Many individuals are turning to the internet in ever-increasing numbers, and many reputable dating websites and apps have given online romance a sense of legitimacy. Online dating is no longer the stigmatized “last resort” it used to be, but that means it’s even easier for a scammer to find new victims.

There are a number of factors that make people fall for romance scams, and they’re as upsetting as they are infuriating. Some people who try a dating website have “struck out” when it comes to meeting people in their everyday lives, so the chance to connect with someone online is welcomed. Even worse, many online romance seekers have been hurt in previous relationships and they see the internet as a way to connect without becoming too vulnerable, or risking getting hurt again.

Little do they know the heartbreak a scammer has in store for them.

In general, romance scammers rely on a few things. They need an instant, complimentary relationship with the victim, and they need a built-in excuse for why they can’t communicate often. Those excuses typically involve out-of-town employment, like serving in the military, working on an off-shore oil rig, or being the captain of a deep sea fishing boat. The scammer’s persona will usually be successful but not too wealthy, and his or her profile picture is usually very good looking but not so gorgeous as to be an obvious fake. In many reported scams where a woman was the victim, the instigator also claimed to have a child from a first marriage, one that left him a widow to raise the child alone.

There’s another tactic that scammers rely on, and that’s the lightning speed with which their online relationship develops. Within a matter of a few back and forth conversations, there may already be talk of never having felt like this before, of being burned in previous relationships but just knowing this time it’s different, and more.

Once the connection is established and declarations of lifelong togetherness have been made, it’s time to go in for the kill. A scammer just can’t come out and say that he needs money for some random reason, so the carefully crafted story plays out. He’s currently at sea and his mother has been hospitalized. He can’t get to his funds—he’s got plenty of money, of course, but just can’t access it due to his job—and the poor woman needs medication. The victim, envisioning the poor sickly mother (who has already seen a picture of her and is just thrilled that her son has found love again after all these years, according to the story), happily sends the money.

Next, it’s the child. Their child, as one victim reported being told to call him. Their “son” needed a new computer for school because he would lose his scholarship if he doesn’t get his project completed. So the money is sent again.

And it continues. Scammers have story after story after story to separate their victims from their money, all while doling out loving messages or withholding their communication if the victim doesn’t pay up right away. When the victim either can’t or won’t pay anymore, the love of her life simply disappears without a trace.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to be taken in by a scam like this one. After all, the thief’s success as a criminal depends on being good at their con game. It’s important to know the warning signs and red flags, like relationships that turn serious too quickly, strange excuses for the other person’s behavior, and as always, requests for money. Many couples have proven that online romances can turn into a happily ever after, but only if you’re cautious and protect yourself.

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