What started as “a bit of a laugh” ended with New Zealand woman Sharon Armstrong doing jail time in Argentina, after she says she was tricked into trafficking drugs.
Armstrong now talks publicly about her experience to raise awareness of “corrupt scammers”. She presented to the Rotary Club in Lincoln on Tuesday.
The former public servant was arrested trying to fly from Buenos Aires to London with a suitcase containing 5 kilograms of cocaine in April 2011.
She maintains she was the victim of a romance scam and knew nothing of the drugs. Based on the experience, she is campaigning to change attitudes about those who fall victim to scams.
Since July 2015, Armstrong has run Standup2scams, a social media-based crusade to “shift the spotlight from the unwitting victim and turn it onto the corrupt scammers”.
“They’ve trusted in someone or something that isn’t real, so to blame the victim doesn’t address the problem.”
Armstrong was in a bad place in 2010, when her cousin signed her up to a dating site as “a bit of a laugh”.
Soon she was in love with “Frank” from London. Thousands of emails and daily phone calls were exchanged by the pair.
Frank talked of having Armstrong, the former Maori Language Commission deputy chief executive, work with him on a multimillion dollar “contract”. She was convinced to pick up the “contract” in Argentina on the way to meet him in London.
Armstrong’s unease grew as what was meant to be a one night stopover turned into a week-long wait.
The suitcase said to contain the contract finally arrived, but when Armstrong tried to fly onwards she was pulled aside and cocaine was found inside it in a secret compartment.
Being arrested was “surreal” and “overwhelming”, she said.
After two-and-a-half years in a prison where breakfast was not served and almost no one spoke English, Armstrong arrived back in NZ in October 2013.