I haven’t been in the dating scene for decades but I know it sure has changed. Millions of people participate in online dating, and I even know several couples who have found their significant other using online dating platforms. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Internet is used for bad intentions, so protecting your privacy and practicing safe online behavior when seeking romance is really important.

The FBI reports that romance scams account for the highest financial losses of all internet-facilitated crimes. That statistic really surprised me. FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) reported that it received 15,000 romance scam complaints in 2016 ― a 20 percent increase over the previous year. Losses suffered by victims exceeded $230 million, but the FBI says that estimate is low, since only about 15 percent of these crimes are even being reported.

The most common states where victims live are California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania. In Texas last year, the IC3 received more than 1,000 complaints from victims reporting more than $16 million in losses related to romance scams.

How are all these people getting scammed?

The victims tend to be older widowed or divorced women who organized crime figures and scammers target online. The victim may be active on Facebook and in one case, the scammer reached out saying he was a friend of a friend. He started “liking” her posts on her wall and that turned into emailing back and forth. He posed as a construction executive who was working on a job in a foreign country, so they were unable to meet in person until a later time. Well, that later time never happened, and in the meantime, he got into an emergency and asked her to send him money, and since she was in love with him, she sent the money. Lots of it. How embarrassing.

According to the Huffington Post, victims who suffer romance scams are financially and psychologically “so embarrassed that they’re reluctant to come forward even when they realize they’ve been scammed.” It is such a problem that datingnmore.com even operates a romance scam database that lists scams and alerts victims.

This week, the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York were successful in prosecuting an online romance scammer who posed as a millionaire and induced people online to give him personal financial information and steal their identities. He stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from his victims. According to prosecutors, he “promised business opportunities and romantic relationships just to steal his victims’ identities and loot their bank accounts, then threatened those who discovered what he was doing.”

His victims were a dozen women in cities including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Atlanta. He met women on online dating platforms. Prosecutors have charged him with bank fraud, aggravated identity theft, and threatening interstate communications. He plead guilty to wire fraud and sending threatening communications.

The lesson here is to stay safe online. Be careful what you post to social media sites, because scammers can and will use that information against you. Always use reputable websites, but assume that con artists are trolling even the most reputable dating and social media sites.

If you develop a romantic relationship with someone you meet online, the FBI suggests that you consider the following:

  • Research the person’s photo and profile using online searches to see if the material has been used elsewhere.
  • Go slow and ask lots of questions.
  • Beware if the individual seems too perfect or quickly asks you to leave a dating service or Facebook to go “offline.”
  • Beware if the individual attempts to isolate you from friends and family or requests inappropriate photos or financial information that could later be used to extort you.
  • Beware if the individual promises to meet in person but then always comes up with an excuse why he or she can’t. If you haven’t met the person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious.
  • Never send money to anyone you don’t know personally.

If you suspect an online relationship is a scam, stop all contact immediately. And if you are the victim of a romance scam, file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.