—my accountant knew about him, my banker knew about him, my family knew about him. It had to be real.”

But it wasn’t. In September 2012, Eric came online and asked Debby, to her confusion, how she felt about forgiveness.

Then he confessed: their entire relationship had been a scam.

Debby immediately rejected the idea—it couldn’t possibly be true. Then Eric turned on his video camera for the first time, revealing a young Nigerian man who bore no resemblance to the British widower she had received pictures of.

“It felt like hitting a brick wall,” Debby said.

As “Eric” apologized and tried to play on her sympathies to keep the relationship going, she was overwhelmed by feelings of anger and shame. Her mind began to spin with questions: Could she catch him? Could she somehow get her money back?

After closing out of the chat, Debby contacted the FBI, armed with more than 4,000 pages of journal entries and financial records from the past two years. Law enforcement confirmed the fraud, but there was little that could be done: the money was long gone, and there was little hope of finding and prosecuting the international perpetrators.

“Losing the money was obviously devastating,” Debby said. “But what’s worse is what it does to your heart, your trust.”

In the aftermath of the fraud that defined two years of her life, Debby struggled to move forward. It fundamentally changed how she looked at the world, as she became wary of interacting online or with new people in her social circle.  

She found a new sense of purpose by dedicating herself to raising awareness about the pervasiveness and risk of romance scams. She knows now that there’s a full playbook criminals use to psychologically manipulate people into opening both their hearts and their bank accounts — and like her, they may never find justice.

“People always think it could never happen to them—I know I did, and I’m a former intelligence officer. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”

Lilah’s Nightmare:
When Business Email Compromise Jeopardized Her Dream Home

Lilah Jones
Sales Professional at Google*

At the altar, Lilah Jones pictured life with her new partner starting differently.

She spent New Year’s Eve 2022 getting married in Puerto Rico and looking forward to what she knew would be a big year. As soon as she and her new husband got back home to Chicago, they would start searching for their dream home.

With interest rates still low but projected to rise, Lilah knew they needed to act fast. But she wasn’t worried — as a mother, a motivational speaker, and a dynamic sales professional at Google, Lilah was no stranger to having a lot on her plate. She threw herself into the house-hunting process, and just a few short weeks later, they found it — their perfect house, with enough room for their kids and Lilah’s mother who was moving in.

As they inched toward closing on the house, life got even more hectic. Lilah changed jobs and started coordinating her mom’s move. All the while, she was keeping on top of all that goes into a home purchase: the inspections, underwriting, and the coordination between real estate agents, mortgage companies, and the title company.

“I wanted to make sure all of my ducks were in a row,” Lilah said.

On the Monday before closing, Lilah received an email with the instructions for how to wire her down payment and closing costs to the title company. She’d been expecting this—she had reached out to the title company weeks before to confirm the process and ask what elements would be in the email.

Lilah checked the email closely: everything seemed as it was supposed to, and it came directly from the person she’d been dealing with at the title company. Even still, she wanted to be sure, so she called the title company to confirm the instructions. When no one answered or returned her call—and not wanting to jeopardize the closing that was 48 hours away—she moved forward with wiring the money from her bank on Tuesday.

The big day arrived on Thursday morning. Lilah and her husband sat at the closing table, nervous and excited about their big purchase.

Then, the title company agent came in with a stunning revelation: they hadn’t received Lilah’s $130,000 down payment.

Lilah was shocked. She grabbed her phone and pulled up the instruction email she had received. Almost immediately, the title company representative identified it as a spoofed email address. At first glance, the email looked like it had come from Lilah’s contact at the title company. But clicking on the sender’s name revealed another address that was so close to the original it was almost indiscernible.

The title company representative handed her a pamphlet on real estate transaction fraud and asked what she wanted to do

“I couldn’t believe it—I had no idea what to do in this scenario,” Lilah said. “Every eye in the room was on me, I felt sick.”

But there was no time to waste, so Lilah sprang into action. She waited for hours at her bank, hoping to stop the wire transaction. But she was told there was nothing they could do since 48 hours had passed. A call to local law enforcement was similarly unhelpful. Her focus then shifted to her top priority: saving their dream house.

Over the next few days, Lilah and her husband moved their money around and cobbled together a new down payment. With funding secured and the wire instructions triple-checked, they were able to reschedule their closing and took possession of the house the following Tuesday. Their relief was palpable.

But the joy from that happy moment was short-lived, as Lilah’s attention soon returned to the Business Email Compromise scam that stood to cost her so much.

“I was sick of hearing, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’” Lilah said. “I refused to be a victim.”

Lilah started doing a significant amount of research online and calling everyone who could conceivably help her. Fueled by this tenacity, she eventually found a company that helps victims of wire fraud recover their money. The company’s representatives offered the first glimpse of hope: there was a chance the stolen funds might still be sitting in an account somewhere. They promised to do everything to find it.

A few days later, Lilah received good news. They had found her money, which was still in the criminal’s account—an account that had now been frozen. Her bank would be able to recover her stolen down payment.

It took four months, but Lilah ultimately got back about $123,000. It was a rare happy ending for this type of real estate transaction fraud, one that Lilah doesn’t take for granted.

"Even if you become a victim of financial crime, you’re not powerless. Be an advocate for yourself."

*The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the Interviewee and are not associated with Google in any way.

Steve’s Struggle:
How Scammers Exploited this Semi-Retired Scientist

Steve, 68
Scientist, Artist & Stanford Graduate

The golden years were just starting to come into focus for Steve.

A Stanford graduate, he’d built an accomplished career as an applied scientist, even hosting a podcast that combined his love of agriculture and pop culture. But at 68, he was looking forward to a slower pace, with more time for his passions like gardening, hiking near his home in San Diego, and artwork inspired by botany, biology and the flora that defined his career for so long.

Steve wasn’t quite ready to call himself fully retired, though. He was still doing some consulting and freelance writing out of his home office. So, when he received an invoice from the Geek Squad on a Friday in 2022, he didn’t think anything of it. He had a service contract for his computer, and he knew it was up for renewal soon. But the amount of the invoice—$399—was higher than expected.

“It looked like every other Geek Squad email I’d ever gotten,” Steve said. He called the customer service number conveniently listed in the email.

Steve reached a friendly agent, who confirmed the invoice was incorrect and that he would receive a full refund. Steve just needed to download a diagnostics app, so the agent could help him fill out the necessary paperwork. Once again, Steve thought nothing of it—it was common for the Geek Squad to request remote access as part of the troubleshooting process.

There was just one problem: he wasn’t talking to the Geek Squad.

When Steve downloaded the app, criminals got full access to his computer and everything on it. They used it to access his bank accounts, move his money around, and make it appear that $20,000 had mistakenly been deposited into his account.

Now the real scam was in motion.

The agent began talking about how much trouble he would get in for the mistaken transfer. He would need Steve’s help to fix things, by initiating a wire transfer to return the money.

“It was impossible not to feel bad for the guy,” Steve said. “I wanted to help.”

Steve set out for his local bank branch. But when he got there, they wouldn’t authorize the transaction. The scammers wouldn’t be deterred. With the wire transfer off the table, the agent told Steve he could withdraw cash from the bank and use it to buy gift cards.

While he still felt sympathetic toward the agent, Steve began getting suspicious. He started asking more questions about who he was talking to, the transaction, and the gift cards. Soon, the scammer’s tactics changed: friendliness gave way to threats that his entire bank account could be shut down if he didn’t comply.

Worried that he was being blackmailed and could lose all the money in his account, Steve withdrew $12,000 from the bank. When the teller at the bank asked what the money was for, Steve said it was to pay for home renovations—the lie supplied by the scammer.

What followed was a nightmarish weekend. With stores limiting how many gift cards can be purchased in a single day, Steve scrambled around San Diego trying to find new places to buy cards. All the while, the scammer just kept calling, demanding more money as quickly as possible.

He began to fear that they would never leave him alone.

When Monday morning finally arrived, Steve went back into his bank and told them everything that was happening. They confirmed his worst suspicions: he was the victim of a fraud scam. Steve contacted law enforcement, but the damage was done.

None of Steve’s $12,000 was ever recovered, and no one was apprehended for the crime.

Steve debated sharing his story for a long time. He did not feel comfortable sharing with his friends, family, or in his professional circles that he had been duped by this type of scam. Even today, he shoulders a sense of responsibility for what happened and is worried about being taken advantage of again.

While he ultimately decided to step forward to help others learn from his experience, Steve is eager to focus on his retirement, artwork, and passions in life—and leave the events of the scam behind. It’s a common sentiment among victims of financial crime, particularly older adults, or seniors, who often don’t report exploitation and fraud.

“If sharing my story keeps this from happening to someone else, it’s worth it.”

Timea’s Journey:
From Human Trafficking Survivor to Global Advocate

Timea Nagy
Human Trafficking Activist & Survivor

Growing up in Budapest, Hungary, Timea Nagy had big dreams and the work ethic to make them a reality.

At just 13 years old, she started working in film and TV. By 16, she had started her own production company—and at 20, she was already thinking about ways to grow the business. But as time went on, revenue declined. With mounting debt, Timea came across an opportunity that was too good to pass up.

She had found a newspaper ad from a recruiting agency seeking young women to work as babysitters and housecleaners in Canada. It was a three-month job paying $1,500 a month, a huge amount for Budapest in 1998. With that kind of money, she could pay her debt and help her family, as well.

“I was so desperate to make it work,” Timea said. “I had no doubts about it being a legitimate job. I was very naïve.”

Timea arrived in Toronto with a plane ticket paid for by the agency. She was picked up at the airport and driven to a motel.

That’s when she found out the job ad was a front for something far more sinister.

“They said they were with the Ukrainian-Hungarian mafia, and I owed them a lot of money for my trip from Hungary. I would have to work as a stripper to pay off my debt—and if I refused, they would kill my family back home,” Timea said. “This was all within six hours of getting off the plane.”

Timea didn’t see any options. The traffickers had confiscated her passport and threatened her and her family. She had no money, and she didn’t speak English.

With nowhere to turn, she was forced to work as a stripper and a sex worker.

The days began to blur together. Timea and the other women under the traffickers’ control were driven from the motel to seedy nightclubs around Toronto, where they spent hours working before being shuttled back to the motel with their one meal of the day—usually fast food.

“We were prisoners, starving and scared,” Timea said. “I worked every day for three months straight. I made them more than $40,000 in cash, and it still wasn’t enough. They said I still owed them more money.”

Looming over everything was a constant threat of violence and abuse. In the worst moments, Timea found herself relying on the same coping mechanism she had developed as a child: closing her eyes and talking to herself. She would think: It will be okay

Timea knew she had to make an escape plan. She realized that while her captors would drop her off at the nightclub she worked in, they would never actually come inside. This was her opportunity.

Using a dictionary she found, Timea began communicating with the security guards at the club.

She pointed to words like help, escape, trouble, scared. When the guards understood what was happening, they were horrified and agreed to help.

One day, when the traffickers dropped her off at the club, a security guard ushered Timea through to the back, where a car was waiting to take her to an apartment where she could hide. While the traffickers came close to finding her, she was able to make it on a flight back to Hungary two weeks later.

“I had no plan. I just wanted to feel safe, sleep, breathe,” Timea said. “I didn’t want to feel like a sex object anymore.”

But Budapest didn’t provide the relief she was hoping for. Timea found herself on the run from the mafia, who wanted to kill her, and the police who wanted to charge her with using a fake passport to get back in the country.

Knowing there was no safe future for her in Hungary, Timea said goodbye to her family and flew back to Canada on her own terms, moving in with the one friend she had made after escaping her captors. She struggled to pick up the pieces of her broken life.

“I was robbed of my youth,” Timea said.

It took decades for her to feel safe and heal the scars that remained from being trafficked. But she has refused to let her suffering be in vain.

Timea is now a human rights activist dedicated to eradicating human trafficking and supporting human trafficking survivors, even serving as an advisor to the United Nations on the subject. As she travels the globe sharing her story, she reminds people that everyone has a role to play in combating trafficking.

"Human trafficking plays out in plain sight every day. Knowing the signs can save lives."

Debby

Victim of Romance Scam
Romance scams caused $3.8B in estimated global losses alongside other confidence scams.

Lilah

Victim of Business Email Compromise
BEC fueled $6.7B in projected global losses in 2023.

Steve

Victim of Elder Fraud
Of all reported fraud, an estimated $77.7B was linked to elderly victims globally. 71% of wire fraud attempts targeted people aged 55 or older in Q2 2023.

Timea

Survivor of Human Trafficking
An estimated $346.7B was linked to human trafficking in 2023.