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.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

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.”

Com­ing home

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.

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