Being the victim of Internet fraud is a tough pill to swallow no matter how it happens. But to be a lonely and vulnerable person who thinks they've found love only to find out they've actually been the victim of an online romance scam surely adds insult to injury.
Nevertheless, Internet romance scams were a common enough occurrence in 2011 to cost victims $50 million, according to a new report from the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
The center received 314,246 complaints last year, 5,600 of which were related to romance scams. And that $50 million price tag is the result of victims losing an average of $8,900 each.
So how exactly does someone get duped out of that much money?
According to the report, scammers comb through chat rooms, dating sites, and social networking sites looking for their targets and use a well-rehearsed script that has proven successful in the past. Often times, they'll send their victims flowers and gifts while using stories of personal tragedy, injury, and other hardships to earn trust and concern.
The report also notes that, while all demographics are vulnerable, criminals tend to prey on those who are over 40, divorced or widowed, the disabled, and the elderly.
As John Breyault, director of the National Consumers League's fraud center, explained to the Washington Examiner, "Because they have developed a relationship, often romantic, with their victim, there's more trust there."
FBI spokeswoman Jenny Shearer also told the Examiner that the total sums lost by victims can get so high because they end up paying for expensive items such as plane tickets and medical procedures.
HuffPost blogger and cancer survivor Dori Hartley wrote of experiencing an online romance scam first-hand in much this same way: For five years, she had an online relationship with someone she thought was suffering from cancer.
"So, how do stupid things like this happen to smart people like me?" Harley wrote. "Desperate loneliness is a good place to start -- that, and a willingness to believe in a fantasy. After all, the heart wants what the heart wants, and I wanted love. Or maybe it's just impossible to think that anyone would lie about having cancer -- especially to a survivor."
In September, a study out of the University of Leicester found that there have been 200,000 victims of online dating fraud in the U.K. alone.