RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A new study shows Virginia is one of the states hit the hardest by online scammers.

Criminals have ramped up their efforts since the pandemic and they’re finding new victims by utilizing innovative scam schemes.

The online investigation service, Social Catfish, released a new study about online scams and it shows the United States is in the midst of a growing crisis. The company conducted polls, and interviews and analyzed FBI data. It found that in 2021, Americans lost a record $6.9 billion to online scammers — that’s up from $3.5 billion in 2019.

Social Catfish CEO David McClellan says the pandemic changed the game.

“People had extra disposable income during COVID. So, you know, they were at home more. They were talking online to people longer. One of the biggest issues with people being scammed online is, you know, people are either lonely or they make decisions in a quick manner.”

Virginians were hit hard. The study says the Commonwealth is the eighth most scammed state. Last year, Virginians lost $181,622,993 to scammers. The average victim in Virginia lost $14,660.

“People are very trusting online a lot more nowadays versus what they were even five years ago,” McClellan said.

Over the past five years, tech-savvy teens and children have seen the largest increase in money lost. In addition, 75% of romance scam victims are college-educated.

“We used to think that romance scams only happen on dating sites. Well, they happen all over,” explained McClellan. “These scammers literally have playbooks. I’m not joking. Literally, have playbooks. They share them among each other.

“[These] last six to nine months. They’re not like a ‘Wham and bam! Thank you for your money, move on’ type of scam. You know, they’re actually grooming these people over a period of time,” McClellan said.

Experts have learned people are not being careful online. Business Insider recently reported Gen Z’ers are increasingly turning to Tik Tok instead of Google as their primary search engine.

“We started digging into this and we started interviewing people. And that was a trend like people were making decisions online based on what other people would recommend,” McClellan said.

Stephen Balkam with the Family Online Safety Institute says this teaches an important lesson.

“It really comes down to media literacy. And media literacy is a fancy term for saying ‘think about what it is you’re seeing and hearing. Check it out,’” Balkam said.

“The number one thing, don’t give people money you don’t know,” McClellan said. “When you are in a situation where you’re making a decision, whether it’s to click on a link, whether it’s to give somebody information, always take a step back. A lot of times when we find out people are scammed, it’s because they haven’t had enough time to make a really educated decision.”

“It’s just us as consumers, us as individuals and as parents being on the lookout and being alert. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” Balkam said.

Experts say you should never give out money or personal information to someone you haven’t met in person. You should also look for red flags such as poor grammar, refusing to video chat, or asking to be paid in gift cards.