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.