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Romance scams break hearts and bust bank accounts (happy Valentine's Day!)

Are you falling in love... or for a scam?

After her husband died last May, Joan Salisbury felt adrift. She started corresponding with a man she met on OurTime, a dating site for seniors. But soon after professing his love for her, he started asking for financial favors.

Her online suitor first asked for a MacBook Pro. Salisbury, 82, bought the laptop computer for more than  $2,000 and had it shipped to his address in South Africa, where he said he'd relocated for work. 

"I guess I was just ready to be in love," Salisbury said. "That's what he saw, and that's what he took advantage of."

But her alarm bells went off with his next request: $35,000, which the man said he needed to pay his taxes. When she said she didn't have the money, he told her that his cousin could give him $20,000 of the amount if Salisbury could come up with the remaining $15,000. 

"He was going for whatever he could get out of me at that point," Salisbury said.

While online romance scams are nothing new, the rise of social media and dating apps has made it easier than ever for criminals to swindle money from their targets. Such schemes cost Americans $143 million last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission — more money than for any other type of consumer fraud.

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For people like Salisbury, the toll can be devastating both emotionally and financially. The median reported loss for people victimized in romance scams was $2,600, but the amount for people age 70 and over was much higher, at $10,000.

"For scammers, it's a growing opportunity for them," said Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention programs at the AARP. "It's so much easier to pretend to be somebody when you don't have to meet anybody."

Fraudsters often target older adults because they're assumed to be wealthier. Retirees typically have steady income from Social Security, while many also have pension benefits or equity in their homes.

Bu Stokes said anyone can fall prey to romance scams. An AARP survey found that men, young adults and college educated individuals are more likely to report that they were targeted or victimized in an online romance scam.

More than 21,000 people reported romance scams to the FTC in 2018, up from nearly 17,000 the previous year and nearly double the number in 2016. Experts think the numbers understate the magnitude of the problem, with many people too embarrassed to report such incidents.

"A lot of people are very reticent to report when they are victimized this way, because of the way that our society perceive people who are victimized by these scams," Stokes said.

Woman says she lost more than $1M in online dating scam

Common tactics fraudsters use to pull the wool over people's eyes include uploading fake photos to their online profiles, claiming that they're working abroad and masquerading as military personnel stationed overseas.

For people to protect themselves, Stokes said it's important for people to learn how to spot red flags.

"If you can spot a scam, you can stop a scam," she said. "It's a heck of a lot more efficient to protect yourself from it than recovering once it happens. Once you lose money to a scam, you're never going to see it again."

The FTC offers some tips to avoid falling victim to a romance scam:

  • Never send money or gifts to people you haven't met in person 
  • Proceed cautiously with online suitors and review their answers for inconsistencies 
  • Search engines offer a "search by image" function to check photos, which you can use to verify whether the photos and names on a love interest's online profile match up
  • It can be hard to think with a straight head at the start of a romance. Evaluate matches or concerns with a friend and get second (and third) opinions 
  • Cut ties immediately with anyone you suspect of being a fraudster, and report it both to the FTC and to the dating site

— The Associated Press contributed to this report

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