As online dating has become more popular, finding love has never been more accessible. However, this convenience comes with a dark side – the rise of romance scams. These scams, designed to exploit the trust and vulnerability of those seeking connection, have devastating emotional and financial consequences for their victims.

Romance scams affect thousands of people each year. In 2022 alone, nearly 70,000 individuals in the United States reported falling victim to these scams, resulting in a staggering $1.3 billion in losses, according to the Federal Trade Commission. This represents a 78% increase from 2020.

As Dr. Louise Stanger, a renowned expert in the field, points out, “These scams can happen to anyone, regardless of their intelligence or education level. The victims are simply people who fell in love and trusted the wrong person.”

Stanger, the founder of All About Interventions, was part of a think tank in March 2021, “Addressing the Challenge of Chronic Fraud Victimization: Understanding the drivers of chronic fraud victimization and identifying key intervention strategies.” The think tank set out to better understand the problem of chronic fraud victimization and potential points of intervention to assist victims or prevent victimization.

Social media platforms have become a common starting point for romance scams, with 40% of victims in the previous year reporting to the FTC that their initial contact with the scammer began on these sites. Dating websites and apps were the second most frequent origin, accounting for 19% of romance scam cases. In many instances, scammers quickly shifted their communication to messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Google Chat, or Telegram.

Romance scams typically start like any other online relationship, with the victim meeting someone online who seems like the perfect partner. The scammer is charming, attentive, and says all the right things to make the victim feel special and loved. However, as the relationship progresses, red flags start to appear.

According to Norton, “One of the first giveaways of a romance scammer is their background. Fakers often pose as someone who is stationed abroad to create a reason for why they can’t meet in person.”

Some scammers lure their victims with promises of easy money through cryptocurrency investments, only to disappear with the funds. Others claim to need money for medical emergencies, family crises, or travel expenses to visit their beloved. In some cases, scammers even resort to sextortion, threatening to share intimate photos if their demands are not met.

While anyone can fall victim to a romance scam, certain demographics are more frequently targeted. Older adults, particularly those aged 65 and above, are the most commonly targeted age group and suffer the highest financial losses. Scammers exploit their desire for companionship and their trust in online relationships.

As Dr. Stanger explains, “Scammers are skilled at identifying and preying upon the vulnerabilities of their victims, with loneliness being a key factor. But these scams don’t just hurt the victim. Watching a parent or friend be victimized can be scary and painful. It can make people feel helpless to assist their loved ones.”

Unfortunately, the cost of romance scams can be steep, both financially and emotionally. Romance scam victims often lose thousands of dollars, sometimes even their entire life savings, in their desperate attempt to help their supposed partner. And the consequences of romance scams extend far beyond financial losses. Victims often experience profound emotional trauma, grappling with feelings of betrayal, shame, and heartbreak. Many are reluctant to confide in friends or family, fearing judgment or blame. The psychological impact can be long-lasting, requiring the support of mental health professionals to overcome. It is crucial for victims to understand that they are not at fault and that help is available.

While completely eliminating the risk of falling victim to a romance scam may not be possible, there are steps you can take to protect yourself. Always be cautious when interacting with someone you’ve met online, especially if they refuse to meet in person or engage in video calls. Be wary of anyone who quickly professes strong feelings or asks for money, regardless of the reason. Take the time to verify the person’s identity through reverse image searches and online research. Trust your instincts – if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

If you or someone you know has fallen victim to a romance scam, it’s essential to seek help. Report the scam to the FTC and local law enforcement. Reach out to organizations that specialize in supporting scam victims, such as the AARP Fraud Watch Network.

Dr. Stanger emphasizes, “If you or a loved one has fallen victim to a romance scam, know that you are not alone and that help is available. The US government, local family services, and adult protective services have some excellent resources. The AARP remains a vital resource for adults in this arena as well.”

In Touch Weekly partners with external contributors. All contributor content is reviewed by the In Touch Weekly editorial staff.