TRUE CRIME: the online romance scam ruining lives
Maria Exposto knew it was risky to lirt with a man online, but she didn’t imagine it would land her a death sentence. Genevieve Gannon investigates.
This Christmas Maria Pinto Exposto will lay down to sleep on a yoga mat in a cell in Kajang Prison, Malaysia, more than 6500 kilometres from her four sons and three grandchildren in Sydney. She has lost 20 kilograms since she was jailed four years ago and survives on the meagre amount of food she can afford with money her family sends each month. Life has been bleak for the former social worker from Cabramatta who was sentenced to death for drug traf cking in May. But for the rst time in a long time, Maria has been sleeping a little easier. On October 10 the Malaysian government announced plans to abolish the death penalty so even if Maria loses her appeal, she has hope that the law will change and she won’t be hanged. Yet the threat of life imprisonment still lingers. The court has yet to decide if Maria wilfully attempted to transport drugs from Shanghai to Melbourne, or if she was the innocent victim of an online romance con, perpetrated by a man who called himself “Captain Daniel Smith” and who convinced Maria he loved her during what she believed was a two-year relationship.
“Oh my God, my world just collapsed,” Joana says of the day she learned her big sister “Bella” had been arrested. She called Maria “Bella” because she was beautiful and a little bit vain. Maria is also known as “the Princess Diana of Cabramatta” because of her charitable heart.
“She is a beautiful person,” Joana says, but also “too trusting” and “naïve”. “What can I say? She’s my sister. I miss her terribly. She was just a simple woman.”
On December 7, 2014, Maria was transiting through Kuala Lumpur airport, en route to Melbourne from China, when she accidentally went through immigration. She had with her a backpack that she had collected in Shanghai from a man who was a stranger to her.
Maria had allegedly been told that Smith was leaving the military and needed her to pick up his discharge papers and bring them back to Australia, freeing them to marry.
When Malaysian customs of cials searched her bag they discovered 1.14kg of methamphetamine sewn into the lining. Maria was arrested and charged with drug traf cking.
Her lawyers argued at trial that she was the victim of romance fraud and was an unwitting mule. The judge agreed, and Maria was acquitted. But prosecutors did not accept the verdict.
Deputy public prosecutor Muhammad Azmi Mashud appealed against the judgement, saying that by agreeing to carry the bag to Australia, Maria had committed an act of “wilful blindness”. The appeal court sided with the prosecution and overturned the acquittal. There was only one penalty: death. In May of this year, Maria was sentenced to hang.
She was taken to Kajang Prison to await her appeal and it was there that she heard the news the death penalty was being overturned.
For her family, waiting at home in Sydney’s western suburbs, it was a welcome reprieve, but with so much uncertainty, they are all still on edge.
Maria’s sister has faith in her innocence. “She was very naïve and gullible, but drugs ... my sister’s never done drugs,”
Joana says. “She was pregnant at the age of 16. She was a mum
– a wife and a mum.”
Joana cries as she contemplates her sister’s fate. The pair have always been close. In September 1985 they migrated from East Timor to Australia, where they lived together with their children in a two-bedroom unit in Balmain that was tted out with furniture from St Vincent de
Paul. The sisters raised their brood of children together in a cramped but loving and industrious home. When Maria had her fourth child, a boy, she made Joana godmother.
“She’d take the clothes off her back to ensure nobody went without,” Joana says. “You have no idea how many people she helped.”
When her own children were grown up, Maria found employment in East Timor as a social worker. She returned to Sydney after her husband had a heart attack, but the marriage was on the rocks, Joana says.
It is around this time that Maria is alleged to have started chatting online to “Captain Daniel Smith”. She believed herself in love, according to reports led by Agence France-Presse.
“He [Smith] made me feel loved, he made me feel wanted,” Maria told the court, adding that the alleged US serviceman would send
her photos of himself. “Smith would sing to me a few times a day and send love poems as well,” she added.
Her defence team says she travelled to Shanghai at his behest, having been groomed by a criminal syndicate that had created a false identity to seduce and ensnare her.
Malaysia’s Federal Court will soon decide whether it accepts this or not.
The rise of romance fraud
Melbourne University cyber-psychology specialist Monica Whitty gave expert testimony during Maria’s trial. She can’t comment directly on Maria’s matter while it remains unresolved, but she spoke to The Weekly about the chilling criminal trends that have emerged as our real lives and online lives become increasingly intertwined.
Online romance fraud was rst recognised in 2007 and is now the second most common cybercrime committed in Australia. This year, in August alone, 329 dating and romance scams were reported to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s scam watcher website. Unsuspecting victims – mostly women (64.7 per cent) – were conned out of more than $3.2 million in just these cases. Year-to-date losses top $89 million from 117,425 reported online scams in Australia.
As the practice has become more widespread and sophisticated, the criminal syndicates behind them have grown bolder and more dangerous, Professor Whitty says.
“I guess criminals have seen this and they’ve thought: right, how else can we use these victims?”
Professor Whitty cannot say how many people have been lured into drug traf cking in this way, but if Maria is found to be an innocent victim of such a con, she will not be the rst. New Zealand grandmother and public servant Sharon Armstrong spent more than two years in an Argentinian prison after she was caught carrying ve kilograms of cocaine in a suitcase she believed contained documents belonging to her online ance “Frank”. She now dedicates herself to supporting other romance fraud victims.
“I’m blown away by the scale of it,” Sharon says. “There was one woman who was arrested six weeks after me and I suspect that she was scammed by exactly the same cartel. The MO [modus operandi] was similar. Her guy was in the military, whereas mine was supposedly a civil engineer. She’d been put up in the same hotel.”
Middle-aged women have been more susceptible to the traditional money-for-love romance scam, but as cartels have branched into drug muling, more men are being ensnared.
“It’s really hard for people to understand unless you’re immersed into the story and the narrative that’s created,” Professor Whitty says. “It seems unbelievable to people who don’t get all the stages involved and how clever the criminals are at tricking the victims.”
Sharon’s story illustrates the lengths criminals go to. A former deputy chief executive of New Zealand’s Maori Language Commission, she is not someone you would ever expect to fall for a fake online lover. Sharon is articulate, resilient and spirited.
Yet in 2010, after she moved from New Zealand to Brisbane to be with her daughter and eight-year-old granddaughter, she was approached by a civil engineer on a dating website.
“I remember showing my sister and my daughter and they were like, ‘Ooh, this might be worth following up’.” Sharon says. “We were all pretty excited at the start. He was a handsome man.”
For ve months the pair chatted and grew closer until they agreed that Sharon should travel to London to meet Frank. Before she left, he asked, would she agree to do a little work for him as his PA? In the same breath, he said he wanted to marry her. “He even told me he had seen a wedding dress in a shop window that he wanted to buy for me,” Sharon wrote in her memoir Organised Deception.
Frank asked if Sharon could collect some documents on a stopover in Argentina where a woman named Esperanza would assist with the drop-off.
“When I got to Argentina they started changing all the plans and,
suddenly, they’re trying to tell me they want me to y to Switzerland and catch a train down to Madrid and all sorts of stuff like that,” Sharon says. “I said, ‘I’m not prepared to do that,’ and of course Frank the saviour came in and said, ‘Nah, I agree with you honey, just come to London.’”
Sharon now believes that was all part of the scam. After “Frank” came to her rescue when the “company” was trying to get her to do something she didn’t want to do, her trust in him was strengthened. She willingly went to collect a case of documents from a location not far from her hotel.
On April 13, 2011, Sharon headed to Ezeiza airport to y to London to meet the man she believed she’d spend the rest of her life with. Instead, customs of cials opened her bag and revealed ve kilograms of cocaine concealed in a false bottom. “The next few moments were a blur. I can remember saying ‘no, no, no’,” Sharon recalls.
She was strip-searched, ngerprinted and thrown in a holding cell in the airport. Most of her clothes were con scated. She had no privacy to use the bathroom. Eventually she was shifted to prison. “The blanket and the mattress in the cell were so lthy that I just lay on top of the blanket and put my cardie over me,” she recalled.
The next day, she was put in a cell with nine other women. “We waited and waited. I was in the same clothes. No shower. I felt sick and disgusting.”
The following months were spent in various prisons, which were often overcrowded, with nowhere to sleep but on the concrete oor or concrete benches. One of the cells held eight other women who all shared a pit toilet. Sharon was eventually sentenced to four years and 10 months in prison. Her lawyer immediately appealed against the decision. Prosecutors also lodged an appeal. While the legal process played out, Sharon remained trapped in jail, where her health deteriorated and she was bitten by cockroaches.
“[The appeal court] acknowledged in their roundabout way that I’d been set up, so they recommended a reduction in my sentence,” she says. “I’m glad I was transited through a country without the death penalty.”
Following her return to New Zealand, Sharon has become a source of information for desperate families who fear their loved ones have been taken in by an online predator. She provides direct support to families and individuals, and campaigns more broadly to change attitudes towards cybercrime. One of her priorities is changing the rhetoric.
“We’re trying to move the language from romance scam to romance fraud to bring home that it’s a criminal offence,” she says. “As a society we’re quick to victim blame.”
“When I was arrested, headlines were saying things like: ‘Senior public servant turns drug mule,’ and ‘How did a senior public servant get into this situation?’ It was all about why, why, why was she so dumb and stupid? It wasn’t about what’s happening here ... It’s easier to say, well, the stupid woman shouldn’t have done it, rather than actually saying, that’s a criminal offence. They mean to extort you. They don’t love you, their sole intent was to extort.”
As for Maria, the courts are yet to decide if she was one such victim, or if she freely participated in a drug transaction.
Joana is hopeful her sister will come home again. “There is a God,” she says. “We’re great believers.”
Malaysian Justice Datuk Wira Mohtarudin Baki led the three-judge panel that overturned her acquittal, and his comments show that her fate is by no means sealed.“There is one more round of appeal,” he said at the time. “I wish you luck.”
Maria Exposto was arrested in Malaysia for drug trafficking – her lawyers argued she’s the victim of romance fraud.
Right: Maria Exposto is escorted from court after being cleared of drug trafficking charges in December 2017; the ruling was later overturned on appeal. Below: Police show evidence, including the bag Maria was allegedly carrying.
New Zealand grandmother Sharon Armstrong (left) was sentenced to four years and 10 months in an Argentinian prison for drug trafficking, after falling victim to an online dating scam. She now provides support to other victims.