More and more people have been flocking to online dating platforms in search of romance and companionship in the wake of lockdowns and social distancing mandates, but the new reality is also creating conditions that contribute to record-high losses from romance scams, according to a report by the United States’ Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

“In 2020, reported losses to romance scams reached a record $304 million, up about 50% from 2019. For an individual, that meant a median dollar loss of $2,500. From 2016 to 2020, reported total dollar losses increased more than fourfold, and the number of reports nearly tripled,” reads the report.

In addition to some effects of the pandemic, the increasing trend of people joining various online dating services also plays into the hands of enterprising scammers. But make no mistake: romance scams were not limited to dating sites.

“While many people report losing money on romance scams that start on dating apps, even more say they were targeted on social media. These social media users aren’t always looking for love, and report that the scam often starts with an unexpected friend request or message,” the FTC warned.

To perpetrate romance fraud, phony suitors usually create attractive profiles on dating apps to woo potential victims and cultivate a relationship with them. Once the courtship has gone on for a period of time, the con artist will make up a sob story about badly needing money in order to help their relative or get out of trouble.

COVID-19 has created a golden opportunity for crooks to take advantage of unsuspecting victims, as well as to come up with a boatload of excuses for why they can’t deliver on their promises but still need the money. The faux Lotharios often claim that they lost their jobs or have to cover expensive medical bills and are able to easily shoot down meeting opportunities with their "love interests" by claiming that they’ve tested positive for the virus or that can't travel due to the restrictions in place.

Victims of the costliest cases of dating fraud were sometimes parted from their money because they believed that their “paramours” had sent them money first. “Scammers claim to have sent money for a cooked-up reason, and then have a detailed story about why the money needs to be sent back to them or on to someone else,” said the FTC. The agency added that instead of helping someone they love, victims were in fact laundering stolen money, which some reported to be stolen unemployment benefits.

The FTC also highlighted that reports of monetary losses from romance scams have increased across all age groups, with people aged 70 or older incurring the highest individual average losses (US$9,475). Meanwhile, those aged 40 to 69 were most likely to report losses stemming from romance fraud.

To protect yourself from romance scammers trying to break your heart and bank account, always remain vigilant and be on the lookout for fake photos, quick professions of never-ending love, or excuses why they can’t meet you, as well as for other telltale signs that a scam is afoot.