Last year Holly fell in love and wound up paying dearly for the privilege. A 30-ish executive secretary, she met a man who soon convinced her he wanted to marry her, and even urged her to set a date. In the meantime, the man, who said he was a self-employed businessman, developed a series of crises, all of which required a financial contribution from Holly to resolve.

By the time Holly (not her real name) discovered the trail of lies she had stumbled over for months, she had handed over several thousand dollars, expensive jewelry and a large chunk of her self-esteem. Meanwhile, her lover had disappeared.

"She really believed him," said Sgt. William Harrison, head of the confidence games squad of the D.C. police force, who investigated Holly's case. "She was in love with him, and she really thought he was going to marry her."

For the Sweetheart swindlers," as Harrison calls them, the District of Columbia is the Capital of Con Men, a big game preserve where the prey are female dollars and the weapon is a friendly smile. Harrison has seen 10 large-scale cases since he began heading such investigations in 1972. Three cases were reported to his unit last year. sAll three women had been victimized by the same man, who gorged himself on a combined total of about $40,000 worth of cash, cars, clothes and trinkets.

Harrison believes the actual incidence of these cases is much higher than the number reported, with perhaps thousands of D.C. dollars quietly changing hands each year in response to false loving whispers.

"D.C.'s haven for a sweatheart swindler," Harrison said. "There are a lot of very attractive victims. These con men know it and they travel here from other cities. But a lot of these ladies don't report it because they're embarrassed." The ones who complain to the police have often lost large sums, he said. Every case investigated by his squad has been prosecuted successfully, he added.

Although some women won't go to the police, they have sought other types of help. Michele Thomas, a paralegal with the Women's Legal Defense Fund, said she received about 10 calls from similarly victimized women last year alone. Lori Weinstein, a coordinator for My Sister's Place, a battered women's shelter run partly by the Defense Fund, said about 25 percent of the 150 to 200 women who come in or call their hotline every month have had money taken.

I'm sure it's widespread," Thomas said, "but when you have a relationship with a guy, you don't usually think of it as extortion. It's not that easy to prove. It's your word against his if you pay cash, and most of the women do." Often the women who do complain, Thomas added, are those who have less to fear from their former suitors in terms of physical abuse or continued harassment, but psychological scars mark them nevertheless.

Victoria, 36, was a typical victim. Well-educated with two masters degrees, well-paid and a daughter in a wealthy family, she met her man through a friend in October 1979. She later discovered that he had investigated her background thoroughly, including her recent broken engagement, to determine whether she'd be a suitable target.

"He told me he worked for Xerox and owned two liquor stores," Victoria (nor her real name) recalled. "He was a good-looking fellow, and wore only the best clothes. The day I met him he was wearing a cashmere sweater and a Cartier watch.

"About 3 days after I met him he told me that the fellow who introduced us had borrowed $5,000 from him, and all his money was tied up in 'assets.' He wanted to borrow $2,000 from me. After three days," Victoria said. She refused. "After a week he wanted to move in with me, then he started telling people he was going to marry me." Soon afterwards, he "borrowed" one of her expensive gold braclets, and continually "forgot" to return it.

Her suspicions were aroused, she said, when the man began to spend so much time around her job that he never seemed to go to his own. She noticed that his simplistic conversation belied his supposed advanced education. He refused to let her see the stores he supposedly owned, and was never at the number he gave as his home phone.

Finally, when he was drunk, she discovered the raging misogynist lurking beneath the loving exterior. He became violent and abusive toward any woman in sight. Though Victoria learned the man's true identity when she stumbled upon another of his victims, he continued to harass her for several months afterward, even attempting to extort money from her physician father.

"It has made me reassess men, period," she said. She has been so frightened by her close brush with a con artist that she has been in therapy since. She is also afraid to return to many of her former singles' haunts for fear she will meet another man like him.

"It's a definite pattern," said Phyllis Sloan, who has become something of a local authority on sweetheart swindlers -- or "mackmen" -- after having treated so many of their victims. Sloan, a counselor at the University of the District of Columbia with a small private practice, estimates that during the past four years she has treated about 50 women who have been swindled.

Typically the men present themselves as high-status individuals, usually possessed of a job that's hard to define, which provides an excuse for long absences. One man masqueraded as a bowling champion to one of Sloan's patients, then tried to manipulate the women into giving him several thousand dollars in "tournament fees."

"A lot of the men are students of women because women are their livelihood; it's a job to them. A lot of what they do centers around the bedroom," Sloan said. "They'll do things for a women other men won't do and it trips the women out. The (men will) wine them and dine them, then follow it by the sudden withdrawal of affection or a disappearance.

"They he'll lay a heavy story on her, to play on her sympathy and guilt feelings. She feels indebted to him. They'll borrow some money, wheedle their way back in, then maybe disappear a few more times. Of course, they always have somewhere to go because they've always got several women on a string. That's how they operate."

A former "mackman" who would only identify himself as "Philip" agreed with Sloan, and described how they learn the trade. Phillip, a D.C. native, said he started his career as a mack when he was a student at UDC because friends told him how to do it. "One night I said, 'Man, I need some money.' They said, 'Ask your woman for it.' I said I can't do that and they said, 'Why not? All she's going to do is go out and give it to the white man at Woodies; she might as well give it to you.'"

So Philip started demanding money from his girlfriends every week. Now 31, he resists an estimate of the amount he received in his 10-year heyday, mostly from women who worked in the post office, as nurses or as secretaries. Women have given him jewelry, clothes, trips across the country, one and two hundred dollars each week in cash, he said, as well as a new Datsun that he later destroyed.

"The dude who totalled it was driving his old lady's car; I had to laugh," he chuckled. All the furniture in his house came from women, "including the van it came in," he said. Unlike more sophisticated swindlers with better-heeled targets, Philip often found disguising his identity an unnecessary precaution. Women would give him what he wanted, he said, because that was the only way to keep him. When he did require a ruse he often said he worked in public relations for Stevie Wonder.

Why should these women work to support him? "Well, why not?" he demanded hotly. "The situation with the ladies is that they have a lot more discipline than the men. The woman can put up with the bullshit at the office; they have responsibilities, so they can't quit, so they can keep up their little credit cards, and their little cars," he said.

Philip insisted that no lack of respect for women motivated him to take the money. He said he only took what he "needed." Sgt. Harrison suggested that swindlers, like many con artists, are motivated by simple greed and laziness, and have contempt for people who work regular jobs. Sloan said a deep-rooted hatred for women may underlie the mackman's suave game.

But the most common, most often cited cause may lie in Washington's so-called ratio problem, the widely held assumption that anywhere from five to 12 frustrated black women sit waiting anxiously for every available black man. The situation for white women is supposed to be only slightly less drastic, but the whole ratio phenomenon is said to contribute to a pervasive view, among both races, of relationships as sport, as a game between men and women out to win points against each other Statistical reality, however, paints quite a different picture.

According to 1978 figures prepared by D.C.'s Office of Planning and Development, there are approximately seven nonwhite men to 10 nonwhite women in the 15 to 44 age group, although black men are typically undercounted in most population estimates. In the 25 to 29 age group, the ratio is highest, at 9.3 nonwhite men for every 10 nonwhite women, slightly higher than the nationwide 9-to-10 black ratio. Among whites, the ratio is fairly even, but there is a slight surplus of white men compared to white women in their early twenties and thirties.

Further, the preponderance of black women professionals is also a myth, since the median incomes of black women in D.C. are only 79 percent of the median incomes of black men, according to 1979 Labor Department figures. And although a slightly higher percentage of working black women than black men are classified as professionals or technical workers, the number for females is likely to include a high proportion of lesser-paid schoolteachers, and the male figure, better-paid doctors and principals.

"The whole ratio business is way out of line," said Sloan. "It's used as a club over women's heads."

Armed with that information, Sloan said, savvy women can protect themselves from the sweetheart swindlers. "But it will only stop when women stop being so passive about their love lives, stop thinking of themselves as objects, stop waiting for the guy to call. And check a guy out thoroughly," she added. "Visit him at his job; use any excuse."

Meanwhile, Philip reports the mackman tradition rages on."I visited a friend just the other day," he said. "He has a 14-year-old son. I asked (the son) how many girlfriends he has; One? Two? He said, 'Twelve.' Next time I saw him he was wearing his gold chain. I asked him where did he get it? 'My girlfriend,' he says."