true crime

Sharon fell deeply in love. Months later, she was locked up in an Argentinean prison.

Sharon Armstrong had never experienced a relationship so intensely. She’d met Frank on a dating site. He was charming, romantic, a successful civil engineer.

Over the course of five months, they exchanged daily texts and more than 7000 emails in which the New Zealand grandmother opened up like never before. They spoke of their future, what life could be when they were finally together in the same city.

Then came the email. “I’ve secured this very lucrative contract for a job,” he wrote. “Would you be keen to travel to South America to pick up the contract and bring it to me in London?”

The suitcase was delivered to her hotel in Beunos Aires – empty. The contract is in the lining, the female courier told her, for security reasons. She could have pulled up that lining, she could have looked. But something stopped her; love, perhaps. Trust.

On April 13, 2011, Sharon checked the suitcase onto her London-bound flight at Ezeiza International Airport. She never made it on board. Authorities hauled her aside, and sliced open the bag in front of her.

“My rose-coloured glasses were shattered the moment they lifted up the lining of that suitcase and I saw that white powder,” the 61-year-old told Mamamia. “I knew. I knew then.”

Sharon on the day of her arrest. Image: supplied
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Sharon served two-and-a-half years in an Argentinian prison, convicted of trafficking 5kg of cocaine.

The former high-ranking public servant found herself with a dual identity - a criminal and a victim. An unwitting player in a global drug syndicate, expertly manipulated by a man she loved.

Her case is one of many over the past few years.

A Missouri woman is awaiting sentencing after being caught with 756 grams of pure cocaine at Sydney airport. The drugs had been stuffed inside the heel of a shoe; one of several items of clothing and gifts her online boyfriend had asked her to take to Australia.

Sydney grandmother, Maria Exposto, who was sentenced to death in May by a Malaysian court. Arrested at Kuala Lumpur airport in 2014, the 57-year-old had been unwittingly duped into trafficking more than a kilogram of crystal methamphetamine inside the lining of a suitcase. She'd been groomed for two years by a man posing as a US soldier.

British scientist and Oxford University graduate, Professor Paul Frampton, who tried to board a plane to Peru with two kilos of cocaine in his suitcase. The particle physicist had been told it belonged to Czech model, Denise Milani, whom he believed he had been chatting to online for the preceding three months.

Each had met their partner online; each was travelling at their partner's request; each had been convinced to accept and transport a suitcase by their partner.

Who gets scammed?

According to data gathered by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, it could really be anyone in Sharon's place. Or Denise's. Or Maria's. Or Paul's.

Some 3,763 Australians reported being victimised by romance scams in 2017, with combined losses of $20.5 million. The cases were almost evenly split between genders (52 per cent were female), and occurred across all age brackets, with the largest number of reports coming from on people aged 45-54.

For the first time, more of those who suffered losses reported being approached by the scammer on social media than any other platform.

Yet despite the prevalence of the problem, victims still face ridicule. Words like "naive", "stupid", "desperate" are hurled at these men and women by the public and the press.

In Sharon's case, even the judge questioned how "an articulate, intelligent woman with great family support" could possibly be scammed.

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Though her loved ones did their best to shield her from the commentary around her case at the time, she's since read much of it online. And the victim blaming both saddens and angers her.

"All these people sit back in some form of judgement, instead of actually thinking, 'My God, that could be my mother, it could be my sister, it could be my daughter, my uncle, my brother, my father, my grandfather, my best friend'," she said.

"There are people out there whose sole intent in turning up to work every day is to extort someone in some way, be it emotionally, be it financially, be it by making them an unwitting drug mule. But [trolls] are not focusing on that; they're blaming the 'dumb, stupid' victims."

The secrets of the con.

The power of the techniques used to lure and lock victims into romance scams should not be underestimated.

Research by criminologist Dr Cassandra Cross and Dr Molly Dragiewicz of Queensland University of Technology, pointed to the striking similarities between the methods used by romance fraudsters and domestic violence offenders.

Namely psychological abuse tactics, including: isolation from support networks; monopolisation of attention; degradation, including verbal abuse; and calculated withdrawal (this might involve stopping communication for short periods to play on the victim's insecurities about the relationship).

"Despite the lack of a physical relationship, romance fraud offenders could manipulate victims by exploiting their hopes for a relationship and using psychological manipulation," Dr Cross wrote on The Conversation.

"They are highly skilled individuals who use every means possible to deceive, manipulate and exploit victims."

Sharon has penned a book about her experience. Image: Supplied.

Even with her experience as a probation officer, her first-hand exposure to abusers and their tactics, like many psychological abuse victims, Sharon couldn't see it from the inside. Until it was too late.

She believes it was a perfect storm of factors that made her vulnerable at that particular moment in her life: she was 53, single, had never been on a dating site before, and was unemployed.

She fell. Hard.

At first, it didn't even matter to her that she and 'Frank' couldn't be together in person. In a way, she said, the distance helped foster intimacy; it meant he was interested in her as a person and not as sex object.

"It was like the honeymoon period of a new relationship. You want to talk about them all the time, you get butterflies, you can't wait to get an email or a text from them. All those feelings are real. They happen," she said. "When you put that together with the fact that you think you're building a trusting relationship, you're a sitting duck."

Five months later, she boarded the plane to Argentina.

"I didn't choose that with my logical, sensible brain. I chose that with the brain that had been worked on, as someone who was being emotionally abused," she said. "So you can't say, 'If that happened to me, I would have done this.' Because that wasn't me either - it was a different me. That's the space [fraudsters] put you in."

***

Like most scammers, 'Frank' was never caught. Hiding behind highly sophisticated technology and a false identity, these people can make themselves almost invisible to authorities. It's even likely the man she had fallen in love with was not one but several different people, working together to groom her.

During her prison sentence, with hours to think and reflect, Sharon wrestled with it all. She poured over their conversations in her mind, reconciling her very real feelings with the illusion.

"After the first week of dealing with the whole imprisonment, as I was able to sit back and look back at my relationship - in quotation marks - with Frank," she said. "I could see the holes. I could see the first time I was tested, I could see the times that I pushed back and the bullshit I was fed in return. I could see all the holes, every single God damned one of them."

She felt the weight of the guilt, called herself most of the names others were already uttering. But then she considered what could have happened next. She pictured being met by a stranger in London, having her throat slit when she put two-and-two together... She pictured being arrested in a country with the death penalty...

"Within days of my arrest I realised I was really lucky I didn't make it to London," she said.

"In all honesty, even if I'd survived it, my own conscience would have struggled with knowing I'd been party to trafficking 5kg cocaine onto the streets of London... People could have died from it.

"And that would have been harder for me to live with than two-and-a-half years prison."

Sharon now volunteers part-time supporting and advising romance fraud victims and their loved ones, both independently and through organisation Stop Mule Victims. For more information and to purchase her book, 'Organised Deception', please visit her website.

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