In mid December the Department of Justice announced that seven men—six from Nigeria and one from South Africa—pled guilty to conning tens of millions of dollars from Americans via online dating sites. While the case was remarkable for its magnitude, when it comes to so-called “romance scams,” it still represents just the tip of the iceberg.

According to the FBI, romance scams and similar confidence scams cost consumers more money than any other kind of Internet fraud. In 2015, the last year for which data is available, consumers lost more than $200 million this way. (It is estimated that only 15 percent of fraud victims report their losses to law enforcement, so the real numbers are probably higher.)

As one result, fear of a horrible first date is just one of the things a would-be online dater has to worry about. According to the Consumer Reports 2016 Online Dating Survey of more than 114,000 subscribers, among the respondents who were considering online dating but were hesitant, 46 percent said they were concerned about being scammed. 

Their worry is not overstated. Romance scams really can happen to anyone.

“Most people think the victims are middle-aged women who can't get a date, but I have worked with men and women of all ages—doctors and lawyers, CEOs of companies, people from the entertainment industry—who you’d never think in a million years would fall for these scams but do,” says Barb Sluppick, who runs romancescams.org, a watchdog site and online support group.

“Typically the scammer builds trust by writing long letters over weeks or months and crafting a whole persona for their victims,” says Unit Chief David Farquhar from the Financial Crimes Section of the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) who specializes in cyber-related crimes. “That big investment gives victims a false sense that the relationship must be real.”

Eventually a pitch for money comes. Often the scammer will say an emergency situation has arisen and money is needed fast to avoid dire consequences. This makes it hard for the victim to do due diligence. The scammer might say that an immediate family member has a medical emergency and needs money for treatment, or that he has been wrongly arrested and needs help with bail money and legal support. “There was one woman who got scammed for over a million dollars, her whole retirement nest egg,” says Farquhar. 

It Pays to Be Paranoid

The CR survey found that 35 percent of respondents who’ve tried online dating felt they had been grossly misled by someone’s online profile, and 12 percent said they’d been scammed. Experts say online daters are always wise to be skeptical regarding what someone they've met online, and not in the flesh, tells them.

Most dating websites—even ones that cost money—don't vet the people who sign up. So it's up to you to determine how truthful a person is being in their profile.   

To recognize and avoid romance scams, follow these tips.

Run a search: Copy the images your online correspondent has posted to his or her profile, then run them through a reverse-image search engine, such as Tin Eye or Google Images. If they come up associated to a person with another name or who lives in a different city, you have good reason to suspect they were stolen from someone else’s profile. And if you’ve been communicating with someone by email, check their address at a site such as romancescams.org, which compiles lists of email addresses belonging to known scammers. The website Scamalytics maintains a blacklist of scammers who use false pictures.

Interrogate the backstory: A little online stalking can go a long way. Type the name of the person you met online into Google or Bing and see what comes up. You might not be able to surface information like criminal records, but from their social media profiles, LinkedIn page, and other information you find, you should be able to get a sense of whether what they are telling you comports with the facts. Sometimes, it may be wise to dig deeper. For example, if a person you met online claims to run a business abroad, call the US Embassy to confirm that that business exists.

If you are asked to send money and feel so inclined, run the whole scenario by someone you trust. Choose a friend or someone from your church or community who is less emotionally invested than you are. Be open to their perspective. And remember: If the request for funds is indeed a scam, it may be difficult if not impossible to ever recover the money.