Americans lost $201 million to romance scammers in 2019, and a new study warns catfishing is skyrocketing during coronavirus as online dating and loneliness increase.

The FTC reported romance scams increased by 40% last year, up from $143 million in 2018. For the first time, more Americans lost money to romance scams than any other scam. today release a study: Catfishing: A Growing Epidemic During COVID-19 using the most recent data from the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Nigerian romance scams are the most prevalent and the study includes an exclusive seven-minute video interview with a Nigerian scammer, a 20-page leaked playbook they use and a video interview with a West Virginia victim who is now homeless.

Here are key findings:

• The five states with the most catfishing victims include: California (2,206 victims), Florida (1,363), Texas (1,287) New York (931), Pennsylvania (607).

• A record 26.6 million people are using data apps in 2020, an 18.4% increase from 2019

• 31% of users said they are spending more time on dating apps.

• The Better Business Bureau is seeing up to a 40% increase from certain banks whose customers are trying to recover money they lost to romance scammers in 2020.

Here are 5 Tricks Romance Scammers Are Using During Coronavirus:

1. Cannot Meet Because of COVID: The hallmark of a catfish scammer is to come up with excuses why they cannot meet, such as pretending to be in the military overseas. The pandemic gives them a built-in excuse not to meet. Beware.

2.  Need Money for a COVID Emergency: Once they form an emotional connection with lonely victims, they ask for money saying they are sick and need help with treatment, or are low on food, water, and other supplies. These are lies, as people who have never met do not ask you for money for an emergency, they would rely on family and friends.

3. They Are Overly Sweet and Confessing Love Quickly: If you are stuck in your house with limited contact with your loved ones, then someone else’s sweet words can win you over, especially when they are confessing their undying love for you. Beware of someone who says overly sweet things that are too good to be true.

4. Moving too Fast: Scammers are using the extra time at home to chat more often so they can build trust and drain your bank account faster. Beware if your relationship begins to move too fast.

5. Do Not Want to Video Chat: The oldest excuse in the book… they cannot video chat with you because their video camera is supposedly “broken”, or they do not have the best access to Wi-Fi. These are red flags. The real reason they do not want to video chat with you is that they are pretending to be the person you see in the pictures and are not actually that person.

Here are 5 Ways to Avoid Becoming a Victim:  

1. Never Give Money: Do not give anyone you meet online money, no matter the reason.

2. Do not Give Personal Information:  Scammers can use basic information to commit identity fraud, get access to your banks and steal your money.

3. Take Things Slow: If you like someone online, do not let them rush you. Nigerian romance scammers will be pushy about falling in love right away. If that is the case, know something is not right.

4. Meet or Video Chat: Do not form a relationship with someone who will not video chat with you or meet you in person.

5. Compare Against the Published Nigerian Scam Playbook: Compare what they are saying to the playbook to see if it matches at all. If what the person sent you matches word-for-word to the text in the playbook or is similar to it, then that is a major red flag. This means they are probably copying and pasting everything they are telling you from a scammer’s playbook and will try to steal your money later.