When a friend request from a man who said his name was Greg landed in Sheila's Facebook account, she was intrigued. She didn’t know him but accepted anyway.
They quickly started emailing and talking on the phone for hours. He claimed to be working on a rig near Texas and that his contract wouldn’t allow him to leave, which is why they couldn't meet in person.
Two months later, Greg asked Sheila, 49, to pay his taxes.
"I was resistant at first," she said. "But he gave me his bank account information. I guess to increase my trust."
Sheila wired the money. Then she received a message asking her to send more money for an anti-terrorist document fee. That’s when she realized she was being scammed, said Sheila, who asked that her full name be withheld because she feels ashamed and hasn't told her family and many of her friends what happened to her.
She called her bank and requested to stop payment. But it was too late. In total, she lost $24,250.
The abundance of social media platforms, chatrooms and dating apps has led to a rise in romance scams where people pretend to be potential suitors to solicit money. In 2016, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center reported 14,546 people were victims of romance or confidence scams, up from 5,791 people in 2014. The financial loss keeps growing as well: victims lost nearly $220 million in 2016, more than double the nearly $87 million lost in 2014, according to the FBI. The Federal Trade Commissionalso had a spike in the number of complaints about possible romance-related scams, up more two-fold to 11,149 from 2014 levels. And those numbers likely represent just a sliver of the swindles. Shame and embarrassment keep many people from coming forward.
"This is a hugely underreported crime," said Special Agent Christine Beining, of the FBI's Houston branch. "We’re anticipating that number rising in the future."
While singles looking for love cover a wide range of demographics, Beining said scammers prey on the most vulnerable, women over the age of 60, often widowed and not digitally savvy.
"It has a lot to do with how isolated people are from family and friends, from other people who could have warned them," Beining said.
The scammers usually have a set profile as well. Most claim they lost their wife to some form of cancer, are raising their child alone, work keeps them at a distance — often abroad — and are looking for love. Almost all promise to take care of their new love interest.
In Uniontown, Ohio, Theresa Dies, 70, met a man on Facebook who she said resembled Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The man asked her to send several thousand dollars. She refused but still complained to law enforcement. The authorities, however, couldn't do anything since a crime wasn't committed.
"They said, 'What did you expect?' They made me feel like the worst scum of the earth." Dies said. "Why do they have to shame us?"
Many platforms, such as Facebook and Match.com, offer safety tips to users but also have usage waivers releasing them from liability from interactions among members. Cyber criminals are also notoriously difficult to catch.
"In order to sue someone, you have to know who they are," Jef Henninger, an attorney in New Jersey. "These people are hiding their identities, and trying to prove it wasn’t a gift is difficult. It’s almost like the perfect crime."
Here are tips experts offer to stay safe online:
1. Don't send money to someone you don't know. Ever.
2. If you do send money, get a loan agreement. "To send money to someone you just met online without a loan agreement, you’re just throwing your money away," said Henninger, a criminal defense attorney.
3. Meet the person in real life. "Be careful when someone is declaring their undying love for you and then refusing to meet in person," said Beining of the FBI. "If you’re romantically involved with someone they should want to meet you."
4. Take the relationship slowly. "Get to know the person," Beining said. "You have to be willing to invest the time in the other person."
5. Do a background check. "It may not sound romantic," Beining said. "But get online and do some research about this person you’re talking to." Beining recommends searching for the person’s photo on other websites and doing a Google search.
6. Get a second opinion. The most vulnerable people are those who are isolated. To prevent this, ask a trusted family member or friend for a second opinion on your new admirer. If it seems too good to be true, they’ll tell you.