A New Zealand woman spent two and a half years in prison after she fell for an online romance scam.
On Wednesday, Sharon Armstrong, 59, recounted her story at a Queensland University of Technology symposium on the reality of romance fraud.
It all started several years ago when Armstrong signed up for an online dating site, met a guy, and "fell hard and fast" in her words. As Armstrong told news.com.au:
"He talked about our future together. There were daily phone calls, emails, texts. When my computer was later analyzed they found more than 7000 emails. But nothing visual. There was always an excuse for why he couldn’t Skype. Now I realize that for those 5.5 months I was being groomed very well through a number of tests to see if I could be trusted."
Apparently, Armstrong passed all the tests.
Several months into their relationship, the scammer asked if Armstrong could travel to Buenos Aires, pick up a contract from a local company, and deliver it to him in London.
Armstrong researched the company and determined it was legitimate. Additionally, while other dating scammers have asked for money from their victims, this particular fraudster agreed to pay for Armstrong's airfare both ways.
So she got on a plane and traveled to Argentinian hotel, where a suitcase awaited her. She found no documents in the suitcase, but the scammer told her the contract had been placed in the lining.
"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'."
Unfortunately, Armstrong couldn't have been more wrong.
Security personnel stopped Armstrong at the airport and told her she was carrying something unusual in her luggage. After going through her belongings, they ultimately found three long packages of cocaine in the lining of her suitcase.
The woman was arrested and ended up spending the next two and a half years in an Argentinian prison.
Notwithstanding the prison sentence, Armstrong is glad things didn't turn out 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 offenses. I’m grateful. The prison wasn’t flash but there are a lot of worse places to be."
She hopes her story can help the public stop blaming those who fall victim to romance scams.
As for those who choose to try online dating, Armstrong urges lots of care:
"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."
If you think you have fallen victim to a romance scam, please alert the local authorities. If you provided financial details to someone online and feel you have been a victim of fraud, contact your bank.