The author says that a long period of COVID restrictions, coupled with dreary winter months, direct many singles and those who feel isolated to seek out companionship on social media, as well as one or more dating websites.

Valentine’s Day has special meaning for many of us, but it can be a dangerous time for those seeking to start a new, romantic relationship.

A long period of COVID restrictions, coupled with dreary winter months, direct many singles and those who feel isolated to seek out companionship on social media, including Facebook, as well as one or more dating websites.

The number of online relationship scams balloons at this time of year. For example, the FBI reports 23,766 complaints filed in 2020, an increase of nearly 5,000 from 2019. The reported losses came to approximately $505 million, up from $475 million the previous year.

To put this in perspective, the median loss was $2,500, more than 10 times greater than all other frauds. But, that is the tip of the iceberg; it does not include “romance scams” reported to other agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, local law enforcement, or the states attorneys general across the country.

(The FTC reports an additional $304 million in losses).

With the increase in “eyeball traffic” and registrations at dating websites, criminals see opportunity.

The scam set up is simple: troll social media, including platforms such as Facebook, Front Porch Forum and Nextdoor, and dating websites looking for postings by those seeking companionship. Next, create “attractive” profiles with appropriate biographical information and photographs.

For example, a criminal targeting millennials would create an appropriate set of details for a fictitious 40-year-old professional who is single and recently furloughed from a job.

Once contact is made, the scammer will build a relationship and encourage the potential victim to take the relationship private as an exchange of personal emails or text messages. Often, the criminal promotes a profile placing him or her in a distant location; another state or country, making personal contact difficult.

This type of crime requires patience on the part of the scammer and might take six months or more before the “trap” is sprung with a message like this: “I really love you and want to meet you, but my job loss leaves me without the money I need to travel,” or “I really love you and want to meet you but my car broke down and I can’t afford the $5,000 repair bill.”

Regardless of the “need” that is expressed, the message is the same; I need money now! Please send it by wire transfer or gift cards. Once money is sent, the relationship might suddenly end or continue with pleas for more money.

Protecting yourself from this type of scam is actually quite easy, but the first step is the most difficult, particularly if emotion becomes a driving force.

Maintaining rational thought and reason means that you need to take cautious steps. Think twice if the person tries to rush the relationship or move it to private exchanges. Research the person’s profile and pictures online. Often, a simple web search of the name can reveal a wealth of information.

Be suspicious of anyone who refuses to meet in person or will not show his or her face, and don’t click on links sent by text or email. They might download malware.

Finally, report the scam to your state attorney general’s consumer action line:

• Massachusetts: mass.gov/ago/consumer-resources; 617-727-8400;

• New York: dos.ny.gov/consumerprotection; 800-697-1220;

• Vermont: ago.vermont.gov/cap/consumer-complaint; 800-649-2424;

• Or to the FBI (ic3.gov) or the FTC (ftc.gov). Your report could result in the arrest of an on-line predator.

Questions, comments, concerns? Contact me at egreenblott@aarp.com.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and coordinator of the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network. He hosts a CATV program, “Mr. Scammer,” distributed by GNAT-TV in Sunderland, Vt.: gnat-tv.org.