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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Opportunists are pouncing on isolation and loneliness felt due to COVID, coupled with the holiday blues some experience.

“It’s prevalent, and it seems to be increasing,” says FBI Supervisory Special Agent Richard Baer.

Romance scams swindled people out of a record $304 million in 2020, which is up about 50% from 2019 according to the Federal Trade Commission. These bad actors hunt for victims online using the things they cherish most against them.

“They’re very good at it, and it’s very upsetting,” explains forensic accountant for the FBI Amanda Hall, “If they find you are really devout in your faith, they will want to pray with you, pray about the relationship, and that’s how they get you to trust them.”

It doesn’t take long for the topic of money to come up. “If they wait a month, that’s waiting a pretty long time,” says Hall.

It usually starts with a simple request. “I need you to send the money from my business to my business partner to pay my bill for me because I’m having bank problems,” Hall says.

It escalates quickly and with a sense of urgency.

“I’m having trouble with my business. You’ve seen how successful it was in the past. Can you please help me right now to fix it?” Hall explains as an example of what scammers claim.

As a forensic accountant, Hall is tasked with tracking the cash. She explains these unsuspecting partners are actually laundering money. The scammers use their victims to victimize other victims.

“And that’s why it’s so hard to track down, is because a lot of time the money will lead you to another victim instead of the perpetrator.”

The money bounces around 3-4 times in the U.S. before heading overseas. “Once money flows start moving overseas,” Baer says, “It is very difficult to exercise due process.”

It’s frustrating for Baer who says these victims are left heartbroken clutching an empty wallet. “We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars. It could be somebody’s entire life savings and we’ve seen that.”

Protect yourself. “Just see this person,” Baer urges, “Other than through a still photo.”

And, protect others. “If someone in your social group is lonely, please reach out to them because that’s how you stop it before it ever stops,” Hall says especially during the holidays.