Alongside other forms of cybercrime, romance scams have been on the rise since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and have cost Americans more than US$1 billion in 2021 alone, the FBI said in a press release ahead of Valentine’s Day.

Perpetrators mainly target women over 40 who are widowed, divorced, elderly or disabled. “The victim just wants connection and companionship. The bad guy generally wants cold hard cash,” the FBI warned.

Romance scams occur when a criminal adopts a fake online identity to gain a victim’s affection and trust and then uses the illusion of a romantic or close relationship to manipulate and steal from the victim, the agency explained in a primer on the crime.

As more and more of both business activity and social interaction moved online thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, cybercrime has spiked exponentially.

Very often those with the weakest access to digital education, which according to a study by Malwarebytes include minorities, women and the elderly, become victims of cybercrime.

Phishing attacks and social engineering, like romance scams, remain two of the most common crimes on the web, according to Europol. With an elderly and often non-tech savvy population unexpectedly thrust into remote work, that type of crime has become all the more lucrative as many are reaching out for human connection online.

The scammers, on the other hand, use the pandemic-related restrictions on movement as an excuse not to meet up with victims.

In just one scam, targeting victims in the U.S. states of Colorado and Wyoming, some 200 victims were fleeced of more than a combined $32 million.

“The criminals spend hours honing their skills, relying on well-rehearsed scripts that have been used repeatedly and successfully, and sometimes keep journals on their victims to better understand how to manipulate and exploit them,” the FBI said in a press release about the crime ahead of Valentine’s day last year.

“In some cases, victims may be recruited, unknowingly, to transfer money illegally on behalf of others,” it said.

Also last year, a major cyber crime ring, run by Nigerian nationals out of both Nigeria and the United States, was shut down by authorities. The group targeted the elderly and through fraud and deception stole as much as $2.5 million from them.

The FBI suggested several protective measures, such as using reverse images searches to confirm the identity of people using dating apps. Being wary of profiles which are “too perfect” or individuals that too quickly ask for the interaction to be continued via private messaging, as well as those who make every excuse to avoid meeting in person.

“If you haven’t met the person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious,” the FBI said.

And most importantly, “never send money to anyone you have only communicated with online or by phone.”