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"How many people are out there thinking they found the love of their life and they have no clue what's happening? "The first thing most people say to me when they contact me is, 'I can't believe I was so stupid.' " Sweetheart scams appear to be on the rise, said Julie Ferguson, executive director of the Merchant Risk Council, which tracks scams for online retailers. "The stories are so-gut-wrenching sad." Some scammers seem to deliberately target groups set up for Christian singles, she said, where people may be less likely to be suspicious. Con artists will hunt for people's weaknesses, find out what they care about -- such as Grateful Dead music -- and then go in for the kill.

"When you are meeting someone else on a Christian site, you think you are safe." No dating site is immune from scams, said Jason Tarlowe, who operates Match Doctor.com, where Smalley met Richie. Sometimes, the online suitors don't even ask before sending money orders.

Then, Richie was ready to leave the country, but needed money to deal with a visa problem. I had to pay them ,700, which was everything I had," she said. "Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever known that this is all a part of an elaborate online scam. agencies have issued warnings on the scams, also known as "419" or "advance-fee" frauds.

He spent four months gaining my trust and he did it." So-called Nigerian scams, where victims are ultimately tricked into sending money to the African country using some irreversible method like a wire transfer, are common. But the seductive flavor of this type of the scam — known to some as "sweetheart scams" — and the incredible patience shown by the scammer reveal just how far con artists will go to trick their marks. of Washington state, who asked that his last name be withheld, says he sent ,200 to a similarly seductive scammer. Ryan was approached while hanging out in a chat room devoted to Grateful Dead fans.

"Loving, caring and hardworking," the online dating profile said.

In other cases, the con artists aren't after money -- they are after shipping help. "They say, 'Oh, once you have them, why not just send them?

They ask their correspondents to "re-ship" items to locations in Nigeria. People say, 'I've got these packages and I don't know why,'" Gregory said.

The goods are often purchased with stolen credit cards, but the con artists have trouble getting them delivered out of the country, because many U. Sluppick said one confused victim in her Yahoo support group currently has about ,000 in merchandise that's been sent to her home, and she doesn't know what to do with it.

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