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But as financial crimes go, the love con was a rare breed, too time- and labor-intensive to carry out in large numbers.

It could take months or years of dedicated persuasion to pull off a single sting. Technology has streamlined communication, given scammers powerful new tools of deceit and opened up a vast pool of potential victims.

Two sharp blows that had left her alone in her late 50s. His cancer took him swiftly, before she had time to process what was happening.

It had been over two years since the death of her husband of 20 years; four, since she had lost her mother.

Duane wrote right back, a long message that sketched a peripatetic life — he described himself as a "computer systems analyst" from North Hollywood, California, who grew up in Manchester, England, and had lived in Virginia for only five months.

Now she was all by herself in a house secluded at the end of a long gravel driveway. At first, she just tiptoed around the many dating sites, window-shopping in this peculiar new marketplace. It wasn't until the fall that Amy was ready to dive in.

Later, when she puzzled over their relationship, she'd remember this. That had been a fateful move; it made everything easier for him. After the funeral, a grief counselor told her to make no sudden changes in her life for at least a year, and she followed that advice.

The mainstreaming of online dating is a revolution in progress, one that's blurring the boundaries between "real" and online relationships.

(AARP has joined this revolution, partnering with the online dating service How About We to launch AARP Dating in December 2012.) But the online-dating boom has also fueled an invisible epidemic.

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