They are called “romance scams” — a popular way for criminals to exploit unsuspecting victims.

Kristine Lazar of CBS News Los Angeles spoke with a reformed scam artist to find out how they work, and how you can prevent them from happening to you.

Nicole Hayden is a single mom, who was working long days as a nurse in 2021 when she got a private message on social media.

“I opened it up and he just started talking and asking me where I lived, what I did — basic normal conversation,” Hayden said.

The conversation took off, and Hayden was smitten. Until her new online beau eventually demanded money and threatened to blackmail her if she didn’t pay up.

That’s when Hayden realized it was all a scam.

“You feel really disappointed,” Hayden said.

The Federal Trade Commission says Americans lost $1.3 billion dollars in romance scams in 2022 alone.

To find out how these cons worked I talked to a former scam artist from Nigeria, who asked us not to reveal his name.

He created fake social media profiles, using the pictures and details of other men, including American soldiers.

His main targets were middle aged, divorced women. Once they trusted him, he would make up a pretend crisis and ask for money.

But he eventually changed his ways after a major payday.

“She gave me over $20,000. And at some point, she became sick, she became depressed, and I felt this kind of guilty conscience,” the scammer said.

He stopped scamming, and now works for the other side and a website called Social Catfish.

For a fee, the company uses reverse search technology to help online daters investigate a potential suitor — if fraud is suspected.

He says the best way to protect yourself is to never engage with someone who won’t video chat or meet in person.

And if anyone asks you for money online, chances are their intentions are not sincere.