Sharon Armstrong, 59, from New Zealand, is one of those people.
Five years ago, a lover she met online asked her to transport a suitcase from Buenos Aires to London. Ms Armstrong thought she was guarding a highly lucrative contract, but it turned out to be cocaine. She was caught at the airport and spent the next 2.5 years in an Argentinian prison, wondering how on earth this could have happened.
Today at a Queensland University of Technology symposium on the reality of romance fraud, Ms Armstrong told her story to police, researchers and the ACCC, which last year found 2620 Australians lost almost $23 million through dating scams.
Here, she reveals her incredible story to news.com.au.
“I was 53 when I signed up to a dating site. I’d been on there for nearly a month when this guy contacted me. I fell hard and fast. We built up what felt like a very long relationship over a short period of time.
He talked about our future together. There were daily phone calls, emails, texts. When my computer was later analysed they found more than 7000 emails. But nothing visual. There was always an excuse for why he couldn’t Skype. Now I realise that for those 5.5 months I was being groomed very well through a number of tests to see if I could be trusted.
He told me he was a civil engineer and I could be his EA and work with him. He said ‘I’ve secured this very lucrative contract for a job. Would you be keen to travel to South America to pick up the contract and bring it to me in London?’ I Googled the company and they checked out. He said they’ll pay for my airfares there and back.
So I went to Buenos Aires and the suitcase which I thought held the contract was delivered to my hotel.
He said ‘Leave your things behind and pack them in this new suitcase’. I opened the suitcase but I couldn’t find the documents. He said ‘They’re in the lining’. They just had a variety of excuses.
He said it was a large contract, there was lots of secrecy around it, but if I wanted to, I could lift up the lining and have a look. I never pulled up the lining. Part of me was telling myself ‘You’re being paranoid’. I just thought ‘You know what I trust this man. He would never do this’.
So I checked in at the airport, went through customs and waited for my plane and then my name was called out. I was asked to go to the gate and they said there was something unusual in my suitcase. I thought ‘They’re going to find out it’s the papers’.
But they lifted up the lining and there were three long packages the length of the suitcase and I thought ‘Hmm, they don’t look like documents’. I could see it was a white powder and they told me it tested for cocaine. By this stage I was really starting to lose it because I knew I had been set up.
I was immediately arrested and imprisoned and spent the next 2.5 years locked up in Argentina. This was a prison where there were 60-70 other women who had been arrested as drug mules. There were a couple of other women who had been victims of scams like me.
I was arrested in April 2011 and in February 2012 my case went before a judge. They found me guilty and they sentenced me to four years and 10 months. My lawyers believed me, but the judge didn’t. The judges would say ‘You’re an articulate, intelligent woman with great family support. How could you be scammed?’ That was so disheartening.
My lawyers appealed that decision and the appeal court reduced my sentenced and acknowledged it was a scam. But they would never acquit me because it would set a legal precedent. I knew that could never happen. But even the acknowledgment that I had been scammed helped.
The prosecution tried to appeal the Appeal Court’s decision so it ended up going to the Supreme Court of Argentina. My lawyers put in a case to immigration saying how unfair and unjust it would be to keep me locked up beyond my original sentence, so they ended up deporting me. As far as I know, I have a clean record in Argentina, and in New Zealand. I’ve traveled since all this and haven’t had any problems.
Look, it could have been worse. I learnt early on that I didn’t want to remain a victim. I dealt with the betrayal, the whole set up while I was in prison. If I had made it to London and the authorities hadn’t got to me, I may not even be here. After they received that suitcase they would have slit my throat and left me on some street. I’m lucky I wasn’t sent to a country where they have the death penalty for drug offences. I’m grateful. The prison wasn’t flash but there are a lot of worse places to be.
My daughter was 31 when I was arrested and my grandson was eight years old. My daughter and my sister came to Argentina during the first few weeks after my arrest and they came over again for my court case. We’ve been apart for many years.
It was a female-only prison, with around 220 people. There were about 60-odd of us in the international section, and all of those women were locked up for drugs. I’ve got many of them on Facebook now, maybe around 30 or 40 women. They’re all out now.
The first few months were pretty awful. I couldn’t understand the language at all. But after the first few weeks I got my own cell which was like winning the lottery. That gave me a bit of me time, I could have some privacy. I think given my age I had a level of respect from the girls, particularly the international ones. They knew my story.
I learned many of these women didn’t have many choices. For them, it was become a drug mule, or a prostitute, or not be able to support your family. I try very hard not to judge people now. We don’t walk in their shoes, we can’t judge them.
I’m not after revenge. I haven’t named the guy — actually I’m not even sure it’s a man, it could be anyone — because I want to protect my family. Nothing legally has happened to him. When they analyzed my computer the locations were all over the place. At one point it was America and Europe, but he may have been operating out of Nigeria.
We blame the victims [of dating scams] too easily. There’s been lots of examples of rape victims and domestic violence victims where it’s easier for the public to blame the victim because by doing that, they don’t need to take any responsibility. Be open and willing to hear other victims’ stories without judging. We should blame and shame the scammers. That’s the message I’m hoping to get across.
If I had any advice it would be to listen to your gut. It’s hard because when you have those rose-colored glasses on, you don’t want them shattered. But if something feels too good to be true, then it probably is. If you’ve been talking to someone online but you’ve never seen their face and they ask you for money, or to go overseas, just don’t.”
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