It's a sunny Glenorchy morning and Emma Ferris is still beaming from the 30km race she recently ran – not to mention the "empowering" jujitsu classes she's been taking. Working on her physical strength is just one of the ways this determined mum-of-two has taken the power back after a six-month relationship with a man she met on Tinder saw him trying to con her out of $300,000.
Anyone who has followed Emma's story on Conning The Con, the crime podcast she's made with sister Sarah, will also know that the Otago physiotherapist and breathing coach, 38, is no pushover – and with the support of quick-witted friends and family, she managed to convince the conman to pay $200,000 back, all while pretending their relationship was intact.
She is still about $90,000 out of pocket, however, and the conman is out of jail after serving just 18 months of a 28-month sentence for obtaining pecuniary advantage in a special relationship.
The justice system has left her feeling disheartened – several charges against the conman were dropped against her will and she wasn't officially told of his parole. But Emma's recovery is a testament to her decision to take action. It's a story she wants to share so other women don't have to experience what she did.
"I'm in the best space I've ever been in my life, which seems crazy after going through what I did," the happily single owner of stress-management business The Breath Effect tells Woman's Day.
"It comes down to how I've chosen to step through the experience. The trauma could've broken me, but I had to carry on, as a woman and a mum, because there was no other option."
In a story that could've come straight out of the pages of a thriller, it was 2018 when Emma, who'd just been through an amicable divorce, decided to try online dating. When she matched with Andrew Thomson, a charismatic businessman who'd recently moved from Tasmania to pursue new opportunities, there was an instant connection. He was kind and a good listener, providing comfort when a friend's husband died.
"I've since learnt that's how it works with conmen – showing empathy," Emma says. "He was very new on the scene, yet he'd continually ask, 'Do you want to talk about it?' I was being seen and heard, and that nurturing, emotional connection I hadn't had in my marriage was developed."
Andrew told Emma he was an entrepreneur with a track record that included a successful trucking company, a spate of restaurants and an importing business. He also said he'd been an AFL player and a pro wakeboarder. (After the relationship ended, Andrew would try to convince her he was a counter-terrorism agent on a top-secret spying mission!)
As they got to know one another, he'd surprise her with "love bombs" – a watch or expensive items of clothing. Their first date was at the exclusive Millbrook Resort. Emma says, "It's not what I wanted, that grandiosity, but I've learnt it's part of trust-building."
Later, he met her family, including her children. Despite Emma clocking the red flags – Andrew even front-footed the fact that she wouldn't find him on Google as he'd supposedly been the victim of identity theft in the US – his stories were so detailed and colourful, she pushed her doubts aside.
The truth, however, was that Andrew had many aliases, including Andrew WC Tonks Thomson, the name he was eventually charged under.
Emma, meanwhile, was busy running her business and looking for ways that would give her the financial freedom to spend more time with her son and daughter. She'd successfully invested in property in Central Otago, so when her new boyfriend suggested they do something similar together, she agreed.
Andrew would take her to look at sections, telling her he wanted to help her by including her in his deals. He also produced documents from his accountant in Australia showing he had more than $8 million in his bank account. Before long, Emma had invested $50,000 of her money into what she thought was a property in Queenstown.
Little did she know that the conman she'd fallen for was also stringing several other businesses along and "robbing Peter to pay Paul" – he'd actually put her money into an alcohol company. Emma and her lawyer, whom she later fired, would soon discover the bank documents he'd provided had been forged.
But nothing seemed untoward at this point and by the time Emma had decided to invest more money, any concerns she'd had were pacified. After all, he'd made all his repayments on her first investment.
Andrew told Emma she could take her money out whenever she wanted, so she had her lawyer go ahead and draw up the plans. Meanwhile, her friends Jo and Sarsha had become suspicious, and began looking into Andrew's background.
One night, Jo dropped a bombshell: Andrew wasn't who he said he was – he was a fraudster with several convictions in Tasmania. The revelation came too late. Just a day earlier, Emma had paid $250,000 into his account.
"That day was horrific in so many ways," says Emma. "I had the realisation that this person had groomed me and the lies were so deep, I wasn't sure I was ever going to get out of them. But that rock-bottom moment was also the making of me.
"I remember being fired up – angry that someone could take advantage of me, my family and my kindness. I thought, 'Nobody is ever going to take this power from me. I will fight back.'"
Deciding to use his manipulation against him, Emma kept up the pretence of their relationship and asked Andrew to meet her at the bank that day, apologising that her brother was uncomfortable with the transaction and requesting he reverse the payment. Begrudgingly, Andrew agreed.
"I think he knew he was caught in some way," she explains. "It's all a game of risk with conmen, balancing out whether they are going to get caught or not."
Andrew continued to peddle his lies, insisting he would pay her back the rest of her money, however, he later applied to the High Court to have his reparations reduced from $71,000 to $13,000, citing "personal hardship". Now Emma doubts she'll ever see a penny of it as at least two other victims of his crimes from 2016 are still out of pocket.
After the court case, Emma leaned heavily on the breathing techniques she'd taught clients to keep herself calm. She says, "I was mentally and physically depleted, and I had to work really hard to build myself back up.
"I knew nutrition was really important and that I couldn't push myself physically – I had to be kind to myself and rest. But it was a balance because I'm self-employed. I knew that if I didn't step up, I couldn't work with my patients."
It's helping others that has helped Emma get to where she is now. She says if anything positive is to come out of the experience, it's that she's now well informed of manipulation techniques and can pass her knowledge on to others.
Since her Conning The Conman podcast – available on Apple and Spotify – has aired, soaring to the number-one spot in New Zealand after more than 45,000 downloads, hundreds of women have reached out to Emma with their own tales of deceit.
As for how she feels about the conman himself? "I feel sorry for him. I have so much depth of connection to other wonderful humans in my life and around the world. He'll never get that."
Emma's advice for anyone trying online dating or embarking on a new relationship is to slow down, get to know their circle of friends and family, and ask questions if they've left their old life behind to start anew.
"Listening to your gut is the most important and I was too busy to do that," says Emma. "I ignored it – my thinking brain was so dominant. I'm a very intelligent woman, but I wasn't taking the time for me."
She also suggests that if any alarm bells start ringing, investigate potential suitors via online checks, even if that feels like a negative way to enter a relationship. Finally, she recommends women dig deep and ask themselves why they're dating in the first place.
"You've got to make sure you have your own worthiness sorted, and that you know your own strength and power before you go out dating. I know that sounds counterintuitive because you grow with people, but it's better to be single and happy than miserable and conned. That was the lesson I had to learn.
"As much as my trust was abused by another person in a relationship sense, the trust that I found is with me. And that is the weirdest, coolest gift."
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