If you’re in the market for a bumper scammer story that spans multiple continents, hundreds of aliases, and revolves around a protagonist, so charismatic that she makes Tom Cruise look like a rube, well look no further…
Seriously, this article contains spoilers for episode three of Finding Samantha, the latest podcast from the awarding RTE Documentary on On One team, so if you haven’t listened yet, stop stalling and start streaming the first two episodes.
This seven-part series tracks the life and whereabouts of scam artist Samantha Azzopardi, a woman who managed to con the Irish government out of hundreds of thousands of euros, repeatedly deceive the Australian authorities and leave a sea of victims in her wake.
This week, journalists Nicoline Greer and Sharon Davis delve deeper into the mind of the show’s elusive namesake. Samantha has been accused of kidnapping, lying about sexual abuse, and fraud, but is she a calculated manipulator or a young woman crying out for help? After years of refusing to speak with the police or media, she might finally want to talk. To find out what she said, hit play on your preferred electronic device. Or, if you need more enticing, read on as we unpack episode three, SAMM AZZ.
The Real Samantha Azzopardi
This week’s episode kicks off with Sharon coming face to face with Samantha Azzopardi, well “one of them…” This Samantha is from Campbelltown, the same place that our Samantha (the GPO girl) went to high school. They’re also close in age, but contrary to what news outlets and publishers like The New Yorker have printed, they are not the same person. But it’s not just a matter of lazy reporting. In 2009 Samantha Azzopardi (the non-criminal) got a phone call from the other side of Australia: “Someone had called me and they said that they were a youth worker from Western Australia. And at that time It felt like a spam call before spam calls were quite big…”
The caller started collecting basic information like her name, location etc. They warned her to be careful because there was a girl. A girl who might be using her identity. Was this a call of concern, a data mining exercise or something even more sinister? More importantly, who was the caller? Unsurprisingly, this was not the last time Samantha Azzopardi from Campbelltown would have problems with her personal data…
“Someone had called me and they said that they were a youth worker from Western Australia. And at that time It felt like a spam call before spam calls were quite big. …” – Samantha Azzopardi from Campbelltown
Cyber security expert Paul C Dwyer swoops in to illustrate why this seemingly innocuous call might not be as innocent as it seems.
Those morsels of information: an email, a name, a location can be pieced together and used to convince a bank or financial institution to reset a password, change a security question or alter your personal information. So, maybe GDPR isn’t so bad after all…
“That’s how the Samanthas of this world operate, they’re confidence tricksters. That’s what they do. They trick you into confiding in them as well. And that’s what she does.” – Paul C Dwyer, Cyber Security Expert
Our protagonist is on par with most organized criminals when it comes to using online tools to her advantage, especially social media networks. Think about it, how easy is it to set up a fake profile? Or, in this case, a few hundred of them… Just a quick reminder that we’re only on episode three, and we’ve already encountered Samantha Azzopardi, also known as Lyndsey Coughlin, also known as Georgia McAuliffe, also known as Dakota Johnson (or Cody) and we haven’t even scratched the surface.
“The techniques that she’s employing are exactly the same as online cyber criminals. And, and the darkest kind of online cyber criminals, those who, who will be involved in things like romance scams, and those that are involved in predators to children…” – Paul C Dwyer, Cyber Security Expert
Meet Emily Sciberras
Here’s a fun exercise: go on Facebook and look up Emily Sciberras. She grew up in Australia, but moved to Russia at the age of 7 to study gymnastics. She sounds and looks like a real person, she has 3,400 followers. But Emily is merely another iteration of Samantha Azzopardi – shocking, I know.
Samantha used the same ruse she developed in the Blue Mountains (see ep.2) and weaseled her way into the lives of a sympathetic family. She told them she was 15, she was 24. But things would take a dark turn, as this time the family would try to adopt her…
“She claimed that while she was in France her father had murdered her mother and her twin sister before taking his own life. Emily had discovered their bodies. Dead men tell no tales right?” – Nicoline Greer.
Between 2011-2012, Samantha was roaming around Western Australia switching between new identities and wreaking havoc. Unsurprisingly she became well-known to the court system and the authorities. Former police prosecutor Kevin Harrison met Samantha in 2012. She was in court for fraud and the aforementioned adoption fiasco. During the hearing, Samantha remained silent and expressionless, with the usual finger in her mouth (see.ep1). “When I looked at her, I thought, is this person in the right court? Or should this person be in the children’s court?” What Harrison couldn’t figure out is why she did what she did. There was no big payout, so why would a grown woman pretend to be a school child?
“I was trying to determine what the gain was that Samantha had in mind, what was she hoping to achieve? I mean, this was a woman that was 10 years older than the person she was portraying”. – Former Police Prosecutor Kevin Harrison
If you stretch your mind back to last week’s episode, Sharon approached the real Samantha outside a Sydney courthouse and asked her for an interview. She refused. But then things started to get weird… Samantha was released from prison ten months after this encounter, just as Sharon started to receive some unusual Facebook notifications from someone called Sam Az. But when she goes to engage, the profile is promptly deleted. Then two nights before Christmas, Sam Az is back, but now she has a message. Does she want to communicate with Sharon? Or is this just another mind trick? You will have to listen to find out.
“So we know Samantha spends a lot of time online, but it’s never usually possible to conclusively find her”. – Sharon Davis
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that Samantha always follows a similar pattern: she’s underage, suffered abuse and claims to be someone else. She spends more time inventing new personas than being herself. In 2013, she moved to Melbourne and became Ellie Sheahan, a sex-trafficked schoolgirl. Then she hops over to New South Wales as Zoe Wilson while applying for a passport in the name of Georgia McCauliffe. Sound familiar? It’s the name she used to facilitate her trip to Ireland.
But next week, things take an even darker turn when she stops pretending to be a child and starts caring for them instead…
“We tend to think of passports and driving licenses as infallible documents, but they’re not really. And once you get one, they are very powerful.” – Nicoline Greer
New episodes of Finding Samantha are available weekly – catch up here, or via your preferred podcast source.
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