Protect yourself from romance scams

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COLUMBIA - More online daters than ever before fall victim to romance scammers. 

A new report from the Better Business Bureau said so-called "money mules" trick people into sending them money by pretending to be in love.

Steve Baker, international investigations specialist for the BBB, said there is no target demographic for victims, but most of the people who report the scams are women in their forties. 

"It doesn't matter if you're young or old or rich or poor or straight or gay, they're after your money," he said. 

The report found most of the people running the scams are West African, most commonly from Nigeria. They often pose as U.S. soldiers or businessmen who are away on oil rigs and cannot meet in person. 

Baker said one red flag for scammers using a fake identity is if an individual tries to convince their online significant others to get off dating websites or apps. He said reverse Google image searches are a great tool for verifying if someone is catfishing, or pretending to be someone he or she is not. 

Not only are people sending money to these scammers, they are tricked into laundering drugs overseas. 

One Austrian grandmother was arrested in a Malaysian airport in 2014 for crystal methamphetamine possession, according to CNN.

Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto said she was traveling to file paperwork in Shanghai for the man she met online. She said she was given a backpack filed with old clothing belonging to her boyfriend. However, authorities found a kilogram and a half of crystal meth in the backpack, according to CNN.

Exposto said she didn't know about the drugs. She currently faces the death penalty in Malaysia.

The BBB encourages victims to report the fraud to BBB.org/scamtracker. Baker said people shouldn't be embarrassed to admit they were scammed. Law enforcement is prioritizing these types of investigations. 

"This is all of us, this is all of our friends, this is all our relatives, this is on our block," Baker said. 

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