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Change your Facebook status to widow, and watch the predators pour in

Online dating has become a fertile ground for cons who use romances to scam the vulnerable.

The profile created on one of the online dating websites.
The profile created on one of the online dating websites.Read moreBARBARA BOYER / Staff

When it comes to online dating, it's raining men.

Years ago, the paramour I met online worked for Doctors Without Borders. He became a widower after his wife died giving birth to their third child. The deaths of our spouses had given us a bond.

Danny chose to call me Angel rather than Barbara, and among the 24 e-mails we exchanged during our days-long romance, he told me I was beautiful.

"You may be the best woman in my life," he wrote, requesting photos, which he told me he printed for his nightstand.

You might be surprised that despite our bond, we never met, or even talked.

The doctor, of course, was not real.

He was a patchwork of identities he weaved into a tragic yarn that took only a few tugs from me before falling apart. No obituary for his wife, no medical license, and in the most obvious of signs, he had no working telephone number, poor command of English, and he repeatedly tried to call me from a number with no caller ID. I suspect he was calling from jail or rehab.

Before "I'm Not A Real Doctor" entered my life, I had reason to be optimistic about online dating. In 2000, cyber-courting was fun. It's how I met my husband, Jeff, who was on my B List. Our first date was, by far, the most memorable.

But by 2013, two years after Jeff died of cancer, the internet had changed.

Before, mostly techie guys responded. This time around, mostly predators did. I do get that a widow with young children is more complicated than my contemporaries with grown children. Still, it was a shock to learn that as a widow, I was most desirable to con men.

Statistics show a disturbing picture. The FBI reports that romance fraud has been on the rise for the last seven years and is now among the top-three internet crimes.

In 2016, the most recent year for which the FBI has data, there were more than 14,500 victims nationwide who lost more than $220 million given to online cons. (The same year, New Jersey had 261 victims and losses of $5.3 million; Pennsylvania reported 412 victims and $7.7 million in losses.) By comparison, in 2011, the agency recorded 5,563 victims and more than $50 million in losses. Victims can be men, but usually they are women 50 or older who are widowed, divorced, or otherwise vulnerable, the FBI reports. Those behind the scams, the FBI warns, "will manipulate that victim and endear themselves and gain their trust."

I hunted online only a few months. My dates had to be babysitter-worthy, and few were. So I ended up having one date (and that's because my sister watched the kids) — coffee with a nice professional about my age who had been divorced. But he was geographically undesirable and he had six kids. (Six!)

Although I took down my dating profile, trolls would still find me. When I changed my Facebook status to widow, men from all over began messaging.

"You beautiful," wrote one.

More recently, this is happening on Twitter, and, despite its professional atmosphere, grammatically challenged inquiries come to LinkedIn.

"Let's get to know each others," one wrote  in a LinkedIn message.

Eventually, many of the con men were easy to spot: Their profiles are new, they have few friends, or their only friends are women who are divorced or widowed. They list very little personal information, and likely live across the country or abroad. They often describe themselves as "good men" who like God "a lot," and they say they are honest. (Cough, cough.) They use endearing names so they don't mistake one victim for another.

To investigate further, I recently created Fake Barbara on two dating websites, Match and PlentyOfFish. I used mostly correct information, including my picture, and within 20 minutes, I could not keep up with the messages. Most fit the FBI's profile of impostors, immediately asking for an email address and phone number. Translation: They need an alternative way to stay in touch because as soon as the dating site identifies them as frauds, their profiles are removed. And every lover boy pretty much uses the same pickup lines. They say I'm gorgeous, they love me … yada, yada, yada.

A "widower" from "Atlantic City," who was working in "Turkey," wrote that his wife died of "cancer." He was a dedicated "family" man, but he had no children or siblings.

"Bedroom aerobics are great, and I consider that an important part of a relationship," he wrote.

I responded with banter about the forthcoming holidays.

Him: "aww, lovely. i would probably be on the table with you this xmas"

Me: "What?

Him: "i am talking about your family xmas dinner. am i not invited? this year? lol"

Me: "It's the table thing that caught me off guard. I think that would upset the others."

Him: "really? why?"

Me: "They like a good ham on the table. Are you volunteering?"

Him: "yes"

During an interview, FBI Special Agent Ned Conway told me romance fraud is hard to track.

"These are well-run criminal enterprises," Conway says. Victims may unknowingly communicate with several people posing as one, and the organization may be operating from a different country. "They're waiting to pounce. It's a business, and a widespread problem."

Conway recalled a divorcée who lost everything during an 18-month correspondence in which she passed along her savings, liquidated her retirement fund, and sold her house for a guy who vowed his love. He had  been a con from the get-go. "I've seen horror stories. I've seen people lose millions."

At times, the impostors turn mean as a way to manipulate their targets.

"Hardhead" sent Fake Barbara: "Are you interested in men with bald heads?"

"You look like you have a very nice bald head. But are you living in Michigan? I am in New Jersey," I replied. "That's a long commute for a date."

He was divorced, had family in New York, and was working abroad, he wrote in his frequent text messages.

"Hello dear … I'm in the hotel room i stay right here in Germany. I will be coming home in two days time. Would you want me to come visit you from Germany?" I declined. He was persistent. "Why can't i meet you for a date?" He sent me several pictures, including a shirtless one. He wanted some from me. "Why sent just one picture … what about your children? I wanna see more pictures of you."

When I did not respond, he got angry and insisted I take a picture with a sign that included the date and the declaration — ironically — "I am real."

Only then did he apologize, explaining he "was afraid because you are too beautiful."