ORLANDO, Fla. — If you’re looking for love this holiday season, be careful if that search takes you online.

What You Need To Know

  • FBI: Nearly the same number of internet complaints in 1st 5 months of 2020 than in all of 2019

  • Romance scams increasing sharply, believed linked to the pandemic

  • Florida, Texas tied as number 2 in the U.S. for victims

  • READ: 2019 FBI Internet Crime Report (.PDF)

The FBI is seeing a sharp increase in all cybercrimes, but especially romance scams. The agency believes this trend is linked to the pandemic.

“The fraudsters know that people are not able to do the kind of vetting or checking they would typically do," said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Keith Givens. "For example, if someone wanted to rent an apartment, a COVID fraudster might say 'We’d love to have you come look at the apartment, but we can’t have you go look at it because we have a COVID circumstance.'” 

From buying a home, to shopping, to learning, to dating — it’s now all online. Add to that rising pandemic related financial troubles like evictions and unemployment, and many scams may not seem so farfetched.

 “People don’t have the ability to meet in person. It’s not as easy to check someone out because the COVID circumstance has people limited in what they can do," Givens said. "So they may get into a circumstance where they drop their guard based on an identity that’s essentially been created online."

We connected with Rebecca D'Antonio through website, SocialCatfish.com.

Rebecca D’Antonio shared her story of being scammed, and while this didn’t happen during the pandemic, she did want to share it now to prevent anyone else from the pain she went through.

D’Antonio signed up for OkCupid thinking it could result in romance.

“I kind of went in with an open heart, open mind,” shared D’Antonio. “I was pretty detailed in my profile.”

One detail D’Antonio shared was that she was not able to have children herself, but loved children. She says she didn’t want to waste time, which is why she shared so much detailed information.

Then “Matthew” reached out. D’Antonio says they hit it off right away, and had a lot of common interests. “Matthew” also had a 5-year-old son. Long story short, after months of connection, “Matthew” and his son went on an international trip. “Matthew” then called D’Antonio and shared his credit card wouldn’t work abroad. It’s a situation D’Antonio says had previously happened to her. After asking if someone else could help out financially, D’Antonio gave “Matthew” money. She says she didn’t want his 5-year-old son to be stranded.

This is a problem that’s happening even more because of the pandemic.

For the first five months of 2020, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received nearly the same number of complaints as all of 2019.

According to the FBI, in 2019 Florida residents lost close to $294 million to scammers. Those numbers are projected to grow even higher this year.

“Naturally you’re going to start looking around the web for people to talk with and that’s when you fall prey,” said Craig Agranoff.

What advice does Agranoff have for anyone in the digital dating world?

“You should treat your online world like you would your offline world," he said. "If you wouldn’t give somebody your home address before you know who they are, don’t do it online."

For D'Antonio, it took her several years and filing for bankruptcy for her to rebuild her life. As for trust? She says it’s something that people now have to earn.

Another thing to watch out for is deep fakes, where someone poses as someone else, or creates a fake persona all together.

You can also watch our previous Watchdog investigation where we looked into “Deep Fakes” — video or audio clips created to make it look like people are saying or doing things that aren’t real.

Bottom line: the experts say if your gut is telling you something is off, it most likely is.

VIDEO: Web Expert Craig Agranoff Lists Red Flags to Watch For When Online Dating