LOVELOCK - A lot of good things can happen online. We can keep in touch with our friends and family, make new friends, go to work, find a new job, go to school, shop, and make several of our errands much simpler.

But as with any other environment, dishonest individuals have learned to use the Internet to prey on others. Romance scams for financial gain are one type of scam that can devastate a person emotionally and financially.

Romance scams are one of the most common types of Internet-based financial scams. Mary Weston, co-founder and moderator of the online romance scam victim support group Scams of the Heart, described some of the financial devastation she has seen.

"The most I've seen someone lose in an online romance scam was over $500,000; all of the retirement savings she and her recently deceased husband had saved all their lives," Weston said. "I've seen women with children lose their homes and not know where to turn for food and necessities. I also know of a few older women who ended up living with their children because they'd given away their social security and nest eggs."

Weston further described the personal devastation that goes along with the financial losses from this type of money scam.

"After being a peer counselor for the past few years, I've come to believe that money isn't the greatest loss," she said. "We grieve for the loss of our hopes and dreams. Money can be earned again, but our hearts, our dreams; those are hard to rebuild."

These scammers are after their victims' bank accounts, but they get to them through manipulating their emotions. An online romance scam occurs any time a person or group of people crafts a character and enters any online environment with the intent of psychologically manipulating people into first believing that character is real and then into falling in love with that created persona.

In a financially motivated romance scam, the real goal is to trick the target into giving them money.

The scams typically begin on dating sites, but scammers have been discovered on Facebook, non-dating social sites such as health support groups, and other online communities. Many scammers are willing to amend a "romance" scam to a "friendship" scam when they encounter someone who is not seeking any type of romantic relationship.

Any mention of Nigeria, Ghana, or another country in west Africa is almost a sure sign of a romance scam. Most romance scams are run by criminal gangs in these countries, Malaysia, or Russia, according to various sources. These scammers will also speak strangely. They will claim English is their first language, but their typed dialogue will either appear to be in large chunks that have been copied and pasted from web pages, or they will speak in broken or incorrect English. These two red flags will not be present if the scammer is American, but all of the other red flags apply to all romance scams.

An early declaration of deep feelings is another strong warning sign. The scammer claims to have fallen in love with or become close friends with the target despite never having met the person offline and only knowing them online for a few months or less. Anyone who claims to have fallen in love with you or become your best friend after knowing you only on the Internet and phone is running a scam.

Romance scammers will also ask for or hint for money or gifts. In many cases, they wait until they have the target brainwashed into believing the romance or close friendship is real and ask for cash, laptops, cell phones, or other expensive items outright. The scammer typically claims they need the money or items to deal with a crisis that is preventing them from traveling to meet the target. In other situations, the scammer will drop hints, tell tales of work, travel, or family emergencies, or other catastrophes and wait for an offer of help.

Other red flags are more subtle. Romance financial scammers normally scam several people at once. This can make it difficult for them to keep their invented people and situations straight. This type of scammer may tell conflicting stories about their past, describe their physical appearance as very different than what is shown in photos they send or post, or suddenly change strong opinions.

It is also important to watch out for someone who seems too well suited to you or who reminds you too much of yourself or someone you have mentioned online a lot. This is a sign that a scammer has been reading your web pages, emails, or chat room dialogue and tailoring their character to trap you.

Weston urged anyone who sees these red flags to cease all contact with the other person immediately. You will not hurt anyone's feelings, as these people do not have any feelings for their targets. They only want as many people as possible to send them money.

"Listen to that inner voice deep down inside of yourself," Weston said. "If your instinct is telling you something is wrong, chances are great that you're right. Listen to your instincts, and just disappear without a word."

She further cautioned against attempting to reform or scare a scammer.

"Just delete the individual from your email and messenger. Confronting a scammer is never a good idea. They will either sweet talk you until you don't know which way is up, or make your life miserable by accusing you of not trusting or believing them, or both."

Weston stressed that having any further contact with someone you have come to realize is a financial romance scammer can devastate both your finances and your mental health.

"If you were confused before, you won't even recognize the person you'll become. You will start twisting yourself into a pretzel to keep this mysterious online friend who seems to be everything you've ever wanted. Save yourself the heartbreak and misery. Just walk away."

For more information on romance scams for financial gain, or to learn about other types of online romance scams, visit www.scamsoftheheart.com