For thousands of people each year, the search for love online ends not just with a broken heart, but an empty bank account.
So-called romance scams — in which fraudsters smother victims with professions of love then plead for large "loans" to cover invented emergencies — appear to be on the rise, according to federal law enforcement and fraud experts.
Romance scams cost nearly 5,900 victims more than $86.7 million last year, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center. And state and federal agencies have shut down several large romance scams in recent months, including a case in which two South Africans and a Canadian were extradited to the U.S. on charges of bilking hundreds of Americans of millions of dollars through romance scams and other financial fraud schemes.
Victim advocates say the true cost of romance scams is probably much higher than official estimates because victims, men in particular, often stay silent out of shame.
Although older adults are often targeted — more than three-quarters of complaints to federal agencies came from people 40 and older — fraud experts say people of all ages and backgrounds can fall prey to romance scams.
That's particularly true if they've been through difficult circumstances, such as divorce, losing a job, serious illness and other major losses, says Doug Shadel, a fraud researcher and director of AARP Washington.
It's as if "their immune system to fraud" is weakened, Shadel said. An AARP study he co-authored last year found that Internet fraud victims had experienced significantly more negative life events in the previous two years than non-victims.
A 53-year-old grandmother from California recently learned how these confidence men (and women) play on the vulnerabilities of lonely singles.
A few months after her husband's death in 2012, Joanna — who asked her real name not be used to protect her privacy — went on Match.com looking for the soul mate she'd never had in her troubled marriage. She soon got a message from a man who said he was a widowed engineer from Colorado.
Within a week the man calling himself John had captured Joanna's heart with compliments, humor and declarations that she was the one.
A few months later John had to travel to Africa for business — a common ruse that signals the start of trouble. First he said his laptop broke and asked Joanna to ship a new one. Then he needed money to get materials for his job out of customs. A car accident was followed by other emergencies that prevented him from coming home — and led to requests for more cash.
The spell finally broke when Joanna demanded that John show his face on a webcam.
"I saw my 60-year-old Colorado man, and he was a college kid in Ghana," Joanna said.
The young man didn't give up. He told Joanna he'd really fallen in love with her. Instead she reported him to the local sheriff and the FBI.
Match.com declined to comment on Joanna's case specifically, but in a statement it said it goes to considerable lengths to make sure users are aware that they could encounter fraud artists.
Among the steps the site takes, they said, are a "pledge" that users must sign in which they promise not to send money or share financial information and to report anyone who asks for either; an anti-fraud "care team" that seeks out and blocks suspected scammers and technology that searches for word patterns and IP addresses associated with fraud.
"Since a few of these scammers manage to slip through all of our checks, we educate our consumers and put tools in their hands to protect themselves and report any concerns," Match.com said.
But the $2 billion dating industry could do much more, many experts say, including warning members who have been contacted by a known scammer. AARP is collecting signatures on an online petition calling on dating sites to take stronger steps to protect customers.
In Joanna's case, law enforcement did not contact her about an investigation after she reported the theft, and like the vast majority of victims, she never got any money back. She estimated that she lost a total of $125,000, which required her to take out loans.
Barb Sluppick, founder of the online support group Romancescams.org, which has 20,000 active members, said that one of the hardest things for victims to understand "is that there's no justice in these scams.". "Money that is sent, the money is gone," she said.
Federal officials acknowledge that many cases are not investigated, but they encourage people to report these crimes because the information helps them spot patterns and build cases against repeat offenders. And it allows victims to claim the loss on their taxes.
Today Joanna advises others to do their research on potential dates, but most importantly to pay attention to their gut instincts.
"I wish I'd listened to me. I wish I had listened to my family and friends. I wish I had listened to the Romance Scams support group," Joanna said. "I would have saved … thousands of dollars."
The best protection, experts say, is to cut off contact as soon as a prospective date acts suspiciously (see below for tips on spotting red flags). Because once they forge a bond with you — which can happen surprisingly fast — it can be very hard to break free.
Discontinuing contact may sound "obvious and simple, but it isn't always because they've fallen in love with this person," the AARP's Shadel said. "And so the tragedy of this type of crime is that you not only lose money, but it breaks your heart."
In the meantime, here are some strategies for staying safe while dating online:
Spira, the dating guru, also advises taking the relationship offline fairly quickly via a face-to-face meeting in a public place. Otherwise you have a "digital penpal," she said. "And once you meet them, there might not be anything in common." Also, experts say, reluctance to meet can be another red flag.