By Andrea Cavanaugh

Pam is a widow with grown children who was living alone for the first time in decades. She was intrigued when a handsome stranger sent her a friend request on Facebook. Tom said he was an Army officer stationed in Afghanistan, and before long he and Pam were chatting online every day.

A few weeks later, Tom asked her to lend him $3,000 for an airline ticket and Pam immediately agreed. After all, he promised to pay her back, and she felt like she knew him better than some of her longtime friends. It wasn’t until the flight Tom was supposed to be on had landed that Pam realized she had been played.

Romance scams are on the rise – a reported $143 million was lost to flirty fraudsters just last year, more than to any other scam reported to the Federal Trade Commission. The scammers contact potential victims on both dating sites and social media platforms. Most of these cyber criminals are located outside the US, and most of the money lost to them will never be recovered.

Cyber crooks aren’t just interested in affairs of the heart – they also pilfer our cash with tech support scams, phishing schemes, grandparent scams, lottery frauds, rental scams, and a multitude of other deceptions.

Watch out for signs that someone you’ve encountered online is really a con artist:

The person claims to live in the US but is working overseas.

The individual pushes for fast involvement and quickly shifts communication away from the site where you met.

The person is unavailable to meet face-to-face.

The individual asks you to loan money for medical bills, travel, or another hard-luck situation.

The individual asks for payment for an otherwise legitimate expense, such as a rental deposit, using a wire transfer or gift card.

Fortunately, there are ways to help protect yourself from fraudsters:

Do your homework. Online searches for individual or company names and reverse-image searches of photos will help determine if the person you’re talking to is legitimate.

Slow it down. Ask questions and keep the conversation on the site where it originated. Pay attention to red flags.

Don’t send money to someone you’ve never met. If you’re making a purchase, use a credit card, which may offer more protection. Never send money using wire transfers or gift cards for online transactions.

Talk to family and friends. Many people are so excited about a potential love interest or financial windfall that they don’t pay attention to warning signs. A trusted confidant can give you perspective.

Never click on links or call numbers sent in emails, even if they appear to be from someone you trust. Verify the email by looking up the phone number or website yourself to ensure you’re not contacting an imposter.

Don’t answer calls from unknown numbers, even those with your same prefix and area code.

If you think you’ve fallen prey to an online scam, report it! Contact the Federal Trade Commission and the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

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