REAL LIFE

Nanna thrown in prison over conman’s love scam

She has now warned other women to be careful.

Grandma Sharon paid a terrible price for falling in love.

Here, Sharon Armstrong, 61, tells the story in her own words.

The door slammed shut, leaving me alone. Tears ran down my cheeks as I surveyed the filthy cell. What am I going to do? I wondered.

I couldn’t bring myself to sit on the disgusting mattress. So pulling off my cardigan, I sat down on that instead.

‘Frank, if only you were here,’ I whispered, thinking about my much-loved partner. He was thousands of kilometres away in London while I was stuck here in an Argentinian jail. To my complete disbelief, I’d been arrested for drug smuggling. This is completely ridiculous, I thought.

A 50-something grandmother from New Zealand, I’d never been in trouble with the law before. But now, somehow I’d landed in this mess, and I had no idea how I was going to get myself out of it. Knowing I’d have to tell my daughter Ariana, now 38, and my sister Leanne, 53, I burst into fresh tears. How humiliating! What would they think?

Sister and daughter
My sister Leanne, me and my girl Ariana

It all started six months before when I met Frank online. I hadn’t been looking for love but my cousin set up my profile for a laugh. Then Frank found me.

Your profile caught my eye, he typed, flattering me with compliments and saying how similar we seemed. He was adorable and we were soon inseparable. Although, I hadn’t actually met him.

A civil engineer, he’d just landed a big contract in London. But we were in constant text, email and phone contact.
I think I love you, he emailed after just a week. It sounds crazy but it was so intense from the start. It’s like I’ve known him forever, I realised, falling for him hard and fast. ‘I never thought I’d feel like this again,’ I told Ariana.

Divorced young, I’d got used to being by myself. ‘I’m happy for you, Mum,’ she said. But as time went on, she started worrying about how important Frank had become to me. She also suspected I’d been sending him money. And, she was right. It was a few thousand dollars, for medical bills, but I didn’t want her to know. It’s no big deal, I reasoned. It’s about time I was happy.

Then in April 2011, six months after we met, we excitedly made plans to meet in London. ‘I’ve landed a multi-million dollar contract,’ Frank told me. ‘The company is based in London but registered in Spain.’ Googling, I quickly found the company.

Then, Frank asked if I could do him a favour. He needed some contracts from their Argentinian office brought to London. Could I go via there on my way to our meet up? Happy we’d be together at last, I agreed.

Once I’d made it to Argentina, a woman dropped off a bag containing the contracts, explaining they were hidden in the lining. ‘It’s because they’re multi-million dollar contracts,’ she said. ‘They’re hidden for your safety.’ Nodding nervously, I decided to ask Frank about it. ‘You can check them if you like,’ Frank reassured me over the phone. No… I trusted Frank completely.

At the airport, I allowed myself to daydream about being held in his arms at last. Suddenly, my name was being called over the loud speaker. There was a flurry of police and they started opening my bag. Someone’s going to have to apologise very soon, I thought confidently, as officers peeled back the bag’s lining.

My jaw dropped as three long packages, wrapped with brown masking tape, were pulled out. Testing them, officers said it was cocaine. It was like an out of body experience. What on earth was going on? Screaming and crying, I was handcuffed and led away. And now, hours later, I was locked up and terrified.

suitcase
The suitcase had a false bottom

The following weeks were a living nightmare. Ariana and Leanne flew over and lawyers started looking at my case. Something else awful happened too. At first, I waited to hear from my Frank. Surely he could help? But as time passed and he didn’t get in touch, the truth dawned. Frank’s in on it, I realised.

Feeling stupid, angry and embarrassed, I mourned my lost ‘happy ever after’. Thanks to my love for Frank, I was found guilty of smuggling cocaine and sentenced to four years and 10 months in a filthy and frightening jail. When my lawyers appealed the conviction, the court reduced my sentenced and acknowledged it was a scam.

Keeping my head down, I tried to stay out of trouble.The only time I felt unsafe was when I was taken to and from court in a van, as some of the prisoners from other jails were terrifying.

Getting to know the other inmates, I discovered there were 60 to 70 other women there who’d been arrested for being drug mules.

Returning home to my family after serving two-and-a-half years, I was determined to prevent this happening to anyone else. I’ve since written a book, Organised Deception: My Story, and I researched how these scammers use sophisticated grooming techniques.

custody
Me in custody
novel release
I want to warn other vulnerable women

Sadly, I was vilified by people who didn’t believe me, but falling in love is not a crime.

Now, I want more support for victims of cybercrime. And I want people to know that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Read more in this week’s issue of that’s life!

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