NEW YORK (CBSMiami) – With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, the FBI is warning of online dating scams.
The agency received more than 15-thousand reports linked to romance scams last year. More than half of the complaints involved losses of Monday. Over the past three years, those scams have cost Americans up to $210 million a year.
Just ask Debby Montgomery Johnson.
“I wasn’t lonely, desperately lonely, I just wanted someone to talk to,” she said.
Johnson signed up for an online dating service after the sudden death of her husband in 2010.
“I thought that’s safe, I can do it from my home,” she said.
That’s where the widowed mother of four met a British businessman who called himself Eric Cole.
“I talked to him a few times, I mean we messaged every day,” she said.
Johnson said she and Cole engaged in a two-year online relationship but never met in person. Over the course of that relationship, Johnson said she gave Cole more than a million dollars in increments.
“At this point, your heart rules your head and I was doing what my heart wanted me to do,” she said.
In 2012, Johnson said her life stopped when Cole came clean over a video chat, revealing who he really was – a young man in Nigeria.
“With a big smile on his he wanted to know if we could keep this going and I just thought are you out of your mind,” she said.
Johnson’s story is not uncommon. The FBI said romance scams account for the largest online financial crime losses.
“Once a victim sends money to a scammer, they’ll them on a suckers list,” said FBI special agent Steven Shapiro.
Shapiro oversees the FBI’s confidence/fraud program. He said there’s a particular demographic that seems susceptible to these crimes.
“The truth of the matter is the victims tend to be well educated and unfortunately have some kind of emotional vulnerability,” he said.
Shapiro said romance crimes are rising as online dating popularity increases. In 2016, about 15 percent of American adults said they had used an online dating website or app.
“After a relationship is established a scammer will send gifts, poetry, flowers and then make some long-term plans, such as going on a lavish vacation, even marriage proposals,” said Shapiro.
Johnson was unable to get her money back but she did remarry a man she met through friends.