Pandemic loneliness pushed many Americans online in search of a love connection. But a surge in romance scams often left them with an empty bank account as well as a broken heart.

For the past three years, people have reported losing more money on romance scams than on any other type of fraud, according to the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Database. Last year, the reported losses for romance fraud reached a record $304 million, up about 50 percent from 2019. And many of those losses were reported by older people.

Adults 60 and older reported losing about $139 million to romance scams in 2020, a new report from the FTC finds. That’s a significant increase from the $84 million seniors lost to such scams in 2019. It’s important to note this is only what people reported to authorities.

In this loathsome scheme, con artists use fake dating profiles to impersonate people looking for romantic relationships. The contact could also start as a friend request or message on a social media platform. The criminals ultimately persuade their victims to send them money via gift cards or wire transfers.

Before covid, schemers made up all kinds of reasons not to meet in person, and the repeated cancellations could alert some people that they were being bamboozled. But the pandemic gave criminals cover. Guidelines on social distancing provided a plausible excuse to keep the relationship online and avoid meeting in-person.

What scammers do in a romance scam is they make up reasons why they can’t meet their supposed love in person,” says Kati Daffan, an assistant director in the Federal Trade Commission’s division of marketing practices.

The pandemic inspired new twists to the stories that scammers typically use to defraud their victims.

“People reported that their so-called suitor said that he couldn’t travel because of the pandemic or canceled a date because of a supposed positive covid-19 test,” Daffan said. “Nobody should feel ashamed of coming forward to tell their story if this happened to them because scammers are incredible about coming up with believable stories.”

The FTC’s analysis is based on self-reported data from consumers. The FBI estimated in its annual Internet crime report that more than 23,000 people lost more than $600 million in confidence fraud, including romance scams, last year. This is up from $475 million in 2019.

These numbers don’t surprise Kathy Stokes, director of AARP Fraud Prevention Programs. She also runs AARP’s Fraud Watch Network. Many people are still isolated because of the pandemic. They are lonely and, in the case of a widow or widower, grieving. This makes them more vulnerable and susceptible to being generous.

“The pandemic may have driven more people online, whether it was to a dating app or a dating website, or to just engage more in social media or online games,” Stokes said.

The problem is the scam can go on for months or years, draining people’s life savings.

“And we’re not talking just about $1,000 or $10,000,” Stokes said. “We had victims call the helpline who have lost half a million dollars. Once they realize that it has been a scam, they are devastated financially and emotionally. And we hear from families where these poor victims end up dying by suicide.”

We need to recognize this isn’t about people being simply gullible. These scammers are super-sophisticated and organized.

“It’s not the guy in his mom’s basement making a call one at a time, trying to find somebody to get over on,” Stokes said. “It’s criminal enterprises, often transnational.”

An Oklahoma man was sentenced last month to four years in prison for managing a group of money launderers in an online Nigerian romance scam that stole at least $2.5 million from many victims, including elderly individuals across the United States, according to the Justice Department.

In Texas, 11 suspects have been charged with targeting widowed and divorced seniors on dating sites such as Match.com, Christian Mingle, JSwipe, and PlentyofFish.

The criminals concoct sob stories of needing funds to pay taxes, cover travel costs or pay down debt. In the Texas case, the suspects siphoned tens of thousands of dollars at a time from victims’ accounts, the Justice Department said.

There’s a lot of outreach to get the message out about scams, especially romance scams. Many victims are often too embarrassed to come forward and admit they were hoodwinked. The FTC’s Pass it On campaign provides fraud prevention materials and resources. Share the information with anyone you know who could be a target. AARP has resources at aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork.

If you know a friend or relative is talking to someone online, pry. Daffan suggests doing a reverse image search, because often the scammers will copy someone’s photo as part of a dating profile or pretend to be a real person with a presence online.

Scams fall into the category of “see something, say something.” This is a warning for those of you who love someone who is looking for love. Do what you can to help them avoid losing their heart along with their money.