Viral TikTok star, financial columnist among those caught up in deceptive schemes

"Impact x Nightline" examines the rise of online exploitation plots.

March 25, 2024, 12:06 PM

Tareasa Johnson's life has been turned upside-down in the last month after she became a viral sensation over her TikTok posts about her recent heartbreak and alleged deception that she says she experienced.

In her 50-part series "Who TF Did I Marry," Johnson, known as "Reesa Teesa" on TikTok, chronicled her yearlong struggle of marrying a man she met online who she claims turned out to be a pathological liar who deceived her about his finances, family, and background.

"I just now felt comfortable to tell the story because, for the longest time, I was so embarrassed, beating myself up, a lot of shame and the fact that I allowed this person into my life. And so it was very important to me that if I'm going to heal, this is part of my journey," Johnson said.

PHOTO: Tareasa Johnson speaks with "Impact x Nightline."
Tareasa Johnson speaks with "Impact x Nightline."
ABC News

Johnson's story resonated with a lot of viewers who say they, too, were duped in relationships, and her story of online deception is not uncommon. In other cases, victims of online and phone deceptions have lost their savings, cybersecurity experts said.

"Impact x Nightline" takes a look at Johnson's story and the accounts of victims who said they were tricked in an episode now streaming on Hulu.

Johnson said she met her ex-husband, who she dubs "Legion," on a dating app in 2020 and during the pandemic they quarantined together in Georgia. Johnson said she was taken in by "Legion's" charm and constant "love bombing," where he would compliment her on everything.

However, Johnson would slowly learn details about "Legion's" background, including his finances, past jobs and homes. At one point, he allegedly made an all-cash offer on a house for the two of them, but she says he could not provide proof of funds.

"I didn't pay close enough attention to little things," she said.

Johnson said that when she had a miscarriage during their relationship she tried to message "Legion" before she went in for medical care only to receive a response from someone claiming to be his assistant. She claims that turned out to be a lie as the assistant was actually "Legion" sending the message.

The couple married after the miscarriage, but ultimately divorced after Johnson discovered more lies, including the alleged use of a phony Social Security number.

ABC News reached out to "Legion" on several occasions, but he declined to comment.

However, he has taken to social media to refute the claims by Johnson, including denying that he had financial woes. He also alleged that the relationship ended because Johnson had an affair. "Legion" maintains that his ex-wife's story is only being posted now because he's in another relationship.

PHOTO: Stock Photo
Stock Photo
Igor Stevanovic/Adobe Stock

Johnson said that after her final segment was posted on TikTok, she received messages from viewers who felt sorry for her, and they claimed that they too were duped by someone online.

Data from the Internet Crime Complaint Center found scams have been on the rise since the pandemic. In 2023 there were roughly 880,000 scam complaints recorded, a jump from the roughly 467,000 complaints recorded in 2019, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said data shows younger generations are more likely to fall for online scams than older groups. However, cyber experts warn that scammers can go a long way to dupe anyone.

Charlotte Cowles, a Brooklyn-based freelance reporter who is a financial advice columnist for "The Cut," said last Halloween she received a call from a man claiming to be a FTC agent who alleged her identity had been stolen.

"He had my name. He had my Social Security number, the last four digits. He had my address. He also knew the names of my family members, including my son and my parents," Cowles told "Impact."

PHOTO: Charlotte Cowles speaks with "Impact x Nightline's" Ashan Singh.
Charlotte Cowles speaks with "Impact x Nightline's" Ashan Singh.
ABC News

The "so-called" agent, who sent a photo of his alleged badge, told Cowles that he was investigating a case "that involved millions of dollars being wired overseas, money laundering, drug trafficking," and eventually he connected her with an alleged CIA agent named "Michael."

Cowles said that "Michael" worked over the phone to isolate and pressure her into taking out her life savings from the bank so they could keep her money safe.

"He told me that because the protocol would be to freeze all of my assets, I needed to go to the bank and get out the amount of cash that I would need to live off of while they froze all of my assets," she said.

Ultimately Cowles said she withdrew $50,000, put it in a box and dropped it through an open window of the backseat of a car, all per "Michael's" instructions.

"I really was pretty numb at the moment," Cowles said.

When she got back home, Cowles said she called "Michael" only to get a woman claiming she was his assistant. At that point, she went to the police.

As of March 21, Cowles has not reclaimed her savings. The NYPD told "Impact" the investigation is ongoing.

PHOTO: Charlotte Cowles said she was scammed out of her life savings by an imposter.
Charlotte Cowles said she was scammed out of her life savings by an imposter.
ABC News

Cowles wrote about her experience in an article in "The Cut" last month and received messages from readers who questioned how she fell for the scam, along with messages from those who admitted they had fallen for similar scams and appreciated her coming forward.

Dr. Sue Varma, a psychiatrist, told "Impact" that when people are victimized in these scams, emotions can take over, especially if the scammer has key information about their victim.

"When we look at financial schemes, we are looking at a key set of factors: isolating the individual, creating a situation where they feel like they're in trouble, flooding their brain with fear. And that fear erodes and compromises their executive functioning and better judgment," she said.

Caitlin Sarian, a cybersecurity expert, told "Impact" that it is easy to find someone's personal information on the internet due to it being available from several sources, including social media and public records.

"The U.S. likes to monetize our personal data," she explained. "So even the DMV is selling your records to these things called the data brokers, which are huge conglomerate companies that basically group all your data together and sell it to companies for marketing purposes."

"It's very easy for people to take your pictures offline and then they use it on social media profiles, and they don't verify themselves," Sarian added. "And that's what is used in many, many, almost all romantic scams."

Liza Likins, a singer from Las Vegas, told "Impact" that she fell in love with a man who messaged her on Facebook named Donald, who said he was looking for someone to be his partner and spend the rest of their lives traveling and spending all the money he made.

She said she fell in love with "Donald," who claimed to be from Germany. The pair chatted on the phone for hours at a time.

"'Donald' started calling me his queen. And he just showered me with compliments," she said.

PHOTO: Liza Likins reads a conversation she had with someone who she says turned out to be an imposter.
Liza Likins reads a conversation she had with someone who she says turned out to be an imposter.
ABC News

At one point, "Donald" began asking for money for small requests like buying more time on his cell phone, but then the requests grew more elaborate.

He also allegedly asked for money to pay for the international transportation of a supposedly loaded safe filled with $700 million dollars worth of gold and cash.

Likins said she was sent photos of the safe and she didn't immediately question the veracity of the images. She says she ended up giving Donald more than a million dollars over two years, including selling her car and house.

PHOTO: Lisa Likins speaks with "Impact x Nightline."
Lisa Likins speaks with "Impact x Nightline."
ABC News

Likins stopped talking with Donald when he stood her up multiple times, leaving her in the cold after agreeing to meet in person. She enlisted the help of an online investigative company to look into Donald and they found out that not only was she scammed by an imposter, but the alleged perpetrator used someone else's face to do the deed.

Linkins said the Las Vegas Police told her they couldn't help her because cryptocurrency cases are outside their jurisdiction, and that the FBI didn't respond when she filed an online report.

The FBI told "Impact, "It can't confirm or deny the existence of an investigation. The Las Vegas Police Department didn't respond to requests for comment from "Impact."

Raho Bornhorst, a German life coach, told "Impact" that pictures of him have been used in phony online profiles to scam multiple women, including Likins.

"Probably every other week, at least somebody's calling me from Brazil, from Spain, from the U.S. from anywhere on the planet," he said.

Bornhorst criticized Facebook for not doing enough to stop these scams.

A spokesperson for the Facebook parent company Meta told "Impact" in a statement that it was aware of Bornhorst's case stating, "People who impersonate others on Facebook and Instagram violate our policies, and we remove this content when it's found — like in this case. Our work in this area is never done."

The company claims it has removed over 2.6 billion phony accounts in the last year alone.

Sarian, who has been sharing cybersecurity tips on social media, said people can avoid being a victim by taking a few steps if they get a message from a stranger.

Taking time to confirm the identity of the stranger and thinking out their message to ensure it makes sense go a long way, she said.