Online dating scam drags woman into Argentinian prison for 2.5 years

Last September, we brought you an online dating tale with a happy ending: guy falls in love with a buxom blonde/millionaire heiress who friends him on Facebook, gets ready to send her a wad of cash so she can supposedly come to the US (which she somehow needed in spite of that rich daddy of hers), dumps his fiancée, and gets saved in the nick of time by aforementioned dumped fiancée.

No money was sent. His fiancée somehow forgave him. They got married. Happy ending.

Now for the tale of a victim who didn’t have a savvy fiancé to save her. Because she followed her own smitten heart, she wound up spending 2.5 years in an Argentinian jail for unwittingly attempting to smuggle cocaine sewn into the lining of a suitcase at her “lover’s” request.

The woman, 59-year-old Sharon Armstrong, is from New Zealand. Last year the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) took in reports from 2,620 Australians who’d lost almost $23 million to dating and romance scams.

According to, Ms. Armstrong told her story to police, researchers and the ACCC during a Queensland University of Technology symposium on romance fraud.

Ms. Armstrong’s story: 5 years ago, at the age of 53, she signed up to a dating site. She was on the site for barely a month when she was contacted by a man – or, at least, somebody or somebodies who presented themselves as a man.

It was a whirlwind romance: she fell “hard and fast.”

We built up what felt like a very long relationship over a short period of time.

It’s easy to see, in retrospect, that she was carefully being groomed. But before she fell into the trap and realized she’d been scammed, there was talk of their future together, along with daily phone calls, emails, and texts.

Whoever he or they were, they were working her hard: computer forensics that would come later would discover more than 7,000 emails over the course of 5.5 months.

Analysis would also reveal that whoever her seducer was, they were all over the world. Communications were traced back to America and Europe, but Armstrong said that he/she/they may have been operating out of Nigeria. She hasn’t named him, fearing for the safety of her family.

At any rate, in spite of all the enamored communications, there were no visuals. There was always some reason why he wouldn’t hop on Skype, Ms. Armstrong said.

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.

He said he was a civil engineer, and he promised her a job working at his side. He’d secured a very lucrative contract for a job, he said, but he needed somebody trustworthy to bring it to fruition. Would the love of his life be up for traveling to South America to pick up the contract and carry it to him in London?

It all seemed kosher enough, from what she could determine:

I Googled the company, and they checked out. He said they’ll pay for my airfares there and back.

He didn’t ask her for money, so there was no reason for a red flag to go up about being gouged financially.

As most people hopefully know nowadays, there are cybercrooks who prey on vulnerable love-seekers on dating sites, particularly the elderly.

Other cybercrooks convince people they’re sending money to needy soldiers.

And then there are those who send bogus emails claiming you’ll get a payment just as soon as you first pay a “shipping agent” (known as “advance fee fraud“).

But there are dangers besides getting fleeced. Unfortunately, Ms. Armstrong suffered such a fate.

In this case, it was falling into the hands of cocaine smugglers who turned her into a mule.

She went to Buenos Aires. A suitcase containing what she thought was a thick contract with lots of trade secrets in it was delivered to her hotel.

She opened the suitcase and saw nothing, but whoever was scamming her told Armstrong that it was sewn into the lining and that she could pull out the lining to have a look if she liked.

No, she thought, she trusted him.

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 she took her belongings from her own suitcase and transferred them to the rigged one, as instructed.

Too bad she didn’t take the Lothario up on the offer to pull back the suitcase lining. If she had, she would have spotted what customs agents at the airport managed to find: three plastic packages, as long as the suitcase, full of white powder.

Tests revealed it was cocaine.

It was April 2011. She was immediately arrested, imprisoned, and spent the next 2.5 years in prison.

In February 2012, her case went before a judge. Her lawyers believed her, but the judge was incredulous: how could an “articulate, intelligent woman with great family support” be scammed?

She was found guilty and sentenced to 4 years and 10 months.

The all-women prison she was in was full of some 60-70 women who’d also been arrested as drug mules, some of whom had fallen for the same type of scam as Ms. Armstrong.

Her sentence was reduced on appeal, with the court acknowledging that she’d been scammed. They wouldn’t release her, though, given that it would have set a legal precedent. Instead, she was deported.

Ms. Armstrong has a pragmatic attitude about it. As far as she’s concerned, it could have been much worse:

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.

We’ve written about cases in which online dating has led to horrific crimes.

One such was the rapist who was jailed for life after sexually attacking 7 women he met on the dating site.

As Ms. Armstrong found out too late, people you meet online aren’t always who they say they are. Imposters frequently target kids, such as the pedophile who posed as Justin Bieber, or the 22-year-old from New Jersey who posed as a teenager to stalk girls online.

We’ve got tips for staying safe when you use online dating sites.

One thing to keep in mind, as Action Fraud and the City of London Police have warned in their Urban Fraud Myths campaign, is that most online dating sites don’t vet the people who sign up.

It pays to be wary, particularly when people you meet on these sites claim to be “in love” after just a few days of chatting.

If someone seems over the top impassioned, too soon, they may be lying about being head over heels. They may actually have an ulterior motive to gain your trust and pull you into some scam.

Ms. Armstrong’s advice: 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.