KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Con artists have profiles on most dating and social media sites and they’re reaping a profit, according to a new Internet Crime Report released this week by the FBI.

If he seems too good to be true, the FBI wants you to be aware that he could be a scam. They would know. Data from the past three years show a dramatic increase in the number of complaints from victims of romance scams in the United States.

Around 25,000 people reported losses to romance scams totaling $956 million in 2021 alone, according to the new data. That’s an average of about $38,000 per person. The amount carried away by thieves has almost doubled since 2019, data shows.

One of those unnamed victims came forward in March and spoke with WATE 6 Reporter Don Dare. A woman identified only as Vivian said she lost more than $83,000.

“He’s a handsome man, Yea, I always called him my sexy man,” said Vivian, who chose not to reveal her last name. Read her story.

Tennessee ranks 18th on the list of states for the number of victims, and 22nd when ranked by dollar amount lost.

Romance scams succeed because criminals adopt a fake online identity to manipulate a victim through the illusion of a romantic relationship. During the pandemic, people have been spending more time at home or away from friends and family.

“The criminals who carry out Romance scams are experts at what they do and will seem genuine, caring, and believable,” the FBI explains in the report. “Scammers may propose marriage and make plans to meet in person, but that will never happen.”

Romance scam victims by age group

  • Under 20 years old: 2%
  • 20-29 years old: 10%
  • 30-39 years old: 15%
  • 40-49 years old: 15%
  • 50-59 years old: 16%
  • 60 years and older: 32%

The most common romance scams involve sextortion and investments, the report states.

What is sextortion?

Most victims told FBI investigators that they met the criminal through a dating website or app and then moved to messaging on a different platform. After gaining the confidence of the victim over time, a request is made to take things to the next level.

“The fraudster instigates the exchange of sexually explicit material and then encourages the victim to participate via video chat or send their own explicit photos,” the FBI warns.

Once the victim complies, the criminal blackmails the victim by demanding money to prevent the release public release of the photos or videos.

How to avoid being blackmailed? The FBI says just don’t send images of yourself to anyone, no matter who they say they are.

Also, don’t open attachments in emails from people you don’t know because they can contain malware that hacks your electronics and gains access to private photos, videos and data stored there. There is malware that will take control of your web camera and microphone without your knowledge, as well.

Top 10 States by number of victims

  • New Jersey
  • Washington
  • Pennsylvania
  • Ohio
  • Nevada
  • Illinois
  • New York
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • California

What is ‘pig butchering‘?

The FBI found that victims of romance scams feel pressured into investment opportunities — most often involving cryptocurrency.

“The scammer gains the confidence and trust of the victim, and then claims to have knowledge of cryptocurrency investment or trading opportunities that will result in substantial profits,” the FBI warns in the annual report.

One scam, referred to as “pig slaughtering” or “pig butchering,” happens when a thief convinces a victim to “fatten” a bank account by depositing more money into it. The scammer then steals that money from the account and disappears.

The decentralized nature of cryptocurrency makes it a prime target — and harder to recover.

To protect yourself, the FBI says to avoid sending payments to someone you have only spoken to online even if you believe you have a relationship with that person.

Don’t follow instructions from someone you have never met, especially if it involves scanning a QR code or sending a payment using a physical cryptocurrency ATM.

If you are a victim of a romance scam or believe you have been victimized by online fraud, file a complaint with the FBI’s internet crime complaint center at https://www.ic3.gov/ and call your local FBI field office.