They think they're communicating with honest men who have ended up in a jam. but instead, thousands of women are being lured into online dating scams resulting in lost money, a lot of embarrassment and broken hearts.

It starts with pictures, like a soldier on duty, travel photos, even photos with family.

"Often time the fraudsters will look for photos of men in the military and they will play on the sympathies of the women they have for people in the Armed Forces," explained US Postal Inspector Adam Latham.

Fraudsters steal photos like these and then, pretending to be the people in the pictures, post them on internet dating sites where they troll for women.

"The typical victim that we've uncovered is middle aged, divorced woman in the U.S. They use stolen credit cards to send flowers, teddy bears, chocolates. They literally groom them over months at a time, they chat with them for hours a day," Latham explained.

After gaining their trust, they move to the next part of the scheme.

"At some point down the line they are told there is a financial emergency, their credit cards don't work overseas or there is some kind of business emergency and they are told to send money," said Latham.

Many victims send that money, only to learn they've been scammed. Postal inspectors say millions of dollars have been lost and people continue to lose in so-called "Sweetheart Schemes" across the U.S.

"The women were typically told to send several hundred dollars at a time. That is a convenient amount to send through Western Union or Money Gram," Latham added.

The money is one part, but the psychological damage is another.

"There is a lot of trust involved with them thinking they were in love with the man, they are embarrassed by the money they lost, they don't want family members to know, they don't want their employer to know," Latham explained.

Postal inspectors say women need to be very careful about online relationships.

"This case is really just another variation of a fraud scheme that I have investigated for over 10 years. Criminals are greedy. This is just another method for them to obtain money from vulnerable victims," said Latham.

Are you being lured into a "Sweetheart Scam?" Red flags to watch for from Fraud.org:

  • Requests to wire money or to cash a check or money order for them and send money back or to a third person.
  • The “relationship” may become romantic extremely quickly, which quick pronouncements of love or close friendship.
  • Claims that he or she is a U.S. citizen who is abroad, that they are wealthy, or a person of important status.
  • The person claims to be a contractor, and needs your help with a business deal.
  • The person makes excuses about not being able to speak by phone or meet in person.
  • The person quickly asks for an e-mail address or instant messaging username (to avoid communication via online dating sites’ messaging services)
  • The person makes frequent spelling or grammar mistakes.