Esther Ortiz-Rodeghero was looking for love, but she found something much more ominous: a savvy online scammer posing as a military man who convinced her to fork over nearly $500,000 of her life savings.
"I was so blinded by it, because if you were to read some of the emails he would send me, this man was romancing me," she told ABCNews.com. "He would say things like, 'We're going to live together. We're going to be happy together. You're the woman of my dreams.' Things that a woman who is hurting for attention and love would want to hear."
Now the 55-year-old widow from Castle Rock, Colo., is struggling to get by.
"I cashed out my 401k and my savings -- everything," she said.
To make matters worse, she was recently laid off from her job as a financial analyst after 17 years with the same company. Her house is in foreclosure and she's declared bankruptcy.
But just one year ago, her life looked much different.
Searching for Love Online
Ortiz-Rodeghero, who first told her story to ABC affiliate KMGH-TV in Denver, said she decided to start dating in October 2010, several months after her 52-year-old husband David Rodeghero died of pancreatic cancer.
"After seeing a therapist I was advised maybe I should go on a dating website and meet new people ... because I was depressed," she said.
That was when Ortiz-Rodeghero discovered a website called seniorpeoplemeet.com, and set up a profile.
Soon after, a man claiming to be an Army major general named Wayne Jackson contacted her. He sent her a picture of a dashing, dark-haired man in fatigues.
"It looked like, you know, a military guy," she said. "He was good looking ... he was in uniform."
The man featured in the photo saw his image being used in online news reports and subsequently contacted ABCNews.com. The 30-year military veteran, who retired last year, said his picture had been stolen from his former MySpace page.
"I think most intelligent people would surmise that obviously that picture was faked and it's not the real guy," said the man, who wished to remain anonymous. "I think everybody wants 15 minutes of fame. I don't. Certainly not in this venue."
In the scammer's initial messages to Ortiz-Rodeghero, he reportedly said he was stationed in Iraq, but he claimed he was going to retire and come home to the United States.
"He told me he was a widower and he lost his wife in an automobile accident," Ortiz-Rodeghero said. He also claimed his sister had told him about the website and "convinced" him to use it, she said. "I was very taken by him and didn't question his sincerity."
One month later, after emailing nearly every day, he began asking for money.
"He requested that I send him $800 -- he said his bank account had been frozen due to fraud," she said. "[In hindsight] his own maybe."
He showed her bank statements, explaining that someone had taken $8,000 from his account and he needed to show up in person to sort it all out with the bank. Of course, that was impossible, she said he told her, because he was in Iraq.
She agreed to send him $500.
Another month passed, and he asked for money again.
"He started talking about how when he got out of the military he wanted to start an auto shipping business and he was thinking we could start it together and run it together and so I thought, 'Well, maybe this is a good opportunity to invest in a business,'" she said. "So he started asking me for money for fees he would have to pay."
By 2011 he claimed to have left Iraq for Japan where he was meeting with potential business partners, because he "had lined up some cars to be shipped to the states and that they had to go through some sort of quarantine and he needed money for that to be covered," Ortiz-Rodeghero said.
"So I sent him $100,000 for that, thinking that would be part of our business," she said. "All the time he kept telling me, 'I'll pay you back, I'll pay you back. I'll take care of you, don't worry.'"
But that day never came. She kept sending more and more money, until she had tapped out her 401k and personal savings.
Everything was "I'll pay you back when I get to the States," she said.
During the entire relationship, they never spoke on the phone.
"He kept telling me he couldn't call me -- for security reasons they wouldn't allow him to have that kind of access," she said.
Detecting Online Romance Scams
About four months ago, she asked him, "If you need all this money, how are you living?"
To which he reportedly responded, "I'm living with the money you send me."
"And I realized, 'Wow. I have been had,'" Ortiz-Rodeghero said. "Once he realized I wasn't going to send him any more money, he deleted me from his contacts and IM. His last IM was about two and a half weeks ago and even then, he was still asking me for money."
She went to Castle Rock police, who today told ABCNews.com they have completed their investigation and are handing the case over to the FBI.
"Our officers are in the process of talking to different agencies that are better equipped to handle international cases," Castle Rock police spokeswoman Kim Mutchler said. "We will be finishing up the report today and forwarding it to the FBI."
Ortiz-Rodeghero is sharing her story now, she said, in the hopes of educating others who could fall prey to a similar imposter.
"I know my money is gone and I will probably never get it back, but if I can help someone not go through this then I've done my job," she said.
Similar scams have been reported on Match.com. A '20/20' investigation that aired in June tracked down one of these fraudulent Romeos in Ghana, where he admitted to an undercover producer that he was a con man.
The fraudster had tricked Joan Romano of Lynbrook, N.Y., into sending him $25,000 during a six-month time span before she realized she had been scammed. She later found out the picture of the "soldier" she had been corresponding with had been stolen from MySpace. It belonged to a lieutenant in the U.S. Army who had no idea his photo was being used in that way.
The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a government organization that refers cyber crime complaints to law enforcement agencies, says people 40 and older who are divorced, widowed, or disabled are most likely to fall prey to online dating scams.
There are several warning signs that indicate your online romance may be nothing but smoke and mirrors. Often scammers will use gifts, such as poetry or flowers, to entice victims. They are abnormally quick to announce their "love" for the victim, and they also use sob stories about their own personal hardships to gain sympathy.
Oftentimes they reveal they aren't located in the United States. As the "relationship" progresses, the con artist will eventually ask for money. They may seek cash, money orders or wire transfers. Even more subtle, the crooks sometimes also ask victims to ship packages for them.
The website lookstoogoodtobetrue.com has several victim stories and provides a way for people to compare notes.
If you believe you're the victim of online fraud, the FBI suggests filing a complaint with the National White Collar Crime Center by calling 1-800-251-3221.
For Ortiz-Rodeghero, after being scammed out of nearly half a million dollars, her first experience with online dating will also be her last.
"This dating website thing is not for me," she said.
Now, she added, she wants to try to meet someone the "traditional" way: in person.