Kathleen Fortun snapped shut her suitcase and headed for her front door. With passport in hand and butterflies in her stomach, she jumped into a taxi to begin a journey to Gatwick Airport that would end in Los Angeles - and the arms of her new love.
Eagerly anticipating her arrival was Colonel Richard Allman, a 61-year-old military official in the U.S. army.
Handsome, educated and eloquent, the distinguished soldier had exchanged hundreds of heartfelt emails with the lonely 68-year-old British divorcee since they were matched on a dating website five months earlier. So desperate was her paramour to lay eyes on his new love that he had insisted on booking her plane ticket so they could meet face to face.
Imagine her confusion, then, when Kathleen, a retired secretary, arrived at British Airway's booking office in December 2012 to discover staff had no record of a ticket in her name - for that day, or any other.
'I felt rising panic and then a deep, sick feeling settled inside,' recalls Kathleen. 'I went home, picked up my iPad, which had all my emails on it, and headed for the police station.'
There, a kindly police officer confirmed her mounting suspicions.
'He said: “I think we've got to be realistic - it seems this Mr Allman is a con,”' she recalls. 'I was humiliated, utterly heartbroken.'
She also felt utterly foolish, for when police gave Kathleen a folder showing a selection of the pictures such con-artists use regularly to fool women like her, she soon spotted the very photo 'Colonel Allman' had sent her, purportedly of himself.
'I've since found out the photo is of Wesley Clark - a former general in the U.S. Army who retired in 2000,' she says. 'Apparently anybody could have downloaded a photo of him.'
Whoever she had been corresponding with for months was, in all probability, a West African scam artist. Possibly even a gang of fraudsters.
Either way, the cruel deception that had been carried out on Kathleen was not just of the emotional kind. She was the victim of a tale she confesses she has read many times before: a plot to con a lonely heart out of money - in her case, a staggering £36,000.
But to compound her misery and shame, £10,000 of that money had come from the youngest of her two sons - one a 48-year-old doctor and the other a 45-year-old accountant.
And although she raised a further £6,000 for 'Mr Allman' by draining her life savings, the final £20,000 came from a trusting friend, also a pensioner, who Kathleen essentially conned herself. Today, she confesses that she tricked him into believing he was lending to one of her sons to help him through a redundancy.
'I didn't want him to think I was one of those stupid women,' she says. 'But deep down I must have known how improbable “the truth” actually sounded. The guilt I feel now is indescribable. He's not a rich man and is devastated that I betrayed his trust.'
Ten months on - with police unable to unravel the trail of bank transactions the fraudsters convinced Kathleen to make - she is resigned to the fact that this money has gone forever.
'I'm living a nightmare,' she says. 'My youngest is not speaking to me, while my eldest, who warned me it could be a scam, feels ashamed his mother could be taken in so easily.
'I am trying to pay everyone back, but I'm virtually penniless. I have a small collection of Swarovski crystal figurines that I'm selling but they're not going to make much of a dent into my debt. I look back and ask myself: how I could have been so stupid?'
'I'm living a nightmare. My youngest is not speaking to me, while my eldest, who warned me it could be a scam, feels ashamed his mother could be taken in so easily.'
It's hard not to feel Kathleen, who was born in Lancashire and moved to affluent St Helier in Jersey in 2004, has been naive and foolish.
But she is far from alone. The most up-to-date figures reveal dating scams have pushed instances of fraud up by 27 per cent in the past year.
Just last month a mother and daughter who conned 374 victims into handing over £700,000 by posing as U.S. army personnel on dating sites were jailed for 27 years in the States.
Kathleen, who lives in a three-bedroom granite cottage, joined datingagency.com, aimed at the over-40s, in July 2012. Having divorced in 1973 after 11 years of marriage, she'd devoted herself to raising her sons.
Five years ago, she retired and felt it was time for a fresh start. 'I had friends and volunteered at a wildlife park but I rarely met anyone,' she says. 'I didn't want to live the rest of my life alone.'
It was perhaps this desperation to be loved that best explains Kathleen's later naivety. Cautious at first, she didn't upload a photo, but wrote a profile describing herself as an 'attractive, lonely divorcee looking for gentleman in a similar position with a view to friendship.'
Conned: The internet scam artist used this photo of uninvolved U.S. General Wesley Clark to gain Kathleen's trust
Within two days she had a message from Richard Allman, a very promising-sounding gentleman indeed. 'He said he was 61 and an officer in the American army,' says Kathleen. 'Born and brought up in London, his family had moved to California when he was 17. He said that he'd travelled the world and was currently stationed in Afghanistan.'
Allman said his wife had been killed in a car crash eight years ago. Though he had a son who lived in California, he was planning to move back to London for a fresh start of his own.
Although Kathleen received messages from other men, Richard struck her as most sincere, and they began emailing several times a day. 'I told him why my marriage had gone wrong and how proud I was that my sons had grown into such fine men,' she says.
'When I said I found life on my own hard, he would say: “You deserve better. You must live life to the fullest. Put the past behind you.”
'He seemed kind, passionate and caring - and had an almost poetic way with words. “After the rain, there is always the sunshine,” he said. He wrote in perfect English. I saw no reason to doubt him.'
A few days after they began writing, Allman sent Kathleen a photo. When she saw the distinguished man behind the emails, she was delighted.
'I liked the fact he was a man in uniform,' she says. 'He had kind eyes and a wonderful smile. As we continued to write to each other I found myself trusting him, and anticipating his next email.'
Kathleen sent a framed photo of herself to Allman at an address in Afghanistan. 'He said I was beautiful and that he had it displayed on his desk in his quarters. He even said: “I look at it every night before retiring.” It made me so happy.
'By then we'd been emailing for six weeks and he told me how much he loved me. I was developing feelings for him, too, but the last thing I wanted was to get hurt.'
Although Kathleen would have loved to speak to Allman on the phone, a bout of meningitis left her with hearing problems that make telephone conversations impossible.
She was worried this might put him off, but he said it made no difference.
'When I said I found life on my own hard, he would say: “You deserve better. You must live life to the fullest. Put the past behind you.”'
'He wrote: “I can't wait to wake up one morning and find you sleeping beside me. What a wonderful life we could have together,”' recalls Kathleen. 'I did worry he was rushing things, but it was hard to resist.'
Indeed, Kathleen was swept up in Allman's suggestion that they should meet when he was next on leave and stay in the house he owned in London. There was talk of spending Christmas in California with his son.
But when she mentioned it to her own eldest son, he sounded the first note of caution. 'He told me: “Whatever you do, don't send him any money”,' Kathleen recalls. 'Although a little voice had been telling me Richard had to be too good to be true, it was the first time I had actually considered he might not be who he said he was.
'That evening I emailed him asking: “Are you real?” and he sent me a copy of a passport with his photo on it, making me feel guilty for hurting his feelings. That seemed like concrete proof to me. He reassured me further by saying when we met, he would prove how real he was.'
'I told my sons and friends that that this was it: I had finally met someone. They were as excited as I was about the prospect of me beginning a new life.'
It was around this point - two months after they first 'met' online - that Allman emailed Kathleen telling her his bank account had been frozen for 'security reasons'.
'He had left luggage containing secret army papers in Ghana for safekeeping, but it had been impounded by the corrupt government there, and they were demanding £30,000 to have it released,' says Kathleen. 'Bells should have rung but he sounded so convincing.
'I'd fallen for him, and he never asked for cash, he just seemed to be confiding in me. Foolishly, I offered to help.' Although Kathleen didn't have anything approaching £30,000, she decided to ask her youngest son to loan her £10,000.
'He was hesitant, but I pestered: “After all these years, why would you deny your mother a bit of happiness?” After a few weeks he relented.
'Meanwhile, I told a friend one of my sons had been made redundant and he would get the money back as he had some investments coming through.'As Allman said he couldn't receive money in Afghanistan - for yet more security reasons - he forwarded Kathleen details of a colleague's Ghanaian account, promising he'd repay her in two weeks. She sent two instalments of £2,500 and £3,500 via Moneygram.
'There was a poster in the Post Office saying “Never send money to someone you don't know” but I told myself this was different,' says Kathleen.
After her third visit to send a further £6,000, the cashier questioned why she was depositing so much money in a Ghanaian bank account. Angry at the inference she was doing something wrong, Kathleen sent the next three cash injections via NatWest.
In little over a month Kathleen had transferred £30,000, but Allman emailed asking for a further £6,000 so he could book flights for the pair to rendezvous in London, before flying on to L.A.
'I can't believe it now, but I drained my savings and even ran to the bank to make the transfer before they closed,' she says. 'Richard said he would book the tickets and sent me the reference number,' she says. 'I packed my suitcase - I'd been imagining our joyful union for weeks.'
Once the realisation dawned that this was never to be, Kathleen contacted the dating agency. It claimed it could only correspond with the police and said the website carried warnings to be careful.
NatWest tried to trace the account and liaised with the police in Ghana, but uncovered only a tangled web of falsified information.
In the following weeks, Kathleen sank into depression: 'I spent a day in bed drowning my sorrows. The only person I told was my brother, so I presume my sons found out from him - they've hardly spoken to me since.
'As for my friend, I couldn't face telling him myself, so the police informed him. He was furious, mostly because I'd betrayed his trust. I feel so ashamed.'
Yet still Allman was keen to stay in touch. 'Just three months ago he wrote “Darling, get in touch and help me.” I tried to keep him sweet in the hope the police could track him down from his emails but they got nowhere. I just stopped emailing him back.'
it's too late now for recriminations. Kathleen only hopes that by sharing her story, she will prevent someone else going through similar heartache.
'I am exactly who conmen are looking for: lonely, older and vulnerable. Someone who wants to believe she could find love again.
'I wake up every morning and hope it has been a bad dream. I don't want anyone else to be so foolish.'