In brief: The pandemic has had many effects—chip shortages, a booming video game industry, working from home becoming the norm, etc.—though one less expected consequence is the huge amount of money lost to romance scams. In 2020, a record $304 million was conned out of lonely people, an increase of around 50 percent compared to 2019.

A Federal Trade Commission report notes that for three years running, people reported losing more money to romance scams than any other type of fraud identified in the FTC’s Sentinel database. Last year saw individual median losses reach $2,500.

It appears 2020’s record was caused in part by the pandemic. With social distancing, closed venues, and so many singletons forced to stay indoors, fake online romances in which the people involved never meet became increasingly common.

The number of first-time dating app users also spiked last year. Scammers often use photos taken from the web combined with false names to lure people in—remember, that Henry Cavill/Scarlett Johansson lookalike going by the name John/Jane Smith is unlikely to be real.

Beyond dating apps, some scammers use social media to find their targets, often through unexpected friend requests or messages.

After a period in which the scammer establishes a relationship with the victim, they will eventually ask for money, often in the form of a gift card or phone card to keep communicating, or wire transfers for made-up medical emergencies. Last year saw many criminals exploit Covid-19 fears to withdraw cash from their targets by eliciting their sympathy.

Many of those who suffered the largest losses say the scammers sent them a large sum of money first. The victims are then asked to send the funds back to the scammer or someone else. This is often a way of laundering stolen funds.

While those aged 20 to 29 experienced the highest jump in reported incidents, people between 40 and 69 were most likely to report losing money in romance scams. Those aged 70 and over had the highest individual losses: $9,475.

The FTC gives the following advice to anyone looking for love online:

  • Never send money or gifts to someone you haven’t met in person – even if they send you money first.
  • Talk to someone you trust about this new love interest. It can be easy to miss things that don’t add up. So pay attention if your friends or family are concerned.
  • Take it slowly. Ask questions and look for inconsistent answers.
  • Try a reverse-image search of the profile pictures. If they’re associated with another name or with details that don’t match up, it’s a scam.

Image credit: Pixel-Shot