The internet has revolutionized the world of dating, but it is also a new breeding ground for scams. The FBI says romance scams are rampant online, with an estimated $230 million in losses last year.
"Even in the last decade, so many more people meet other people online for the purpose of dating," said New York attorney Jonathan Hood, who has written extensively on internet fraud. "It just makes it so much easier for people to connect without ever meeting in person, and sort of as a result, never really verifying that the other person is who they say they are."
In the latest twist, reported on the next episode of CNBC's "American Greed," con artists are exploiting Americans' respect for the military.
"The M.O. is all the same," said Christopher Grey of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command. "I'm a single father. I'm a widower. I'm raising a five-year-old girl. And they play on the emotions of the victims. Most people are very trusting of U.S. military personnel."
"I think there's … something to be said for a man in uniform. I mean, everybody loves a man in uniform, right?" said Amy Bushatz, a reporter and editor for Military.com.
Illinois chiropractor Lilo Schuster fell for it, and fell hard. She began a relationship online with a military officer serving in Afghanistan named Adam Smith.
"He has a child and he's in Afghanistan and he's fighting the terrorists and he's a pilot, and I thought my prayers had been answered," Schuster said.
The relationship continued to blossom online. Eventually, Smith asked Schuster to wire him some money to help support his daughter. Schuster complied, and the requests continued. She had sent him nearly $23,000 before she finally realized the whole thing was a scam.
"I was pretty upset because I felt so excited that I thought that I had met somebody," she said. "I was really embarrassed that I could let this happen to me."
Before you say to yourself, "That could never happen to me," consider the fact that the FBI recorded some 15,000 romance scams last year, a jump of 2,500 from the year before. And that is just the scams reported to the feds.
Because it is practically impossible nowadays to date without some use of the internet, experts warn that you need to take precautions before jumping into the dating game.
Keep your guard up
We love to post on social media about our hopes, our dreams, our passions and our politics. If you are also using an online dating site, it is easy for a scam artist to cross-check your name with your Facebook profile. Suddenly, you and your new online beau have an "uncanny" connection. But in fact, that person is a con artist who learned about your love for cats, or Jane Austen, or the U.S. military by reading your social media posts.
Be careful about how much you reveal about yourself online. The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center said in an alert earlier this year that users of social media and online dating sites should always assume that con artists are watching, and trolling for victims.
"The criminals who carry out romance scams are experts at what they do," the agency says. "They spend hours honing their skills and sometimes keep journals on their victims to better understand how to manipulate and exploit them."