- The adoption community is unfortunately rife with scammers intent on making a quick buck by conning unwitting adoptive parents.
- But not every scammer is out for money: Some are looking for emotional validation and attention.
- Gabby Watson's emotional scams have touched the lives of hundreds of adoptive parents, and landed her an appearance on "Dr. Phil."
- Yet Gabby still hasn't stopped.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
It started on a Tuesday in July 2019 with a text: "Good morning. Is this Mike and Erika? We saw you on America Adopts. We're interested in your profile. Saw you guys had a son. Why not add a daughter to the mix?"
Accompanying the text were pictures of a teenage girl balancing a pair of baby moccasins on her rounded belly and a young man with long dark hair.
The message sounded more like one from a marketer than one from a teenager dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. It was also the middle of summer, yet the photo clearly showed a tapestry of fall leaves behind the girl. And yet.
Maybe it was real?
With the advent of social media, it's become common for adoptive couples and mothers considering giving babies up to post profiles and communicate online. There are now companies dedicated to helping prospective parents create appealing profiles to attract birth mothers, and many couples have their first interactions with potential birth mothers over text or via video chat.
I wasn't going to answer the pregnant teen, but on a long commute to work, curiosity got the better of me. I replied that I needed to verify who she was.
"Bye girl. Your creepy," the response read, and just like that she was gone.
A feeling something was off
It's difficult for those who've not experienced it to fully understand the deep despair that comes with losing babies of your own. Or what it's like to invite 13 foster children, many available for adoption, into your home, only to have them leave for legal, medical, or behavioral reasons. Or what it feels like to watch more than a decade slip by with little hope. I wanted to believe that just maybe this time it would be different.
I felt I'd been given a second chance when the expectant mother texted me back that afternoon. She said she'd had time to think and felt safer knowing how protective I'd be of her baby.
My husband and I are seasoned foster parents, with one adoption under our belts. But because adoptions are private, we had no idea we might be targeted by a scam that had affected more than 2,000 families across America.
The girl with the baby moccasins told me her name was "Mackenzie," but she went by "Mac." Her boyfriend, she said, was "Matt." Over the phone, she confided that she had intermittent explosive disorder, or IED, an impulse-control disorder characterized by sudden explosions of unwarranted anger. Her disorder, her youth (she said she was 15), and the recent loss of her mother had all contributed to her decision to give up her baby, she told me.
Mac and I spoke several times a day. She would monopolize my time, calling while I was at work and wanting to talk for hours. She sometimes called as many as 10 times a day, and long into the night. Her mood swung wildly from sweet to abusive. She'd often swear at me and say she didn't think I was fit to raise her baby. I reasoned it was her IED.
She never asked for money and didn't appear to be interested in stealing my identity. She didn't even know what state I lived in. I couldn't imagine what she might want, except what she claimed to need — a home for her baby.
But deep down my stomach would knot each time Mac sent a new photo that didn't quite look like the same girl.
Because Mac was a minor — or claimed to be one — I insisted on speaking with her father before filling out paperwork or meeting her. I made several attempts to talk to her dad, but they always fell through. When I'd press Mac on it, she'd beg me to forgo my criteria, making me think that perhaps her father wasn't aware she was pregnant. I thought if I let her talk, we'd build trust, and I could help her.
Over several weeks we talked about everything: her family and mine, where she lived, her school and those who bullied her, and the death of her mother. I scoured the internet after every conversation, trying to turn the crumbs of information she had given me into concrete answers about her identity.
Late one night, after another marathon call with Mac, a chat thread on Adoption.com provided them.
More than two dozen entries on the thread reported that Mac was a woman who went by many names and impersonated a litany of different couples: Alyssa and Josh, Ashley and Chris, Ciara and Daniel, and Mackenzie and Matt. She posed as teenagers, according to these online accounts, often from Georgia, South Carolina, or Florida. She lived with an abusive father; her mother was dead. She used multiple phone numbers — all listed, including the ones she'd called me on.
According to these entries, she never asked for money. But her pitch was so successful that couples taken in by her lies spent thousands of dollars in legal fees, transportation costs, and baby items, believing that Mac would have a child they could adopt.
The thread claimed that Mac was scamming a woman named Kimberly while she was scamming me. A second woman, Sara, chimed in as I sat watching the screen.
"'Mackenzie' reached out to me this week. We've been texting back and forth. Are you sure it's a scam?"
The stories were too similar to not be suspect.
Ultrasounds and references that don't check out
Juli Wisotsky is a lawyer with Athens Adoption Lawyer, in Jefferson, Georgia, and she's encountered Mac under a variety of names and personas.
"The first time I talked to her was March 2019, and I ended up postponing a trip to help her," Wisotsky said. "She kept me on the phone throughout the night telling me she thought she was in labor and had to go to the hospital."
Wisotsky grew suspicious when the girl — who said her name was Alyssa — texted later that night saying she was "bored."
Things weren't adding up, and her suspicions were confirmed when the adoption agency that the girl had used as a reference said her ultrasound didn't check out.
Wisotsky came to realize that "Alyssa" was just one of several identities the scammer used on adoptive couples.
"It got to be that whenever I heard a similar story, no matter the name, I'd tell the couple [interested in] hiring me that it was a scam," Wisotsky said.
Drakkar Kilpatrick, the head of security at Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center, in Athens, Georgia, said he's turned away more than 20 expectant adoptive couples, all of whom believed they were getting a baby from one of the scammer's alter egos. Several couples flew across the country, including one North Carolina couple who arrived with baby supplies, believing they'd be taking an infant home.
'People always hurt me, so I want to hurt them first'
Armed with evidence, I confronted Mac, texting her a link to the adoption-scam site that documented the alter egos believed to be linked to her. She immediately called, cussed me out, and threatened to kill me.
I'd known for a while there was no baby, but I really liked Mac. She was just a scared, unhappy person begging to be loved. It was incredibly sad to think that perhaps she felt so bad about herself that she thought she had to trick people into talking to her.
A few hours later, she texted me. "Were you serious about being my friend?"
"Yes, but I need to know who you really are," I replied.
She suggested we video-chat.
The person I chatted with, who claimed to be Mac, was Gabby Watson. She said she was 23. During our chat, she wore black square-framed glasses and a red Coke T-shirt. Her face was framed by curly dark-brown hair.
"People always hurt me, so I want to hurt them first," she said in a nasal voice. "It's funny to make them cry. It feels great."
During the chat she continually squeezed Milo, her little black cat, making the cat yelp violently as she talked. I tried not to react. Instead, I focused on looking for clues to her location and identity. Her room looked like a typical teenager's — clothes and fast-food wrappers on the floor. Though the home appeared to be a nice two-story, her mattress was on the floor and boxes appeared to be everywhere, she said, because of a recent move.
Between a barrage of racial slurs and several lewd comments, she offered a video tour of her home, showing off her yearbook and mother's driver's license. Her mother, she said, was the originator of the scam, and taught her how to pull it off when she was 11 years old. Since her mom's death, in 2012, she said, scamming adoptive families had been a way to feel closer to her.
Over time, Gabby began revealing her tactics and techniques. She made her stories appear more authentic, she told me, by mining the Facebook pages of friends of her high-school pals. Photos of expectant couples, ultrasounds, and newborn infants were chosen most often to be shared as one of her alter egos.
Gabby claimed she'd gone to school with the real Matt and Mackenzie, if those are their real names.
"You really think I'd make a fake identity of people I don't know? That's just weird," she said. Then she made a shocking claim. "Besides, I had Matt's permission to do it. The whole school knew about it, even my teachers. They all thought it was funny. So no charges there!"
There's no evidence Matt had any knowledge that Gabby used his name or likeness in her scam.
Ashley and Chris King were also similarly unwittingly involved in Gabby's scam. Gabby and Chris King had gone to high school together, and he said he thought nothing of accepting her friend request on Facebook. It took them months to uncover the truth.
The experience rattled the Kings. The person using their baby and pregnancy photos to pose as a birth mom seemed to know where the Kings lived, where and when the baby was born, whom they lived with, and personal details about the family's private life. They said they found photos of their child posted on numerous adoption sites.
"We had no idea who she was and thought she was watching us," Ashley King said. "We couldn't post pictures of our daughter for far-away family to see. We were afraid to let her out of our sight or leave her with anyone."
The Kings said they also lived in fear that other prospective adoptive parents might show up at their house expecting to take their daughter away.
"She put my family through so much," Ashley King said. "I want to meet her face to face and ask 'why us?' What made you think this was all right? There's nothing she could say that makes this OK."
An emotionally taxing and costly scam
Gabby told me she reaches out to "three or four people a week." If what she claims is true, Gabby has scammed 2,300 couples in the US.
"Just in my little group of associates, I know of more than 25 cases," Wisotsky, the adoption lawyer, said. "We know of couples in Alaska, Texas, Alabama, Colorado, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida."
Some adoptive parents taken in by Gabby's scheme spent nothing, but many say they invested thousands. The average going rate for an hour of a Midwest adoption attorney's time can easily be $500, but can vary widely depending on location and experience. In addition, some of the couples Gabby is said to have scammed booked or flew across the country and reserved hotels.
Despite not taking money directly from her victims, Gabby's scam may have collectively cost her victims $1.1 million in travel and legal fees.
It's also cost a lot of people time. If each of these families devoted only two hours of their time to her — and many devoted days if not weeks — she would have collectively conned her victims out of more than 192 days, more than half a year.
"This is a very cruel hoax to play on somebody," Chuck Johnson, with the National Council on Adoption, said. "Particularly when talking about the types of families who have reached the point where they have made a decision to pursue adoption, sometimes there's been infertility or incredible loss. They've often suffered multiple traumas."
'For some women, attention satisfies something empty inside'
According to the NCA, over a million American families hope to adopt babies each year. Yet only 18,300 babies are annually available for adoption. That's 55 families vying for every one adoptable infant. It's a statistic that contributes to an environment perfect for scams. Desperate couples want to believe someone really has a child for them.
"An expectant mother becomes the center of attention," Johnson said. "People are interested in her. They care about her. For some women, that attention satisfies something empty inside. She knows prospective parents will do anything or get her anything she wants, even if her baby doesn't really exist."
It's difficult to find accurate statistics on US adoption scams because they often go unreported.
"When they do happen, it's more often for money — which we can kind of 'get' — and much less often for attention, which is harder to understand," Hal Kaufman, founder of MyAdoptionAdvisor.com, said. My Adoption Advisor offers advice and tips to help couples connect with prospective birth mothers and adoptive children.
No matter the reason, adoption scams happen often enough that Kaufman now offers an online class to identify red flags and avoid scams. His biggest tip for adoptive parents is that if something doesn't feel right, it's time to take a step back and vet the situation.
"Anyone can go to Google Images, grab an ultrasound, and doctor it," Kaufman said, "but that's not real proof of pregnancy. You want to reach out to the hospital, doctor, or clinic and make sure you're getting real proof."
Asking for proof is often enough to scare off financial scammers. But emotional scammers have a different way of doing things and tend to be more persistent, according to Kaufman.
"Emotional scammers will want to talk or text very frequently," Kaufman said. "They want a lot of attention all the time."
Kaufman advises that adoptive parents need to be their own best advocates. People as well as "agencies" can scam couples, so it's important to fact-check and research everything and everyone. If a prospective birth mother doesn't have any social media or internet presence, it could be a red flag.
A trail of duped adoptive parents
It never occurred to me to Google "adoption scams." If I had, I'd have found Jessica Simmons' Facebook page Ending Adoption Scams sooner.
"I created it to give people who've been victimized a platform to share information," Simmons said. The page offers its members the opportunity to share and compare interactions with prospective birth moms to root out scams and imposters.
Simmons and her husband were scammed by Gabby in 2016, she said. After a decade-long quest for a child, a failed adoption, and an agency contract running out, they created their own adoption Facebook page to attract birth moms. Gabby found them within weeks.
While Gabby constantly messaged and grew hostile when Simmons couldn't devote all her time to her, she said, Gabby didn't bother to use a fake identity.
"We talked for about two months," Simmons said. "We were talking to our now daughter's birth mother at the same time, and the differences between who was real and who wasn't became completely obvious."
Simmons eventually confronted Gabby, but, she said, Gabby wouldn't admit it was a scam. Instead, Gabby said she lost the baby. Four months later, Gabby contacted the Simmons' once more, claiming she was pregnant again and wanted them to adopt her baby. When they refused, Simmons said Gabby started harassing her.
"I tried blocking her calls, but she'd call on other numbers. I had to get a new number and change or block my social-media pages," Simmons added.
'The best we can do is make as many people aware of her scam so no one else gets hurt by her'
Frustrated, Simmons reached out to Gabby's family. Her sister, who asked not to be named, apologized and told her they were aware that Gabby liked to scam adoptive families, but they didn't know how to stop her.
In November, Gabby's family published a blog post titled "Gabby Wabby's Adoption Scam." The post reads, in part:
"We want you to know that according to law enforcement, there isn't too much we can do about the situation. However, we absolutely want everyone to know that we do not condone her actions whatsoever."
Several pictures of Gabby and descriptions of her methods follow. The post advises anyone who friends Gabby on social media to block access to any photos of pregnant women, newborn infants, or ultrasounds.
"It's also nearly impossible to get her involuntarily committed," the post reads. "She refuses to stop. In fact, she seems to be enjoying the attention she gets. So the best we can do is make as many people aware of her scam so no one else gets hurt by her."
"It's sad for the potential family, but what about the birth mom who may really need some support? It can cause consequences we don't even think about," Wisotsky added.
'I know I'm a horrible person'
Before filing this story, I reached out to Gabby by video chat. Her eyes were sad, and the bubbly person I'd known before was gone. She told me she was no longer scamming. It was too exhausting and she couldn't keep up.
"I know I'm a horrible person," she said.
Despite my disappointment, I felt sorry for her. "You're just a very hurt person," I told her.
"Y'all don't understand. I never meant to hurt any of you guys. I can't ever have a baby, and I just wanted someone to talk to," she said, failing to acknowledge she was attempting to scam women who also could not ever have babies.
She cited a seizure condition, the loss of her mother, and estrangement of several siblings for her decade-long scam — but claimed she'd now stopped.
"I'm into doing art now," she said. "I want to start college, maybe get out and socialize. I won't scam anymore."
Ashley King doesn't believe her.
"Until she gets some kind of criminal charge, she won't stop," King said. "You don't play with emotions and people's kids that way. It's not enough to just say it's over with no consequences."
In December, Gabby filmed an episode of the "Dr. Phil" show, and came clean about her fake pregnancies, coming face to face with a couple named Lauren and Julio, who had been scammed by her. Dr. Phil offered her a stay at a residential therapeutic program in Tennessee, to help her deal with her personal trauma.
When a reporter from the BBC reached out to her in mid-February, though, Gabby had yet to attend a program and said she'd scammed other hopeful adoptive parents since appearing on the show.
I may have been one of them. Just last week, I interacted with another person on social media — a couple with a toddler — that I'm not completely convinced isn't Gabby.
Talking to many of her other apparent victims helped me realize I'm not alone. Jessica Simmons now has two sweet babies. Ashley King is about to adopt. I'm still waiting.
Talking to Gabby gave me a modicum of closure. I understand she's hurting, and scamming may have been her cry for help. But that doesn't justify her means, erase the wounds, or restore wasted time.
"It's important to know that 95% of the moms out there aren't trying to scam," Wisotsky said. "They're in just as much of a vulnerable position as adoptive parents — maybe more. People just have to be aware of the red flags and trust their instincts."
Source: Read Full Article