Many assume that dating scams only take place online. A scenario where they create an emotional connection over a period of time and eventually start asking for money. Today, we talk with someone who was deceived in person and how to see the warning signs in real life.
Today’s guest is Abby Ellin. Abby has been a freelance writer for 20 years. She has mostly written for The New York Times but has been published in countless other publications including Time and The London Daily Telegraph. Abby’s latest book Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married was published in 2019 and is the topic of today’s discussion.“There were signs. They were ‘pinkish’ signs. Not truly red flags. Things were weird but plausible and totally reasonable.” - Abby Ellin Click To Tweet
- [1:14] – The reason Chris wanted Abby on the podcast was because Abby’s experience is different from the more common online dating scams.
- [1:40] – Very briefly, Abby was engaged to a man who turned out to be a pathological liar. She felt something was off and left him within a year. But later she got a phone call.
- [2:14] – It turned out that the man was using Abby’s name to write prescriptions for drugs.
- [2:40] – Abby jumped into journalist mode and interviewed the people in the man’s life who he had also been deceiving.
- [4:17] – Abby explains the true things that were not deceptions: he had been a doctor in the Navy and was from Jacksonville, Florida.
- [4:42] – When he didn’t want Abby coming to Jacksonville with him it was because he was engaged to another woman who he lived with there. He would tell the other woman he was on a secret mission and would leave for long periods of time.
- [5:25] – Nothing was verifiable which drove the journalist side of Abby nuts.
- [6:14] – Abby initially met him during an interview. She was interviewing him as a doctor and when fact checking he shared that he was opening up a facility in Iraq and Afghanistan for kids with cancer. They kept in touch because of the story she could write.
- [7:25] – Abby describes his pattern starting with marrying someone, leaving them, and moving to another marriage.
- [8:07] – It wasn’t just “love fraud,” it was a real con. He was using names of people he had been with romantically as well as names of the people he worked with to get drugs for himself.
- [8:58] – Abby was suspicious and left him after a year. She shares a story about a time he lied to her parents so convincingly and it made her concerned about other possible lies.
- [10:17] – Some red flags Abby noticed were that he would always cancel plans last minute and unusual things would happen when she was out of town.
- [11:15] – Chris and Abby discuss how people use the claim of being in the military as their adopted persona because we don’t tend to question that. But the man she was engaged to was in fact in the military.
- [12:10] – He was a military doctor and you don’t ever expect someone in that kind of position to be a “bad egg.”
- [13:19] – Abby explains that he was caught for using drugs but he had gotten a hold of so much that she is also convinced that he was selling.
- [14:40] – For online scams, the goal is to receive money and the manipulation is a means to an end. For some in person scams, sometimes the manipulation is part of the goal, too.
- [15:51] – Because Abby had been suspicious and was not forthcoming about financial information, she did not lose any money. She says that if that had been his goal with her, she was a failed scam. But he did ask a few times about finances.
- [16:47] – When asked about trust, Abby explains that we are programmed to trust and that society will not function without it.
- [17:53] – Those gut feelings, intuition, or what Abby calls the “Spidey-sense,” can be right. Listen to your gut.
- [19:34] – Abby shares a story about a woman she just recently started seeing and how her gut feeling was actually wrong. She had been projecting her baggage to someone else’s scenario.
- [22:03] – When you see a photo of someone on a dating app who is in a military uniform, it is a scam. People who are truly in the military won’t be using a photo like that for their profile.
- [23:25] – There are some people who thrive on manipulating others. If the goal is to dupe someone for money, Abby thinks that scamming a freelance journalist was not the best plan for that goal.
- [24:58] – Abby shares that she called a scammer back one time just to see what would happen.
- [26:01] – Chris describes how sophisticated scams have gotten.
- [26:55] – The minute someone asks for money, that should be the end of the conversation.
- [28:01] – It is really hard to deal with an in-person situation like Abby was involved in because you have met them and you do have a relationship with them rather than an online dating scam where you don’t meet them in person.
- [28:58] – You need to know what someone’s baseline is. There is not a specific set of behaviors that indicate someone is lying. Everyone is different so take notice of things that are out of the ordinary for them.
- [29:44] – Abby discusses polygraph tests and how she needs to have hard evidence.
- [31:33] – In Abby’s situation, the man she was engaged to had duped his entire family.
- [33:02] – It became so much a problem for him, that lying became his default.
- [34:29] – Abby shares a story about another red flag about their living situation. She caught him in a lie and she is convinced he believed his own lies.
- [37:05] – Abby will be starting a podcast to share more details of her experience soon.
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- Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married by Abby Ellin
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A while back, you wrote a book called Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married. One of the reasons why I wanted to have you on the podcast is that your story is different from a number of the stories that I’ve heard. Most of the stories that I’ve heard or been tangential to are online scams, where the person is in another country, it’s a totally made-up identity, it’s a fake picture, it’s stock photos. Everything is planned and organized in advance by a group of con men. But your experience was different than that. A flesh and blood, in-person experience. Can you give us a little background of what happened and how it all played out?
Yes, I can. Very briefly, I was engaged to a guy who turned out to be a pathological liar and went to jail. That’s the quick story. I thought something was off with him. I met him within a year. But a year-and-a-half later, I got a phone call from Special Agent Dan Ryan with NCIS. He said there’s a doctor in the military who’s been writing prescriptions for drugs and you’re one of the people whose name is there. Do you have a prescription for narcotics? I said, “No, I do not, but I know this guy.”
It turns out he was using all of these people’s names to get drugs like Vicodin and other things that were not illegal but forging names is illegal. So I do a little statement against him and he ended up going to jail for two years. A lot of people he went against; it wasn’t just me. Then I kicked into journalist mode and I began interviewing people in his life. I talked to his ex-wife, his ex-ex-wife, and the woman he was engaged to when he was engaged to me. I talked to people he worked with—the Pentagon. So that’s kind of that. I was fascinated.
My book is a memoir to some degree, but it’s also an investigation into lying and deception. Why we lie, why we trust, why we believe, who we deceive the most, which is ourselves. That’s really what I was looking at and I was trying to get at that through story.
In this process when you were getting to know him, were there a bunch of red flags? Like in the online stuff, I would normally tell people, “Well, the person says, ‘Hey I’m going to fly out to meet you,’ and they don’t show up.” Or there’s always a reason why they can’t be there in person. But if this guy was there in person?
Exactly. There were little red flags. They were pinkish flags. They weren’t quite red. They were mauve. Things were weird, like he had been living in Jacksonville, Florida, and we were going to move in together. Actually, we moved into the Watergate, which is hilarious, in DC, which is ground zero for deception. I wanted to go with him to pick up his stuff in Jacksonville. He said, “Don’t worry about it. You don’t need to come. I’m too old. I’m going to send some interns to do that for me.”
He was a doctor in the Navy, for real, and he works in the Pentagon. He is working on a project, for real, and he did live in Jacksonville. That was all true. I don’t even know if he ever sent anything. I don’t think he did from his home in Jacksonville because he’d been living with another woman. That was the woman where basically he proposed to her, then two months later he said to her, “I’m going on a secret mission. I’ll call you when I’m back.” And the secret mission was “Operation Abby.” It was me.
She had no idea what happened here, so that was a red flag. To me, it was a little weird. Why didn’t he want us to go down and pick up? I would help him pack up his belongings. That was weird.
But still really plausible that it’s not unreasonable.
Exactly, it’s not unreasonable. He would go off and say, “I’m going to Iraq or Afghanistan, and I’ll call you when there’s a secure line.” I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?” He told me he went on all these secret missions. Nothing was verifiable, and that drove me crazy, especially as a journalist. It drove me nuts when nothing was verifiable. You can’t call the CIA and say, “Does this guy work there?” It doesn’t work like that. There were red flags, but I was trying to talk myself out of them. Then also, as you say, they were plausible.
Were you a specific, like the intended, thought-out-in-advance target of this guy? Or was this just the way he lived his life, just going from person to person, story to story?
That’s a good question. I met him when I interviewed him for an article for a newspaper and he was a doctor. It was the detox diets and whether they had any merit. We had a nice conversation. The story ran for another year, then I called him to fact-check. He told me he had been in private practice actually in California, in Beverly Hills, and then he left to go. A year later he said I’m in Jacksonville in the Navy. He told me he was opening up a hospital for kids with cancer in Iraq and Afghanistan. I said, “That’s the story; keep me posted.” He did every so often.
In answer to your question, maybe he knew that I was interested in what he was doing and he thought, “So she’s interested.” Now, maybe when he found out that I wasn’t seeing anybody—he googled me, maybe he liked the way I look—did he specifically target me? I don’t know. I don’t know that, but I know when he was with me, he was also reaching out to a woman he had been with 30 years earlier. That is exactly what he did.
Again, just like you said, he went from one woman a million years ago. He had a wife, they were trying to have a baby as far as she knew. In the meantime, he met another woman and left the first wife for the next woman. They had two kids, then they split up. Then he met another woman, proposed to her. Then he met me. This is what he did, it was his cover.
It’s a little bit different, like when we see the con men in the movies. Maybe we think of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels where they were trying to find the 80-year-old woman with $10 million to see if they can go from her to the next one, to the next one, and accumulate massive wealth, but that doesn’t sound like…
No. It’s a love con. In the book, I don’t only have those kinds of stories at all because I wasn’t interested in just that. Actually, it was a love con, but it was also he deceived the people he worked with at the office. He stole their information. He stole their identities to get drugs for himself. That’s fraud. That’s a con.
It’s a little different. Yes, it is different for some nameless person. I think one of the reasons the nameless frauds don’t hurt as much is because it doesn’t feel as personal when you know somebody and they’re deceiving you. You establish a relationship with someone and a friend, colleague, whatever, girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, and the betrayal is just enormous, right? If somebody you don’t know in Nigeria targets you, whatever, it’s not personal. Not personal.
Yes, But this is the flesh and blood, they’re going out to dinner together.
Right. When I finally left him, I was very suspicious, though. You asked for a red flag—I was suspicious. I couldn’t confirm anything, but I couldn’t stop being a journalist. I was only with him for a year and I finally left him when we went out to dinner with my parents. He raved about the brussels sprouts. He said they were the greatest brussels sprouts ever cooked in America.
When we got out of the restaurant, he said, “God, that was the worst thing I ever had.” I said, “Why did you lie?” “Well, I’m trying to make them feel good.” I said, “They didn’t care.” I thought to myself, “If he could lie so convincingly about something so stupid, then he could lie about anything.” That was when I was done. That was verifiable.
I think that’s one of the things that, maybe for him, just happened to be coincidental. But you do see a lot in the online scams that they’re in the military. That’s why they can’t be real. Those are the reasons why they can’t be reached, but for him, he could be reached and that wasn’t…
He could be reached. Sometimes he wouldn’t, or he wasn’t able to be reached because he was meeting, doing other things with other women. I don’t know. That’s a really good question. What the hell was he doing?
Once, he was supposed to meet me and he would cancel plans at the last minute. He would tell me it’s because he had to go—and everything miraculously and mysteriously—everything that he was doing always happened when I was out of town, or when no one’s there watching. He was flying from Washington to New York on a shuttle, and Hillary Clinton was there and wanted an audience with him.
Or another time, he saved the life of somebody in a metro in DC, and I was like, “Well where’s the footage?” “No, there was no camera.” There would have been cameras. Everything always happened when I wasn’t around.
That’s one of those things that we were talking about when the guys, the Navy SEAL, and he’s on secret missions and things like. That’s the normal MO of a lot of these international scammers.
I think that’s what this guy did. What I know about these—the military thing—it’s stolen valor and it’s illegal. What’s so interesting to me is that any time I see or I hear about somebody, a con man, whether it’s in a romantic relationship or even if it’s like a GoFundMe, invariably they will have been or claim to have been in the military. It makes sense because we aren’t going to question somebody who’s a warrior. You don’t question that.
It speaks to our desire to be patriotic, our desire for authority figures and someone to be proud about. He’s a good guy.
And a trust we place in authority figures. This is not only was he in the military. He would wear his military uniform when we went out all the time. When we went to some show in his kid’s school in Los Angeles, he would wear his military outfit. The kid wanted him to—he was proud of his dad. But he was also a doctor. You don’t think people in those positions of power are going to be bad eggs. Oftentimes, they are and precisely because they can be.
It baffles me that he was also stealing from people at work. I kind of wonder, was there a pathological need for this guy to be constantly doing this stuff?
I’m going to throw the addiction piece aside because I wrestle with this. If he grew up in the inner city and he was an addict, he was selling drugs or he was doing whatever, I would be much more compassionate for him because he didn’t have chances. He might not have chances, he grew up in a society where there are not a lot of ways or haven’t been a lot of ways to get out of that.
This guy was a white guy who went to Ivy League schools. He did all those things and he was…got into trouble. But he was a pathological liar. I don’t think that he uses his drug problem. I think he could be selling drugs. They never caught him for that. They caught him for using because he was using a ton. He got so many drugs that I think he was also selling them. That’s what I think.
I think he’s a narcissist. I think he’s maybe sociopathic, profoundly insecure. He wanted people to like him and he wanted to feel big. In his case, he wasn’t a surgeon. He wanted to be a brain surgeon and he wasn’t.They thrive on manipulating people and getting things over on people who are smart. -Abby Ellin Click To Tweet
Is that what you referred to back earlier when you wanted to find out why we trust and why we lie? Was that just his need to be loved and appreciated, or respected?
Yeah, I think it just means we love to appreciate, but these people are psychopaths, sociopaths—those words are used interchangeably a lot. They thrive on manipulating people and getting things over on people. So, I have all the
It’s almost like—whether it’s him or other people in general—it’s not like if you’re thinking of the romance scammer online, their goal is, “How can I get as much money as I can from this person?” The manipulation is kind of secondary to that. It sounds like almost—with some in-person con men—the manipulation is the goal.
Yes and no. It’s funny. Before I went off with him, I asked a lawyer about debt. I said, “If this guy has credit card debt and I marry him, will I incur that debt?” I asked a lawyer. On some level I was very suspicious. The lawyer said, “No, you won't incur the debt that came into the marriage but anything he gets while you’re together is yours.” I was wondering about that. I also wondered if he could get his hands on my apartment in New York City, and that’s in my name so he couldn’t.
To answer your question, he once said to me something like, “Do your parents have money,” or something like that. “Are you going to inherit something?” There was a question there. I was so careful. I was very cognizant of that. I lived in the apartment with him in Watergate—he covered that. I wasn’t paying for that. I was at school at the time at Johns Hopkins. I didn’t lose any money. I did not lose money. In my mind, I must’ve been a failed scam because if he wanted money. Otherwise, it was just getting one over on me and people. With the people he worked at the Pentagon, he got their names. He was able to get drugs from them.
Yes, similar identities. You also talked about why we trust. What are those things that they’re manipulating for the benefit of trust?
We have to trust. We trust every single day. Society will not function without trust. And we trust people, if you think about it, that we know nothing about. You trust that the pilot’s really a pilot, you trust that the surgeon’s really a surgeon, you trust that your dentist knows how to fill a cavity. We trust that the car behind is going to stop at the stop sign. Society will not function without trust. That is why it is our default mode and that’s why we trust. We are programmed to trust.
Then I look at animals and how deception works in the animal kingdom. There’s a lot of deception because it’s survival. They have to obfuscate or else they get eaten. We have to trust, yet to some degree, we have to deceive. It’s very complicated with people.
Is the balance in that you think, your gut saying that we really need to trust that instinctual gut sense when we think, something’s just not right here, something’s just off.
100%. I am such a fan of the gut, I can’t even tell you. Invariably, anytime I have a spidey sense, I’m right about something. Anytime I think something’s off, whether it’s just somebody being not even nice, whether it’s somebody having some weird whatever agenda, I don’t know but it’s always right. It’s really weird.
This guy on the one hand, the thing about him, he was really super charming. He was charming, he seemed to adore me, and he moved very fast. I was 42, he was 58, so we weren’t kids. It was like speeding—the relationship. We were engaged within six months. My parents were married after three months, and 57 years they’re still together. To me, that didn’t seem odd. You know you hear that from people, “When I know, I know.”
I know I had talked to another previous guest and what he talked about is that so much of society nowadays teaches us not to trust our gut, to not listen to our gut. It’s like, “Oh no, you need to trust what you can see in front of you, trust what you read, you’re being too cynical.” There’s all this feedback against us telling us not to trust our gut, yet we have our life experiences telling us you need to listen to me.
This something I talk about and I think about a lot because I wrestle with it my own life. I met a woman recently. She was just starting to see some guy. He told her that he’s been in the military and blah-blah-blah and things were moving very quickly. She said, “I know you wrote this book. What do you think?”
I said, “Listen,” what I said to you. “Every time I hear about some scam, the guy always says he’s in the military.” There were some questions—maybe he was living with his mother, but she hadn’t been to his house. And I thought, “This doesn’t sound right. This could be the girlfriend or a wife. Who knows?”
Anyway, it turns out that I was wrong. They’re still going strong. That was my agenda. That was my baggage. That was what I brought to it, was the takeaway from that. This is something that I’m trying to wrestle with myself, is how to be vigilant and not overly cynical.
Our gut’s going to tell us stuff based on our own experiences. You have a bad experience with someone who was in the military, so your gut now tells you, “Be a little cautious of the military.”
It’s not just that. I’ve done research on it. It’s not just one experience. That’s confirmation bias. You see what you see, you see what you believe. I’m seeing a lot of people who lie with deceit, so I’m mired in these stories. Would it be nice, maybe, if I were reading Danielle Steele every day—novels—and happy experiences. Maybe that would be the way I viewed the world. I don’t know. But I’m also a journalist, so I’m cynical anyway.
You’re not the only person. Obviously, I was talking earlier about the military being authoritative and we’re drawn to them, whether it’s patriotism, the authority. There’s an exoticness about it. They’re overseas.
And they’re noble. They’re boy scouts. This guy would say to me, “I don’t care about making money.” I would be like, “Why did you leave your big practice in Beverly Hills?” I later found out because he was very erratic and maybe had a drug problem, but I said to him, “Why did you leave your practice?” He said because I wanted to do something for my country. I couldn’t sit by while my children were in danger.” I was like, “What are talking about?” But I felt, “OK, he is noble. He wants to serve his country.”
It’s funny because when we were talking about the military, I had another guest. She said if you’re ever on a dating app and the person’s in their military uniform on the dating app, they’re fake. She says, “I’ve talked to tons and tons of military guys over the years, and not a single military guy would ever use either his fatigues or his dress uniform in a dating profile. That’s just not what they do.”
Don’t do it. No, what are you going to do that for? No, they don’t do that anytime. I get these messages all the time on Facebook, too, from people. They’re widowed. They’re always widowed and we have no mutual friends. There's a friend request and I’m like, “It’s a scam. I don’t know what they want but it’s…yeah.
That’s also one of those warning signs, is they’re widowed, they have kids, they’re overseas. To me, that’s probably the overseas scammer who’s just looking for money. Like you said, there’s just something more personal when they’re there.
Well, what’s so interesting is what you said. It was something I wondered. If you’re going to dupe somebody, you dupe an heiress. You dupe somebody who’s going to inherit a fortune from Johnson & Johnson. You don’t dupe or try to dupe a freelance journalist in New York City. It’s stupid. What is the goal? What is the takeaway? There are some people who just enjoy messing with people’s lives. And I think they really have personality disorders.
Your story, to me, is what it speaks to. I have no clinical background, no education in this area, but it sounds to me like someone who just enjoys being manipulative.
Yeah, whereas scammers online, who are they? What is their goal? Are they bad eggs or are they impoverished in some poor African country? Who are they? What are they trying to get? There’ve been stories written. I don’t remember, but there’ve been stories written about people who have found their online scammer. Their experiences are just interesting.
Yeah. They are a few and far between when they find the people. Occasionally, the scammer, after some period of time, will sometimes fess up and say, “Hey, guess what? Now that I’ve got everything that I can think I can get out of you, I just want to let you know that I’m not really who I claim to be.” Maybe they’re feeling guilty.
I called an online scammer once. I got one of those, “Somebody died and left you all this money,” which I haven’t gotten in a while. I don’t know if they still exist. I called the guy and he was…was he in Nigeria? Maybe. I knew it was a scam. He said, “Let me call you back.” He wanted some information from me and that was it. I didn’t want to talk to him again. I didn’t pick up the phone again and call because I knew. It was obvious he wanted money. It’s hard for me to imagine why anybody would fall for that. I think fewer people are falling for that particular scam now because they’re well aware. It’s the online romance scams that are really scary.
And they’ve gotten so much more sophisticated. I used to give people advice: just video chat with them. If they’re not who they claim to be, they’ll always have some excuse of why they won’t video chat with you. But they’ve gotten around that now. I was talking with someone who was a well-known CEO and there was plenty of video footage of him in interviews. What they would do is when he was supposed to get on to video chat, they would play the video but no audio. They start and stop the video and then, “Oh, you know my Internet connection is bad.”
Or you’re getting the technology these days to do deep fakes and create fake videos in real-time. I can’t give people that advice anymore. Still, it should be a warning sign if they won’t FaceTime you or chat with you.Click to Tweet: You don't send money to someone you don’t know, who you don’t have a personal relationship with a person—a real relationship. -Abby Ellin Click To Tweet
But to me, it’s scary when the con man’s there in person. So much of that well-known advice suddenly goes out the window because they’re physically there. You met his son.
Yeah, I know that, but again I didn’t give him money. It depends on what we’re talking about it. You can’t prosecute somebody for lying. Stolen valor, when they’re lying about being in the military, yes. They’re getting certain medals, that depending, that can be prosecuted.
There’s a line between that and what’s free speech, but somebody just lies and they tell me they’re Brad Pitt, chances are I will know they are not. But if they call it something else and I believe it, I don’t lose any money or I don’t lose anything else other than my own sense of self, it’s not a crime.
It’s really hard to get into that, and that depends on how much of your own self you give to someone else, right? If you think about how much you can withstand. So yes, when someone wants money from you, you don’t give it to them. I have people writing to me all the time. They say, “I lived with somebody for 10 years or 15 years, we have joint accounts, and then they just abscond it.” That’s a different situation.
We’re talking about the detection of deception. Are there other things that we can tell when people are being deceitful in those in-person interactions?
You need to know what the baseline is. It isn’t a, if you look up, it means one thing, if you look down, it means something else. If you scratch your nose…it’s not like that. I took a class, and I have a chapter on this. I took a classroom with a bunch of CIA guys. You need to know what someone’s baseline is. Do they always scratch their nose, or do they shift uncomfortably when they’re talking about certain things? That’s how you can tell.
If I remember looking at this guy and he looked at me straight on when we were talking, he didn’t blink. He seems to tell me exactly what I wanted to hear, looking right at me. I was like, “Well, he’s not shifting, he’s not doing anything.” It doesn’t matter. You have to learn someone’s behavior. But I personally want hard evidence. To me it’s like, if you can’t come into my house, for whatever reason, that’s a sign. You need to listen, watch, and be as vigilant about everything.
Polygraphs are interesting, but they don’t work. People think they’re lie detectors. They don’t detect lies. They detect shifts in your autonomic responses, which are involuntary responses, so whether your heart rate goes up, whether you are stressed, whether you’re anxious. You could pass a polygraph test if you believe your lies…
That’s a scary thing to me, is when you have someone who believes their own lies. It’s a scary thing.
And there’s something even better than that, which is even scarier: your brain. There has been research done that shows the more you lie, the more your brain adapts to the lie, so that you don’t even know you’re lying. So chew on that.
Anyway, there’s a guy I wrote about. His name is Zeg Williams and he was teaching people how to pass polygraphs. You clench your behind together, there are ways of just calming yourself down so you could pass. You could pass a polygraph test and it doesn’t measure lies. So for me, hard evidence is the way, words, documents, behaviors, who you meet, and all of that.
With this guy, did you meet—other than his son—did you meet his family, friends?
This is part of the problem. I met some friends, his 80-something aunt, his brother, and sister-in-law and their kids, yeah. They all believed it and they all believed he was a military hero. In fact, there was one point where I called up the brother and I said, “I don’t know how to talk to him. He’s always mad at me because he feels like I interrogate him because I don’t trust him.” He said, “Abby, he’s very busy, he’s very important. You’ve got to lay off.” He was important in his head. He was tilting at these fictional windmills.
So it wasn’t like he was just lying to you and not to his family. He was lying to everybody.
His son would call up. He would tell me—his son—that there were Secret Service guys watching outside, watching us from afar. I’d be like, “OK, I don’t see anybody.” He said, “No, Abby. The operative word is secret. That’s why you don’t see them. They’re Secret Service.” I said, “OK, well, tell them to pick me up and give me a ride next time.”
Anyway, one night his son called up. He lived with his mother in Los Angeles and said, “Hey, there’s a black car outside. Is that one of your guys?” I remember hearing that and I thought, “OK, maybe this is real. Why would you lie to your child?” He told me and everyone else that he met his ex-wife when he rescued her, when she was held hostage in Iran. She was never in Iran. They met in middle school. But that was the story his son also knew, and I knew that his son knew that because his son would say, “I want to be just like my dad. I want to be a warrior.” Eventually, years later, his son thought that his father was responsible for the raid on Iran. It was very complicated.
It sounds like the lies in his life just seem to escalate over time, that, “I’ve got to tell something bigger, bolder, and grander.” That sure seems like an addiction. It seems to me from a distance like addictive behavior. It’s got to be stronger, more frequent.
And people say that addicts—I know this from the addicts that I’ve known—lie often. They’ll do whatever it takes to get their drugs. But I think this guy just lies by default. As he says, “It was just second nature.” From wanting people to like him so much that he would lie about brussels sprouts. Nobody cares. I don’t see him cook them. Nobody cares at all.
That’s interesting that that was something you picked up on in the moment.
It was tangible. He would go over it every time we would go out with my friends. He would meet my friends and he would pay for everything. He was always paying for everything. It’s not like he had that much money. He just lies on his way out. He would always say to every single one, “Which a treat this is, meeting you.” Like every single one is a treat. I don’t think so.
Eventually, he told me—I was staying in the Watergate—and he said to me, “The military needs the apartment back, so we both have to move out.” This was after we broke up. I was staying in the Watergate because I live in New York, I was in Washington for school, I didn’t have a place there.
Anyway, he sent everything back to my house in New York and I ended up commuting. A few months later, I drove by the Watergate and the light was on. I said, “Oh, are you back in there? Did they find someone else living there from the Navy?” Because he told me the Navy has been paying for the apartment. He said, “No, it’s a comedy of errors. Since I moved everything out and then I have to move everything in again.” I said, “Oh, OK.”
That did not suffice. I was like Nancy Drew. I've got to see what’s going on here. So I called him up. I said, “I think I left my cookbooks there and a few things. I want to come in and get them.” He said, “OK.” So we made a date, and I went to the apartment. I tell you, everything was exactly as it was when I left. Exactly down to the sliver of soap in the soap dish. I looked at him and I said, “You never left.” He looked at me straight in the eye and he said, “Yes, I did.” And I just like, “You’re nuts.” That was it. I think he believed it. He could not tell that truth. He just couldn’t.
That’s crazy. I’m glad that you were able to get out of that situation with only the personal scars as opposed to much more, which could have happened.
It could’ve happened. I worry about that a little bit, but no. He hadn’t been a Navy SEAL, he wasn’t working with the CIA.
If people want to find your book, where can they find it?
They can find it on their local website, on their local Amazon, on their local Barnes & Noble, on IndieBound. They can go to a bookstore. There are all these radical ways of finding […]. It’s Abby and my website is abbyellin.com. The book is Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married.
Nice. Are you still looking for stories and going into this realm deeper?
I’m always looking for stories, yeah. I love good stories. I have a podcast that’s going to come out in the fall that’s a six-episode series. It’s kind of like Dirty John, but it’s about my story. I’m always interested in hearing other people’s…
We’ll direct people your way when we come across them. Definitely let us know when your podcast is live and we’ll make sure to link it in the show notes.
Thank you so much.