Over the past 14 months, many New Jersey residents have been stuck alone at home like never before. Not coincidentally, this has led to a significant uptick in romance scams where people, usually online, feign romantic intentions toward a victim, then wind up taking money from them after they gain their trust.

According to George Crouch, special agent in charge of the FBI field office in Newark, there was a significant increase in romance scams, also referred to as “catfishing,” in 2020 compared to the previous year.

He said in 2019 there were 363 catfish complaints were filed in the Garden State, with victims losing almost $7.8 million. In 2020, the complaints went up to 485 with a total loss of more than $11.5 million.

“When people are isolated, they’re feeling cut off from folks, and they get onto the internet and the bad guys are unfortunately there to try and take advantage of that," he said.

Red flags of internet dating

Crouch said to avoid getting scammed, if you do start an online relationship take it slow and “research that person’s photo and profile using other online searches. See if that image or name or if those details have been used elsewhere.”

He said it’s important to ask lots of questions and trust your gut instinct about someone, especially if you’ve never actually met them.

“Be aware if they try to isolate you from friends and family,’ said Crouch. "If they request those inappropriate photos or any financial information, don’t send those.”

He stressed you should never send money to someone you have only interacted with online, or on the phone.

Crouch said if you have started an internet relationship and you’re interested in taking it to the next level “and the individual continually makes excuses for not being able to meet or cancels at the last minute, those sorts of things, you can be very suspicious.”

Information you should not share online

He noted it’s important to be careful about what kind of information you post on the web.

“The bad guys are going to use those details that are out there on social media and dating sites to really understand you and target you,” he said.

He added if you wind up in a virtual relationship with someone and you think you’ve been scammed, “stop right there and then make sure you report that incident immediately to your financial institution and then file a complaint with the internet crime complaint center.”

According to SocialCatfish.com, New Jersey was the 14th most catfished state in America last year. The most targeted state was California, and the least targeted state was Wyoming.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com

These NJ towns have the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases

Looking at data compiled by the Department of Health in 2019, the most recent year for which reports are available, we determined the rate of STDs for 1,000 people in every municipality. The data combines reports of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. For a different look, you can check out this article for a list of New Jersey towns that saw the highest increase in STD/STI cases in recent years.