DALLAS - In a new and rapidly growing twist to online fraud, scammers are investing weeks, even months or years to build trust and even what feels like love.
Dubbed "Romance Scams," the Federal Trade Commission is reporting a spike, making 2021 a record year for consumer loss.
Yvonne Costales thought she might have met her mate online.
"I fell in love with his picture. It is so silly you know like falling in love with a poster of a rockstar," she said.
The scammer said his name was Robert. His profile pictured rugged good looks and what seemed like a heart of gold, even posing in one photo at a charity bike ride for breast cancer.
Burned in the past by a cheating wife, Robert told Costales he was looking for love and was sure he had found it.
"He called me every day. We made plans to meet, but then he canceled them," she recalled.
Costales says the final red flag was the day Robert explained he had been in an accident and needed the two to exchange money. That small voice in the back of her mind grew louder and made her wonder if any of this online courtship was for real.
David McClellan is the CEO and co-founder of socialcatfish.com, which builds tools to allow people to verify who they're talking to online. He says with no verification requirements to create online profiles scammers go unchecked every day and notes, "Especially in the last 18 months, we have seen a massive uptick in scams."
According to the FTC, some $547 million was lost to romance scams in 2021. More than $1.3 billion was lost in the last 5 years. The fastest-growing segment to fall victim is Generation X'ers.
While the socialcatfish.com website couldn't track down exactly who Costales was chatting with, they were able to source the photos the scammer used. They turned out to be of a man living in San Francisco who is already married to another man.
What's worse than the lack of verification required by social networking and dating sites is the underreporting of victims. It is estimated that one third of romance scam victims are too embarrassed to come forward.