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Victims—predominantly older widowed or divorced women targeted by criminal groups usually from Nigeria—are, for the most part, computer literate and educated. And con artists know exactly how to exploit that vulnerability because potential victims freely post details about their lives and personalities on dating and social media sites.Trolling for victims online “is like throwing a fishing line,” said Special Agent Christine Beining, a veteran financial fraud investigator in the FBI’s Houston Division who has seen a substantial increase in the number of romance scam cases.

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“He was saying all the right things,” she remembered. It’s called a romance scam, and this devastating Internet crime is on the rise.

The woman, in her 50s and struggling in her marriage, was happy to find someone to chat with. He was very positive, and I felt like there was a real connection there.”That connection would end up costing the woman $2 million and an untold amount of heartache after the man she fell in love with—whom she never met in person—took her for every cent she had.

There have been a rash of complaints against online dating sites, according to the Better Business Bureau.

And there is a class action lawsuit pending in the U. District Court that claims more than 60 percent of the profiles on are fraudulent -- something spokesman Matthew Traub calls an "unfounded allegation in a money-seeking litigation." Then there is another, perhaps darker, side to the consumer complaints: People reporting that they were bilked out of money by those they connected with through an online dating site.

People aged 50 and older represent 25 percent of membership on the popular dating site -- a 45 percent jump in the last five years, a spokesman said.

But not everyone who hopes to find a mate online is falling blissfully in love.

She even holds out hope that one day Charlie will repay her, as he promised to do so many times. There can’t be a man in this world that could be this horrible to have purposefully done what he’s done to me.” The criminals who carry out romance scams are experts at what they do.

Otherwise, there is no doubt that he is a heartless criminal who robbed her and broke her heart—and who is almost certainly continuing to victimize other women in the same way.“I can’t even imagine a man, a person, that could be this bad,” she said. They spend hours honing their skills and sometimes keep journals on their victims to better understand how to manipulate and exploit them.“Behind the veil of romance, it’s a criminal enterprise like any other,” said Special Agent Christine Beining.

The Better Business Bureau listed online dating sites among its top 10 scams for 2011, and one consumer advocacy group says its members have lost millions from online dating scams.

Is it a case of looking for love in all of the wrong places, or just a few bad apples in an otherwise happy bushel?

It’s identifying who they actually are that’s the hard part.

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