New Zealand grandmother Sharon Armstrong paid a high price for falling in love with a man she met online. In 2011, she became an unwitting drug mule and was arrested at Buenos Aires airport with five kilos of cocaine in her luggage.
“There was a young woman that was doing some translating, and she managed to say they were asking me: ‘Was I okay?’ I can remember thinking at the time I don’t know that I’ll ever be okay again,” Sharon told Insight.
Five months before her arrest, Sharon was living with her daughter Ari May in Brisbane when she met a man named ‘Frank’ on an online dating site.
‘Frank’ was a handsome Australian engineer who claimed to be living 20 minutes away. After ten days of getting to know each other on the phone, they arranged to meet. But that meeting never took place. ‘Frank’ was suddenly on his way to London for a new job.
Despite the distance, the romance grew. ‘Frank’ bombarded Sharon with 7000 emails and led her to believe they had a future together.
Her daughter Ari was sceptical about the relationship, and about ‘Frank’. “[My mum] started to hide some stuff from us and became a little bit secretive. That’s when I started to think he may not have been real,” said Ari.
Sharon and her daughter Ari.
There was one big secret Sharon was hiding from her daughter. ‘Frank’ had asked Sharon to pick up some work documents in Argentina and bring them to him in London.
“At the time I trusted him totally,” said Sharon.
Rather than documents, Sharon was transporting cocaine. She was caught, and served two- and-a-half-years in an Argentine jail for attempting to traffic drugs.
“My rose-coloured glasses shattered on the floor of that prison.”
She never found out who ‘Frank’ was.
“I don’t think there was a ‘Frank’. I’m more likely to believe that it was, if not a drug cartel, certainly a network behind it. Certainly not one person, in my case,” said Sharon.
According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Australians lost more than $56 million in romance scams in 2021.
Andrew Tragardh is a former police officer and barrister who now works as a fraud lawyer with his Melbourne-based company Duxton Hill. He believes that con artists and fraudsters often get away with their crimes because they are difficult to investigate.
“In my experience I think law enforcement generally tends to lack the motivation, the training and the resources to really do this sort of work,” said Andrew.
Often the victims are so embarrassed, they just don’t report it.
“I think there is a massive underreporting of this worldwide,” said Andrew.
Cecilie Fjellhoy is still waiting for justice.
Cecilie told how she was conned by the man who called himself Simone Leviev (real name Shimon Hayut) in the Netflix documentary ‘The Tinder Swindler’ earlier this year. Hayut is living a free life in Israel and has never been charged for the alleged crimes he committed against her.
“To call him The Tinder Swindler, it’s not enough for this guy. It’s the tip of the iceberg,” Cecilie told Insight.
Four years ago, Cecilie, 34, met ‘Simon’ on the dating app Tinder. He was charismatic and ambitious.
“He said he was the son of (diamond mogul) Lev Leviev and that he was the CEO of LLD Diamonds, which is this big diamond company.”
The relationship quickly developed into something serious.
“It was something that I’ve never experienced before, “ said Cecilie.
It was proper, you know, flowers on the door, like morning calls, midday calls, like all the time, it was like constant bombarding of love, pretty early on.”
A selfie of Cecilie and Hayut
They discussed moving in together and starting a family.
But after three months, everything changed. ‘Simon’ told Cecilie his life was being threatened. He was negotiating a $70 million business deal and he had enemies.
“This is his story. That’s why I hate retelling it because it was like a bad movie,” said Cecilie.
Claiming that he could be traced if he used his own credit cards, ‘Simon’s’ con began. It started with using Cecilie’s American Express card and quickly escalated.
“It was always the credit card, but a credit card is maxed out. So, he needed more money on the credit card. So, I started taking out loans to then fill up the credit cards for him. It ended up with over 200,000 pounds.”
Cecilie Fjellhoy kissing Hayut on the cheek.
Overwhelmed by her debts, Cecilie contacted American Express and two special security agents were sent to her work. She discovered ‘Simon’s’ real name was Shimon Hayut and he had already served two years in a Finnish prison for defrauding women.
“When I realised that everything was a lie, you don’t know how you’re going to survive another day. And when you reach that point in time luckily, I have a strong enough family and that support network that got me into a psychiatric ward because I don’t know if I’d even be sitting here,” Cecilie said.
Hayut standing on the stairs of a private plane.
Cecilie spoke to Norway’s biggest newspaper but instead of receiving empathy, she was accused of being a gold digger.
“I have to say I’m the worst gold digger. I don’t understand where that comes from. Gold diggers take money.”
Today Cecilie is working closely with the Leviev family in Israel to try to get Hayut back in prison.
“We will see him behind bars. It’s not a question. I think the net is pulling in and he’s desperate. He can’t leave Israel. He is caught there, and he will face justice.”
Hayut wearing designer clothing on a private plane.
But for Cecilie the nightmare is far from over. She says she is now facing a debt of £300,000 as the interest on her loans continues to accumulate. She is bankrupt in England, but the Norwegian banks are still pursuing her.
“They’re powerful banks. They have all the means to go after you to the bitter end. And these are very tough lawyers because they know exactly what to say to get their way. And you’re a single individual that made a very big mistake.”
Shimon Hayut has yet to make a public comment about his scams.