COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCBD)- As Valentine’s Day nears, love is in the air— and so are romance scams.

Each year, millions of Americans turn to social networking sites and online dating apps in hopes of meeting someone. But instead of finding their true love, some may find fraudsters ready to take advantage of them.

That is why state officials are urging South Carolinians to protect themselves and their wallets against romance scams, especially this time of year.

Romance scams can occur when criminal actors deceive victims into believing they are in a trusting relationship and then use that relationship to persuade victims to send money, provide personal information, or purchase gifts for them.

According to data from the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, South Carolinians lost $6.8 million to confidence fraud and romance scams in 2021. Nationwide, victims reported losses of nearly $1 billion that same year.

“Many romance schemes are perpetrated by criminals who use staged photos and social engineering to tell victims what they want to hear,” South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said. “Often, when we hear what we want to hear from someone that seems to care about us, we trust that person, and we don’t look behind the story, but we have to be more vigilant when we meet people online because it is very difficult or impossible to figure out what is going on behind the scenes.”

While individuals over 60 years of age most often become victims of romance scams, fraudsters target people of all demographics and Attorney General Wilson said the best way to prevent falling victim to such a scheme is to ignore unsolicited texts, emails, or social media messages.

“By merely responding to an unknown sender of a message, you place yourself at risk,” the attorney general said. “When organized crime is running a scheme and using social engineering to overcome objections and has different people all working to present to you a perfect image of exactly what you want, merely responding to their initial outreach places you at risk of later becoming a victim.”

Common warning signs to watch out for, according to the FBI, include unfulfilled promises to meet in person, using sob stories to explain why money is needed, and asking for money in the form of gift cards or cryptocurrency.

In order to protect yourself from a romance scam, consider these tips:

  • Be careful what you post and make public online.
  • If you suspect a scam, stop communicating with the person immediately.
  • Conduct a reverse image search of the person’s photo(s). If it is associated with another name or profile, it is likely a scam.
  • Take things slow and ask a lot of questions.
  • Never send money to someone you have only communicated with online or by phone.