I have promised you a Love on the Line TV Conversations special interview with Sharon Armstrong. And if you have not read my previous blog about her. Click HERE and then you can also read the previous blog about the Tainted Love Symposium that recently was held in Brisbane.
Now that you are up to date with the latest on the Australian romance fraud scene, here is the treat.
The Love on the Line TV Conversations with Sharon Armstrong in three parts:
Part 1 Sharon Armstrong story (as recorded at the Tainted Love Symposium
Part 2 conversation about Sharon's recovery in her unique situation as a prisoner in Argentina
Part 3 conversations on shame, humiliation and the importance of family in the recovery process
and of course that was not all we talked about.
I was truly delighted to have this conversation with Sharon Armstrong. It is in three parts due to the YouTube posting time limits for individual accounts, but in this way you will get it all.
And if you feel that watching it is too much because of my beautiful Finnish accent and Sharon's New Zealand one is sometimes hard to follow, here is the whole conversation for you in words. I am sure it will be an eye opener for you, just as it was for me:
Hello everyone and welcome to the Love on the Line TV Conversations.
On the 31st of May, there was a special symposium in Brisbane, called the Tainted Love Symposium. My last posting was the report from that symposium. If you have missed it, you can go back and find it and look at it. However, after the symposium, I am delighted to say that I was able to record a special conversation with Sharon Armstrong, who was one of the keynote speakers, who so generously shared her story.
Now we have here three parts to this conversation. The first part is her story as I recorded it from her own lips from the symposium. The second part is our conversation about recovery and how she got through two and half year imprisonment in Argentina after being scammed, through a romance scam to becoming a drug mule. The third part is our conversation about shame and humiliation, about forgiveness, gratitude and the importance of family in the recovery process. And a little bit about the future and maybe a happy ending in the end.
So without further a due, I present to you Sharon Armstrong:
I left a great career in New Zealand to be with my family on Brisbane and 2010. The next few months were about looking for work. I was consistently told that I was over qualified for various positions and over the next six months, I became more and more despondent.
At the end of October, a well-meaning cousin of mine signed me onto a dating site: match.co. I was not overly happy with this and found it overly creepy, actually, so I decided that I would unsubscribe from the site. My profile was to remain alive for a further three days. It was in this time that I received a message from a very handsome looking man, Frank Mark Linus. His first message to me had me hooked like I’d never been before.
We seemed to have so much in common although there were a lot of differences as well which made it all exciting. He only lived about only 45 minutes from where I was living at the time. He told me, he was a civil engineer. His fiancé had been killed in a car accident some years earlier and his mother had worked for the UN in Human Rights but had died eight years previously. He was an only child and had loved his mother dearly and had spent most of his childhood living in various countries around the world. He was alone and told me, he loved my strong commitment to my family and he could tell that I was an honest person with the same values as him. He would talk about how excited he was to be part of such a loving family.
We were meant to meet about a week after we first started talking. However, on the big day, he rang, most upset to say he had been called to Sydney for job interview. If successful, it would mean a contract in London. He later called me that he had landed the contract and if I supported his decision to go, he needed to leave immediately. Of course, I said go; he needed work. He made contact as soon as he arrived in London.
So, I am being groomed over a period of five months. The journey consisted many heights and probably just as many lows. His contract fell over by Christmas and the first request for money came.
While, I initially responded to him saying that I was concerned he had asked me for money and that maybe this was all too good to be true. He came back, saying: It’s not all about the money, honey. And don’t worry about sending it. He’d find another way to pay his workers. So, I ended up feeling guilty. Guilty that I hadn’t believed in him and sent off the first of many money transactions.
He then begins to warm me up to the idea of doing some contracting work with him which may involve having to travel. He tells me I would be his PA, really his fiancé, he says.
Throughout January, there was one issue after another that required him needing more money, from his previous workers threatening him due to money they were owed, through to him falling gravely ill and ending up in a hospital and remaining there for three weeks, ensuring an ever increasing list of problems arising. By this stage, he was consuming my life in every thought. We would text message and talk on the phone on a daily basis.
In February, 2011, I was offered a short term contract back in New Zealand. Timely really, because by this stage, I had already sent most of my savings to him by Western Union, a service I had never previously used. So, job meant that I could support him, while he secured another contract. By the end of March, he tells me, he has secured a very lucrative contract doing some civil engineering type work in London. Then he convinces me to travel to South America as his PA to pick up his contract and take it on to London for him to sign.
Meanwhile, the love of my life continues to charm me and tells me of the time when we will meet for the first time, how we will spend our time in London before returning with me to New Zealand and then to Australia to meet my family. And if all went well, returning to London with him, while he completed his contract. Why wouldn’t it go well? We’d known each other intimately. We’ve been speaking for five months and shared things that I had never shared with anyone.
So, I make arrangements, all exited and apprehensive at the same time about finally meeting him face to face and beginning our life together as he had promised. I organized some work commitment I had and finally tell my family. They weren’t happy about me going, but hi, at 53, no-one was really going to tell me what to do.
The organization sends me my airline tickets. I am flying to London, stopping over in Argentina to pick up his contract. Originally, only stopping over for a couple of days at most, suddenly, everything changes and they want me to fly to Switzerland to pick up more papers, then to travel by train to Madrid before finally arriving in London. By this stage, I was feeling very anxious, in a foreign country, waiting for the papers to be delivered and then to have the plans keep changing, my stress was skyrocketing. In comes my savior. He says to me: Don’t worry, honey! Dale, day was his … who was a secretary to the organization Frank was going to work for, can pick up the papers in Switzerland. You just bring the documents to London and I will fly to Spain, sign them and return in time for your birthday.
A week later, a night before my flight to London, I am given a suitcase, which I immediately checked. It was empty. Frank tells me, they had hidden the contract in the lining of the suitcase. I question both himself and his friend as to why the papers have been hidden. They come up with a variety of excuses including the fact that the contract is worth a lot of money. I am still feeling anxious about this when Frank tells me, if I am still concerned, lift up the lining and check out the contract. With this response, I think: You’re just being paranoid, Sharon, because you trust this man and he is telling you, how wonderful and fabulous our life together will be. Also upon my arrival in London, he was going to take the document on to Spain, sign them and return to me within 24 hours. So, I think that of there were anything sash in the bag, he wouldn’t be offering to take it on to Spain.
So, the next day, I turn up at the airport and make it through the customs. While waiting for the boarding announcement, my name is called and I am asked to identify my bag. Which I do. Eventually, this all leads to me being arrested at around 3 pm , on Wednesday the 13th of April, 2011 and spending the nest two and half years locked up in a prison in Argentina, a victim of a scam that involved romance, money and drugs.
Here you have Sharon’s story to the point when she was arrested in Argentina. Now further on, the second part is about recovery and how she got through this two and half years in imprisonment and the third part directly after that. Thank you for watching part ONE of Love on the Line TV Conversations, a special conversation with Elina Juusola and Sharon Armstrong.
Welcome to Love on the Line TV conversations, and I am really, really stoked and suer
Welcome Sharon. I am really, really super excited to be here with Sharon Armstrong, from New Zearland, who has a very, very deep experience with romance scams.
Welcome, welcome Sharon. I am really, really happy to have you here
S: Thank you Elina
E: Yesterday we went, and we were part of a very exiting symposium in Brisbane. It was called the Tainted Love Symposium and you were one of the key speakers I just wanted to recall on how we met.
S: Well, I think it must have been in the middle of October last year when I was invited to speak at the QLD fraud and recovery support group. And, you were in attendance there and after that I had given a bit of my story and what had happened to me, we sort of chatted afterwards and you wrote a blog and we sort of stayed in touch in social media ever since.
E: That is right. We were also connected by the social media which is very interesting because we are talking about something that happened online and so. And many people say that you are on social media and you never really connect but we have
E: And this is what happens with romance scams: people connect online. And, so. We have a very different experience about romance scams but I was deeply taken by your story and because my story is so very, very brief and basically it just woke me up into this world. You story is such a huge story. It was 2012, right?
S: It was 2011 when I was arrested
E: and then you came back after
S: I’ve been home now for just over two and half years and I was locked up for two and half years. So, it happened, April 2011
E: OK. Would you say that your recovery started already when you were in Argentina or did it really start after you came home? Which/what would you say?
S: Ah No. I believe my recovery started fairly early on after my arrest. I think, one of the unique things about my situation and recovery was that because I was removed from society and had no access to technology, therefore, you know, any form of media. It was almost like I had the opportunity to look in deep. I wasn’t dealing with the normal day to day things that many victims of these types of scams are left to deal with. Still having to get on with their lives, still having to get up and do the same things they did before this traumatic experience happened. Whereas for me, you know, I just had myself and my thoughts at that time.
S: Yes, I have a close family and I was in touch with them, but essentially, I was only responsibly for myself. So, I believe that my first step towards recovery was realising that I needed to express how I was feeling to the scammer and the impact that that had had on my life. And I sat down one day and wrote this letter to him knowing that he would never receive it and that I was never going to post it but it was more a step in the healing that I needed to do. So, I did. I wrote about the impact to myself personally, to my family, the situation that I found myself in. And then after I’d written it I thought: do I destroy this? But no, I’ve held on to it. I still have it. I believe that that was the beginning of me accepting. Even though I wrote it to him, it was to the him that I believed was real, at that stage. Of course I knew that he didn’t exist.
E: Yes, and did you then, after that keep a journal?
S: Yes, well I started my journal prior to that. Probably I started my journal a week after my arrest when I first got some pens and I just started recording and writing about the day to day things that was happening in prison. Times when I was probably feeling very upset, sad, very lonely. I would write a bit about that, but I tries to use it more as a way to keep myself stimulated and to start to create some focus around to where I wanted to go.
E: Yes, I understand that fully because I also did a lot of journaling, but of course I was able to talk to all these people and I was on social media and that is a big difference between us, like you know, your healing has to happen at the same time as you are actually confronted with the social media. And very often, what I have found, is that it sort of leads into a little bit of an addiction. That you sort of change from being addicted to this, what happened in your brain and being high with the scammer - into the chasing of scammers.
S: Yes, yes,
E: And how did you feel when you came back home?
S: You mean in terms of the scammer?
E: Yeah, and how your recovery then proceeded. After that point when you were home, when you were able to use all the resources you would have?
S: Yeah. I think that because I was there two and half years. I think that by the time I left prison, I was in a good space. I could think about the scam and not feel like, you know, I wasn’t feeling anger, I wasn’t feeling grief for the loss of the relationship or anything like that by that stage. So, coming home was really more about making some decision around where to from here. It wasn’t easier, easy because there was still media interest and I chose under the guidance of a very wise media person to then just stay away from any media contact for 18 months. In hindsight, it was a very good thing to do. It gave me a change to just slip back into doing a bit of work. But I reached a point where, and I knew this when I was still locked up in prison, that I would do something with the new knowledge that I gained and my experience and what I had been thought and my learnings. So, it was really just how that would manifest more than anything.
E: Yes. Last year when we met first time and you were talking about #standup2scams and that was how we connected online and afterwards you started that one, but then now, you started the Mule
S: Yes, #standup2scams sort of came about: I was approached for about 15 months ago by a journalist from New Zealand who wanted to do a story of what had happened. So, when this documentary first came out, I thought. Well, now is a good time to try to set up a social media campaign. That is something I’ve never done before. So, I decided I check out how to do a page on Facebook, which I did. We came up with the name #standup2scams because I really wanted something, in term of the campaign that portray a strength, a position of strength rather than from a victim point of view. So, the #standup2scams was really about taking back the power and being able to stand up and talk about what had happened to me. So, I set up #standup2scams on Facebook and on Twitter. And, as you mentioned earlier, I found it incredible in terms of establishing relationships.
So, through that, I’ve got some other relationships now with other likeminded people across the world which has been very advantageous. But from there, actually at around the same time, I was contacted and speaking with an international human rights lawyer, who actually I knew twenty or so years ago from my day with in corrections. He is very involved in law aid international and slave scenes. He was the first person who put to me that he believed that I was also a victim of human trafficking. Which I found very interesting at the time because, for me, at that point, when I thought of human trafficking, I thought of women had been kidnapped and sent overseas and trafficked to wealthy businessmen for, you know, a variety of sordid things. So, or children being trafficked across borders. But when I actually looked at the definition and explanation of human trafficking, it is about the exploitation of people, generally across other jurisdictions
And so, we’ve been going and operating for some 11 months and currently not receiving any funding but we haven’t actually, actively sort it. But we offer free advice to people that may find themselves arrested overseas, particularly as unwitting drug mules, and unwitting money mules. We also provide services to those who might think they have been scammed, who are being scammed, who are in recovery, who just wish to talk to someone
E: Yes, and you know, it is very individual. We know that this problem is huge and is just getting bigger and bigger and bigger, like $339 million in 2015 was, this is only in Australia, went into internet fraud. So, that’s a huge… Even though romance scams was only $23 million and that had gone down a little bit but that doesn’t really say anything because it is just the tip of the ice-berg.
S: And what’s even more frightening for me is that area is that they are the once that we know about
S: There are so many, and I’ve had many people that have contacted me that have unfortunately been to the police but have got no further. There has been nothing they can do and this is New Zealand that I am talking about. Or, they just have nowhere to turn. And some of them haven’t even told their families. They are dealing with it themselves. And I find that very sad that we are not better structured in a way that we are dealing with this situation. I mean I was blown away yesterday. There are some very good things happening here in Australia. And I suspect that some of the initiations are probably leading in the world in terms of what has been done in this particular area.
E: I was very, very taken by that, by the symposium.
Part 3 of the discussion:
E: What I wanted to ask you next was in leading there was about the shame. When you came back from your imprisonment and the confronted the whole media and everything and the both shaming and the victim blaming which I find is a huge thing. Or is it self-censorship, do you think?
S: I think it is probably a combination of things. I think that firstly, that as a society, we’ve always tendered to victim blame anyway. I am talking about the incidents of domestic violence and incidences of rape, whereas as a society, you know, we have victim blamed. Well, why do we do it? I think, it’s easier. Because to blame a victim takes a level of responsibility away from society having to do something about the issue. So, it’s about we just tell the victim to fix themselves.
So I think that it is an attitudinal societal issue that needs further exploring. I do see, it’s starting to turn. I, you know, yesterday was empowering to me in the fact that, as you said, there’s these two high powered Government officials who had a level of genuine empathy. Who totally realised, that, you know, that victim blaming is not the solution. For me, in terms of my own shame and humiliation. I. That was amidst those few weeks and months after arrest and it was all to do, it just got to a point with me where I thought, you know: This isn’t healthy. It is not healthy to stay in this state. I now understand that actually we as victims, or when we were victims. You know, we did not do anything wrong. And then, you know, I began to realise: if we did nothing wrong, why are we feeling the shame?
S: You know, because the shame is not ours. Shame needs to lie with the scammers. With those that are corrupt.
E: Well, I’ve been researching pornography a long time and that’s what I realised when I sort of woke up, that the patterns are exactly the same.
S: The other interesting which is relative in all of these issues is that there is a market. So, while there is a market for pornography, while there is a market for drugs, while there is a market for money laundering, you know, the corrupt behaviour of scammers will continue. So, it’s no point our energy into trying to stop that, because it is not going to stop.
S: What we have to focus our time on is those that end up in being the unwitting victims, those that end up being caught up in the cycle in some way or another. So, there isn’t one solution. I think that the most empowering thing for a victim is to be able to tell their story and feel like they are being heard, without being judged. And again, as a society, it is hard for people not to judge, you know. Even if you don’t verbalise it. You have a thought. That is a judgement and it’s hard not to judge. Trust me, I have been trying to really hard. My experience in prison thought me I needed to. You know, the women that chose to be drug mules. I need not to judge them because I didn’t walk in their shoes. I hear people say, and they are well meaning. And I know they care. But they say something like, you know: ‘Look, I know it wasn’t your fault but do you regret some of the silly decision you made? And that’s because we have been conditioned into thinking that. For me, as I suggested yesterday. You know, there is a lot of work to do but I think that there is some people out in there with the right intention and I think that we just need to. If we can start to create those safe, respectful, nonjudgmental environments where victims are able to tell their stories, there way. And to just have people to continue to respect them and to have a relationship with them, I am sure, it will be far more empowering than a lot that is going on currently.
E: You said before that forgiveness, gratitude and family. Let’s talk about them a little bit in here.
S: So, forgiveness became very important to me not to live prison bitter and twisted and wanting to string my scammer up and to, you know, crave a shotgun and you know, go after a group of scammers. I, you know, that’s just not a way of me being able to move forward. So, I had been thinking along, for a long time how was I going to do this. So, I watched a movie that has Nelson Mandela in it, called Invictus and it’s a very good movie and it’s got some very good messages in it. And one of the things that Mandela said to his staff when he was first elected as Prime Minister and they were refusing to work with their white collogues. He brought them all together and he talked to them and said, you know: ‘Forgiveness liberates the soul.’ And I thought: how true is that. And I thought that well, OMG if Mandela can forgive the country, then who am I to hold on to, you know to these negative feelings. I needed to forgive and. So, I did. And actually, once I had that almost epiphany, I realised that, you know, forgiving the other person isn’t about them, you know. Because it may have no impact on them. But it’s all about yourself. So, in order to forgive someone else, you know, it does liberate your soul. You are then in a position to be able to move forward.
In fact, I tweeted a tweeter a while ago about a story where they had actually caught some scammers. And while that was great and positive. I said it’s like stepping on an ant. Because that is what it’s like. You squash one, but there are millions to follow. And it’s very much the same as this. So, I do believe that a lot of the answer lies in the Internet, even though that was, you know, the vehicle in which is used, nowadays to scam many people. That doesn’t mean that I am against the Internet or that I am against technology. Not at all. No, I think that we can use that to our advantage, just as easily as the scammers use it to their advantage. I guess when said all that
Ah, that the other one, that we talked about was gratitude. And, you know. This probably occurred within days of my arrest that, I became grateful that I had never made my destination. What would have happened, I would have been met by someone that I would not have recognised. May have been the person I was talking to but it wasn’t the person I’d fallen in love with.
S: You know, what would they have done with me? Because by that point, I guess, I would have known that it was a hoax
E: and already trafficking
S: That’s right, and I was already a drug trafficker. And, you know. That in itself would have been hard enough to deal with. I was grateful for that but I was also grateful, you know, for the fact that, you know, my family were not still searching for me some five years later and not finding me because I had my throat slit and was on a back street of an alley in London somewhere.
As time went by, I became grateful that I wasn’t locked up in a country with the death penalty for drug trafficking. I became grateful for the fact that there were internationals in the prison with me from a variety of countries around the world that spoke English. But, you know, at the end of it, I was most grateful for the support of family
E: Yes, that’s that I have found quite a lot now, afterwards, talking with different people, going into different libraries, meeting people that, actually, what makes the most difference is the family backing and is that you have your family behind you and they are not leaving you behind. I always want to say like in this movie: Lilo and Stitch where the Hawaiian say that it is a family and the family is the unit and you never.
S: Leave them behind
E: Yes. I found that myself. Do you agree?
S: Oh, totally. You know, I think in many ways this whole experience has probably been harder on them than it has been on me. My family had to deal with and still had to go to work and you know, create an income and figure out the way that they were going to pay a
E: After you came back and then what had your backing, I saw them there, yesterday. I have the same thing. So, I feel that that shame is somehow taken away because of that. And that makes all the difference there. I don’t care about anybody else. How about you?
S: Yeah. Totally. I mean, my family was my whole reason for surviving. You know, they are my reason now for standing up and talking about it, because I saw the impact on them.
E: They often say that your worst experiences turn out to be your best experiences. How has this whole thing changed you?
S: Well, I certainly have become far more knowledgeable about how the scammers operate. And all about those things.
E: How about inward? As a human being?
S: I guess, and I tried to write this the other day. On the lines that I realised that many of the experiences, and I am not saying this as articulately as I like to but… You know, the experiences that we have in life, we do have the opportunity to determine how these experiences impact on us. So, we can choose to take a negative or a positive experience, in our lives and we can determine the outcome. Now, by that I mean, I knew, I wanted some good to come out of this. And if that good is by sharing my story, by, you know, working on campaigns, working with Mule, helping others, standing up and speaking and advocating on behalf of other victims. I guess, I was just speaking to my daughter last night, I was saying, I’ve always. My work has always been something that can easily consume me.
S; You know, not just this that I am doing now but even in my past. So, I guess in that respect, I haven’t changed. Just my focus has changed. And, you know, six years ago, I would never have thought that. I mean, I never would have thought what I went though, I went through. But this isn’t an issue that may never have crossed my path. So, I feel by the mare fact that it did, a some sort of indication that I need to, that I am on the right path. That I need to work in this area someway or another.
E: Yes, cause, you can never forget something that is so, so big. In my book, Love on the Line, I’ve written, like you know, two short stories because I wanted to recreate the ending to be the happy ending. Cause I do believe in happy endings, still and I believe in romance and in there I even compare what the scammers did, like, you know, how they got our, us into this romantic mode. Which was exactly similar to the romance books that many people love in that way. So, in this way do you believe that you are going to contribute to getting your own happy ending and what does that look like?
S: Well, you know. I am not quite sure what that would look like. Right for the here or now, it is the ability to be able to pay my way in the world again. You know, I have struggled to find work.
S: I am writing a book. I am writing a book, as you know. To share my experience and my learnings. Things I do to be grateful for, but also I’ve got some contributions from others who are going to write about their knowledge in this particular area. More so, not to substantiate what I am saying, but more to put a bit of, almost like evidence behind. Because, you know, there is research being done now. There are, as we know Dr Cassandra Cross and I am excited about her research coming out.
You know, the book isn’t necessarily for those that are sceptics. I would like to think that if they read it, because often sceptics don’t read it, but if they read it, they may get a bit of an insight, but more it’s for those, you know, sitting on the fence. And little bit not sure. Hopefully, it may give them some signs to recognise if it’s happening amongst their friends and family. I am not doing this for them. I am not doing this to change the minds of those that are judgmental and critical. You know, I am doing it for those that are sitting on the fence or for those that want to know more about the subject.
E: Exactly. Well this is the reason that I wrote my book too.
So, I did write a book about it. Now, since we are in this new era of the digital world, I will give you a digital version of my book as thanks. If you don’t mind.
S: Thanks you
E: That’s a digital version, so you can download that to any of your devices. Now that you in the world and not cut anywhere. And I really, really thank you for coming and talking with me and I am sure in the future we are going to do quite a lot of work together.
S: I am sure. Thank you, Elina
E: Thank you for watching and goodbye.