As romance scams continue to rake in cash from trusting British Columbians looking for love, a consumer advocate is offering advice on how to protect yourself on dating websites.

"This is obviously a huge problem," said Evan Kelly, Senior Communications Advisor for the Better Business Bureau for Mainland B.C.

"We've had many cases here in British Columbia alone where we're heard of women in particular ... give away over $200,000, all up, before it was actually stopped," Kelly said.

His organization named romantic double-dealing as a Top-10 scam last year.

A Maple Ridge man is scheduled to appear in court Monday, accused of faking relationships to steal thousands of dollars from a series of people, and another man was arrested earlier this month on Vancouver Island on similar charges.

The scammers may start by asking for small amounts of money, but it can quickly add up, he told Stephen Quinn, host of CBC's The Early Edition.

New Westminster Police have also put out a warning about online dating scams.

Canadians lost a reported $19 million to romance scammers last year, but that number is just the tip of the iceberg, Kelly said.

"That's maybe five per cent reporting," he said. "Especially when it comes to online dating, people are ashamed that they've been taken advantage of like this and they don't want to be identified."

The Better Business Bureau recently released a study about romance scams and who is being targeted.  

"It doesn't matter how old you are, it doesn't matter what your sexual orientation or gender is — everybody is a susceptible target when it comes to romance scams," he said.

Red flags

Scammers typically come across as extremely eager in the beginning, raining down compliments and asking to meet, Kelly said.

They'll quickly move communication away from the dating site, to email or text message, in case their profile is flagged and shut down.

"Then all of a sudden the sob stories are going to happen — they've been in an accident, they need money for something," Kelly said. "And there's always going to be a reason why you're not going to meet them."

He said an estimated one-quarter of online profiles are fake on reputable dating sites and social media networks.

Doing a reverse image search online or Googling a name can help verify someone's profile.

"When it comes to online dating, it comes down to us being able to recognize the fake ones from legitimate ones — that means just doing more homework," Kelly said.

With files from The Early Edition.