ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Being lonely on Valentine's Day shouldn't mean falling for a romance scam.

"The spread of online dating sites and apps has made this fraud even easier to commit," the Better Business Bureau of West Florida said in a statement.

The BBB recently released a study about online romance scams, which have resulted in victims - an estimated more than a million in the U.S. alone - losing nearly $1 billion within the past three years

"Because most people do not file complaints about romance scams with BBB or law enforcement, this may just be the tip of the iceberg," the organization said.

Here's how the scam works, according to the BBB:

The contact

Romance scammers use dating websites, apps and social media. Many use stolen credit cards to join these sites and post fake profiles. They meet victims, interact with them and quickly try to get them to move to a different form of communication such as email or texting. This way, if the dating site identifies the scammer as being bogus and shuts them down, they are already in contact with their victims elsewhere. The scammers will often make fake Facebook pages for their aliases to help bolster their fake identity.

Grooming

This is when the fraudster learns about the victim’s life and builds trust. This stage can go on for months. It may include daily texts or messages. Some scammers even send flowers and small gifts. This is also when scammers may request small favors. This can help them test how open a victim ultimately may be to helping when an “emergency” pops up and the scam kicks into high gear.

The grooming process also focuses on isolating victims from their friends and families so they don’t have help when making decisions. The scammers will convince victims that their friends and families have questionable motives to criticize the scammer.

The sting

The scammer will finally ask for money; usually for an emergency, business problem or plane ticket to finally meet. If the victim sends money, the scammer will find ways to keep asking for more. These scams can also be dangerous: victims have unknowingly been pulled into money laundering or drug trafficking, and in a few cases, even convinced to fly overseas to meet their love interest only to be kidnaped and held for ransom.

Ongoing fraud

Even if targets realize they have been victims of a scam, the fraud may continue with a new scam pretending to help them get their money back. A fake law enforcement official may reach out to say the scammer has been caught and the victims can get their money – if they spend several thousand dollars in fees. The original scammer will also sometimes reach out and admit that the “relationship” started as a scam but then claim they actually fell in love. And the cycle continues.

Protecting yourself

  • Never send money or personal information that can be used for identity theft to someone you’ve never met in person. Never give someone your credit card information to book a ticket to visit you. Cut off contact if someone starts asking you for information like credit card, bank, or government ID numbers.
  • Ask specific questions about details given in a profile. A scammer may stumble over remembering details or making a story fit.
  • Do your research. Many scammers steal photos from the web to use in their profiles. You can do a reverse image lookup using a website like tineye.com or images.google.com to see if the photos on a profile are stolen from somewhere else. You can also search online for a profile name, email, or phone number to see what adds up and what doesn’t.

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