With love in the air, authorities say beware

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ST. LOUIS - If the Beatles had it right and "all you need is love," then these days, some would tell you all you need to find love is the internet.

"My friends were doing the online dating thing and I thought, 'OK, I'll try that," said Hope Haynes.

Haynes was one of the millions of Americans with an online dating profile. Sadly, she's one of a more than a million people in the United States to become the victim of an online romance scam.

"Now that I look back and I totally see the red flags," Haynes said.

But many never do. A new study from the Better Business Bureau cites statistics from the Federal Trade Commission and the FBI's Internet Fraud Complaint Center, which shows the number of romance scam complaints have increased since 2015, as has the amount of money victims lost.

Authorities said anyone could be targeted by one of these scams.

"Different socioeconomic statuses, education levels, internet sophistication. There wasn't one thing that we could say, 'Oh, that's why they fell victim,'" said Nathan Stump, Assistant US Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois.

Stump helped prosecute Nigerian national Olayinka Sunmola. The 34-year-old led a ring of con-artists operating romance scams out of South Africa that involved nearly $2 million in cash and stolen electronics sent to him by dozens of victims in the greater St. Louis area and nationwide.

"Not only did he want the money, he took some perverse pleasure in tormenting his victims," Stump said.

According to Stump, in two cases, Sunmola illegally acquired naked pictures and video of his victims, which he used to extort them out of more money.

"This is a crime that brings about a lot of shame on the part of victims. Embarrassment. A lot of the victims told us they had not told this to anyone else in their family or friend circle at all," Stump said.

Thankfully for Hope Haynes, that wasn`t the case.

"I talked to my mom. She said, 'Sissy, I think that's a bad idea,'" she said.

Haynes said she was able to cancel a wire transfer and gift cards she sent her romance scammer. Good fortune, she hopes, will teach others the lesson she learned.

"It's OK that I'm embarrassed. I want to help other people and I don't want it to happen to them," Haynes said.

The simple advice is to never to wire or send money to a stranger, but obviously, matters of the heart can cloud judgment and complicate things. That's why you should always talk to family and friends about the people you meet online. And if you are a scam victim who hasn't contacted the authorities, they ask you to please consider doing so. It's the only way they can build evidence and catch these people.

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