How a suspicious Facebook message from Liberia sparked an unlikely partnership

MONROVIA, LIBERIA -- No one likes internet scammers, but in Ogden, Utah, we found a guy with a most profound distaste. Just wait until you hear how 33-year-old Ben Taylor responded to one random Facebook message: "My name is Joel from Liberia, West Africa. I need some assistance from you. Business or financial assistance dat (sic) will help empower me."

Ben insincerely responded, "How can I help?"

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Ben Taylor decided to respond to a suspicious message he got online CBS News

"I just wanted to go down this rabbit hole and see what were the tricks that they use to get people," Ben said.

But there's no way he would have guessed what happened next. The journey began when Joel, in Africa, proposed a business partnership. He asked Ben to mail used electronics to an address in New Jersey.

"I looked it up on Google Earth," Ben said. "There were broken down cars all over the place."

Ben wasn't falling for that. Instead, he proposed a different partnership. He lied to Joel, and told him he owned a photography business and could use some pretty pictures.

"So how about a sunset? How about a nice Liberian sunset?" Ben asked.

We asked Ben if he planned on paying for any photos once he got them.

"I said, 'Yeah, if it's good. If I like it, sure,'" Ben replied. "I figured the more time of theirs that I can waste, the less time that they'd have to spend ripping me or other people off."

Eventually, Joel sent two sunset photos -- we think. Turns out scenic photography wasn't exactly Joel's strong suit, not that it mattered.

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Ben Taylor CBS News

"I told him, 'Hey, this was great," Ben said. "I told him, 'This is a good job, but I think you need a little bit better of a camera.'"

So Ben actually spent $60 to buy and mail him a shiny red one.

"Yeah, so I'm investing my money," Ben said. "My family thinks I'm crazy because I'm interacting with this guy in Liberia."

But Joel didn't think it was crazy at all. He wrote, "I've decided 2 really commit n devote myself 2 dis business, what other pictures you want me 2 take?" Ben replied, "We've gotta work on your photography."

Eventually, Joel did get better, which posed a big problem.

"When he put in the work I thought, 'Oh no, now I've got to figure out a way to compensate Joel for these pictures or I'm going to be the scammer,'" Ben said.

So Ben took to YouTube to sell a booklet he made using the pictures. He called it "By D Grace of God," a phrase borrowed from Joel's messages. The plan was to sell a few dozen copies to friends and family, until sales exploded.

"People from around the world and places that I've never even heard of were buying Joel's book," Ben said.

Soon they raised $1,000. Ben told Joel he could have half, and the rest, well, Joel would get that too, but with a catch. Ben told him he had to donate that $500 to charity.

With that intention in mind, Ben wired the money. At this point you need to know that $500 is close to a year's salary in Liberia. So really, it's kind of ridiculous to expect an unemployed, impoverished hustler to just give all that money away. Fact is, Ben never thought he would. Until another batch of pictures arrived.

There were book bags and notebooks. He cleaned out a market, rented a cab to hall the loot and blessed five schools with abundance. Joel lived up to be more savior than scammer.

"He came through," Ben said. "He showed me that there was a different side to him. So here we are."

Here we are, at the beginning of an unlikely partnership. Forged from doubt and distrust, but destined to change the world, and bring it a whole lot closer together.

Watch the rest of this story Friday, March 30th on the "CBS Evening News" 6:30-7:00 PM, ET.

  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.