It's a peak season for online dating, with the number of users usually swelling between New Year's Day and Valentine's Day. Yet in the quest for love, online daters may find fraud instead.
One in five Americans between 25 and 34 years of age have used online dating sites, according to Pew Research. As Internet romance has become more accepted in society — and grown into a more than $2 billion market — fraudsters have found ways to monetize the search for a partner, with organized crime rings around the globe now getting in on the action.
Last Valentine's Day, 1.26 percent of all online dating transactions were fraudulent, according to fraud prevention company Iovation, down slightly from 2014.
However, while fraud rates are relatively flat, it's becoming more sophisticated, said Molly O'Hearn, Iovations' vice president of operations and co-founder. More than 5,800 romance scam complaints were filed with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2014, the last year in which data are available, with a total associated losses topping $86 million.
The most common target of online dating scams are women over 40, who are divorced, widowed, or disabled, according to the FBI. The agency warned, however, that "every age group and demographic is at risk."
The traditional online dating scam is "A Nigerian guy gets a victim to send money by a wire transfer," said Iovation's O'Hearn. That phishing-style scam still happens, but fewer people fall for it now. Instead fraudsters have turned to spam and identity mining that attempt to acquire personal information to steal the person's identity.
"Dating sites are a real rich playground to mine data for other scams," O'Hearn told CNBC, who added that pulling off the fraud often involves multiple people. One person is in charge of getting the personal information.
"They may be chatting with 20 people at the same time," O'Hearn said.
The information gathered is then handed off to another member of the team to be monetized.
Most people are wary of unsolicited advertisements by email, so spammers have now turned to dating sites, sending unsolicited ads and links via online messaging platforms.
"Online dating sites are not advertising channels…[but] think of how many people are online at once," said O'Hearn.
Traditionally, most romance scams have originated in Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast or Vietnam. However, this year, Iovation found most of the online dating fraud originated in the United States. The top five countries for online dating scam origination were the U.S. with 18 percent, Ghana with 11 percent, and Nigeria with 10 percent, France with 8 percent, and Vietnam with 7 percent.
The good news is that dating sites are becoming more sophisticated at catching fraud.
"Our clients are pouring a lot of effort into education [of online dating customers] and looking for fraud patterns," Iovation's O'Hearn said.
To protect yourself, O'Hearn suggested reading the tips online dating sites provide.
"Reputable dating sites have sections on how to protect yourself," she said.
The other key piece of advice is to use common sense. Is it normal for a potential partner to be asking specific personal information you do not normally give out? Also, be wary of users that ask for personal information very quickly.
In addition, it's best to keep communication through the online dating site. These websites regularly scan for potential fraud and delete suspicious accounts.
If you believe you are the victim of an online dating scam, you should report it to both the online dating website and the FBI at www.ic3.gov.