As the Netflix megahit documentary “Tinder Swindler” continues to draw millions of viewers around the world, new federal data shows online romance scams are growing at a record clip and led to bilking would-be lovers out of more than $500 million just last year.

The Federal Trade Commission report released Thursday notes online dating apps and platforms “can be a great way to find lasting love” but are also a prime hunting ground for grifters.

In the past five years, people have reported losing a staggering $1.3 billion to romance scams, more than any other FTC fraud category. And, the numbers have skyrocketed in recent years. In 2021 alone, losses hit a record $547 million, six times more than the reported losses in 2017 and a nearly 80% increase compared to 2020 according to FTC data. The median individual reported loss in 2021 was $2,400.

But how are they getting away with it?

The FTC says romance scammers are masters of disguise who create fake online profiles with attractive photos swiped from the web and sometimes even assume the identities of real people. They may also study information their targets have posted online and then pretend to have common interests.

One tell-tale of a possible fraudster is the details they share about themselves will always include built-in reasons for not being able to meet in person, the FTC reported, which may include a handy excuse like saying they are in overseas military service or working on an offshore oil rig.

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While most victims of romance swindles report having first been contacted via a dating app platform, the FTC says you don’t have to be looking for love to be courted by a scammer. Reports of unexpected private messages on social media platforms are common and, according to FTC data, more than a third of people who said they lost money to an online romance scam in 2021 said it began on Facebook or Instagram.

The FTC report noted the fastest-growing group of victims of romance fraud falls in the 18 to 29 age group, which expanded tenfold from 2017 to 2021, but older daters are suffering the biggest financial losses. Victims’ median losses increased with age with people 70 and older reporting the highest individual median losses at $9,000, compared to $750 for the 18 to 29 age group, according to the FTC.

Ron Long, head of aging client services for U.S. banking giant Wells Fargo, said online activity, including using dating apps, is mostly a positive for aging users as it helps alleviate issues of loneliness, but that single factor also provides a powerful pivot for would-be scammers.

“Online dating is popular (among older users) and that’s a good thing,” Long said. “But, we do find that one of the key factors in elder financial abuse is loneliness and isolation.”

Long said a recent Wells Fargo report found most senior citizens are aware of and employing safe practices when it comes to engaging someone new online but that even just a minority of users failing to take precautions provides plenty of potential targets for scammers.

Data gathered in the report, Long said, found men are more apt to engage in making risky decisions about online meetings, including fewer men than women doing background checks on the people they meet on websites or apps. Also, a bigger portion of men, 36%, are willing to get picked up at their homes by a new acquaintance versus women, of whom only 14% said they would ever make such an arrangement.

“Being male does not offer any additional protection against these kinds of scams,” Long said. “There is no protection against the psychological and emotional vulnerability on which these scammers prey.”

And seeing potential vulnerability in those who turn to online dating apps when looking for love is not a point that seems to be lost on potential perpetrators of online romance scams. The Wells Fargo report found that 63% of online daters have been contacted by a scammer.

The alleged romance scammer in “Tinder Swindler” is 31-year-old Simon Leviev, from Bnei Brak, Israel (who has no connection to the billionaire Russian-Israeli diamond mogul, Lev Leviev.) His real name is actually Shimon Hayut, per Esquire.

Hayut told three women in the film that he was a billionaire founder of jewel supplier LLD Diamonds.

He would first show off his lavish lifestyle, making his victims trust him by spending money on luxurious food, trips, activities and shopping sprees. Then, he would claim that he is in danger and his enemies are after him so he needs access to someone else’s credit card so he is untraceable, according to the film.

One woman estimated that she lent him $40,000, another said upward of $200,000. The film, according to USA Today, estimates that Hayut swindled $10 million from victims across the world.

Hayut has since taken to social media to proclaim his innocence.

Whether he is guilty of fraud or not, the tale shared by his alleged victims fits with what the FTC described as the most common method of romance fraud, where the perpetrator claims to need help after having some sort of financial or health crisis. The report found scammers’ stories frequently involve a sick child or a temporary inability to get to their money for a whole range of reasons.

And, the FTC said people who lost money to a romance scammer often report sending money repeatedly, believing they’re helping someone they care about.

So how can you spot scammers if you’re looking for love online? The FTC offers this commonsense advice to help avoid becoming a victim:

  • Nobody legit will ever ask you to help by sending cryptocurrency, giving the numbers on a gift card or by wiring money. Anyone who does is a scammer.
  • Never send or forward money for someone you haven’t met in person, and don’t act on their investment advice. 
  • Talk to friends or family about a new love interest and pay attention if they’re concerned.
  • Try a reverse-image search of profile pictures. If the details don’t match up, it’s a scam.