Fraud & Scams

Anatomy of a $50,000 Scam

Cameron Huddleston
Cameron Huddleston
March 21, 2024
Anatomy of a $50,000 Scam

Anyone can become a victim of a scam.

That’s because scammers go after everyone. They don’t just target people who fit a certain demographic—people, who on the surface, might seem vulnerable. 

Scammers cast a wide net and catch even highly educated, financially savvy people who are aware of the tactics these criminals use but are still swayed by their carefully crafted lies. Charlotte Cowles is one of those people.

Cowles would have seemed like one of the least likely victims of a scam. She wrote a weekly column in the “Business” section of The New York Times and has been the financial-advice columnist for The Cut for the past seven years. Yet, on October 31, 2023, she found herself putting a box with $50,000 cash into a white Mercedes SUV because scammers had convinced her that she would be putting her family in danger if she didn’t cooperate.

As she wrote in The Cut, “I’m not a person who panics under pressure and falls for a conspiracy involving drug smuggling, money laundering, and CIA officers at my door. Until, suddenly, I was.”  

Cowles pointed out in her article and told Carefull that there were red flags that popped up during the several hours-long conversation she had with the scammers. To raise awareness and protect others, Carefull has highlighted those red flags below. 

However, as Cowles told Carefull, being aware of the warning signs of a scam isn’t a guarantee that you can avoid becoming a victim. “When someone is really good at what they are doing and has found your vulnerability and tapped into it, the fear that what they’re saying is true overrides the red flags,” she said. “You’re not thinking rationally when you’re in that place of real fear and you’re trying to protect your family.”

That’s why, in addition to being able to recognize scam red flags, there are steps you should take to avoid becoming a victim. Keep reading to learn the warning signs and what Cowles said she would do differently. 

How the scam happened

The following is a summary of the events that Cowles shared in The Cut. See the full article for more details about the scam.

Cowles wrote that she got a call from a woman claiming to be with Amazon customer service and alerting her to unusual activity on her account. Supposedly, MacBooks and iPads worth $8,000 had been purchased through two business accounts in her name. When Cowles told the customer service representative, Krista, that she didn’t have any Amazon business accounts, the two of them concluded that Cowles must be a victim of identity theft. 

Krista then asked if she could transfer Cowles to an agent with the Federal Trade Commission, which had been working with Amazon to combat fraudulent accounts. Cowles agreed, and the agent who identified himself as Calvin Mitchell asked her to confirm the spelling of her name then read her the last four digits of her Social Security number, her home address, and date of birth to confirm they were correct. 

Calvin said that her personal information was linked to a case the FTC had been working on for a while. He said 22 bank accounts, nine vehicles, and four properties were registered to her name, more than $3 million had been wired overseas from the accounts, and that there were warrants for her arrest in Maryland and Texas.

He told Cowles the first thing she needed to do was not tell anyone what was going on, not even her husband, because everyone around her could be a suspect. He claimed that sophisticated criminals had stolen her identity and that she should assume that she was being watched and in danger.

Calvin asked Cowles how much money she had in her bank accounts ($80,000, she said), then said he was transferring her to his colleague at the CIA who would tell her what to do next. That man had a slight British accent, identified himself as Michael Sarano, said he worked for the CIA on cases involving the FTC and gave her his badge number. 

When Cowles questioned the supposed CIA agent’s legitimacy, he told her to look up the FTC’s phone number on its website. Then he told her to hang up. When he called back and the FTC number showed up on her caller ID, she asked if the number was spoofed. He claimed that government number’s can’t be spoofed. 

Michael asked if she had told anyone what was going on. When Cowles said that she had texted her husband, he claimed that she shouldn’t tell him anything to protect him. He repeated the story Calvin had told her, then said that he wouldn’t be able to help her if she contacted an attorney. Cowles wrote that he said, “You will be considered noncooperative. Your home will be raided, and your assets will be seized. You may be arrested. It’s your choice.” 

Michael told Cowles that she needed to act immediately and follow protocol to catch the criminals who had stolen her identity. The CIA would need to freeze all assets in her name, deactivate her compromised Social Security number and get her a new one. She would have to use cash for daily expenses until the criminals using her identity were caught. 

Michael instructed Cowles to go to the bank to withdraw the $50,000 she said she would need to support herself, but not to tell the bank staff why she was making the withdrawal. He asked her to keep the phone on speaker mode while at the bank to maintain contact. 

Michael then said that one of his colleagues would meet her at her apartment. He asked her to put the money in a box and label it with her name, case number, address, her signature and a locker number he read to her. Supposedly, the money would be secured for her in a locker and she would receive a Treasury check for the same amount. 

For every question Cowles had, he had an answer or a threat. After being on the phone for five hours with the scammers, Cowles was told to put the box with money into the back seat of white Mercedes SUV parked in front of her apartment building. A few hours later, the reality set in that she had been scammed.

The scam’s red flags

The red flags that appeared during Cowles’ conversation with scammers are tactics commonly used by criminals. Being aware of these warning signs might help you spot scams when they occur and reduce your chances of losing money to them.

Red Flag No. 1: A request to confirm personal information. By sharing Cowles’ personal information with her, the scammer was attempting to appear like a legitimate government official. It was an effective tactic because Cowles says not only did it make the scammer appear to be a real FTC agent, but also it felt more threatening knowing that he had her personal information.

However, this sort of information can be stolen in data breaches and sold on the dark web. And a real government official wouldn’t offer up someone’s sensitive personal information in a phone call as a way to confirm that person’s identity—nor would a government official call and ask you for your Social Security number.

Red Flag No. 2: A story that doesn’t make sense.  If the FTC had been working on a case related to Cowles for a while, if there were warrants for her arrest and if she was in danger from the people who stole her identity, she likely would have been contacted sooner by law enforcement—not by Amazon customer service.

Red Flag No. 3: A request for secrecy. The scammer told Cowles not to tell anyone else what was going on, which is a common tactic used to prevent victims from talking to someone who might talk them into hanging upon the scammer.

FTC phone number is listed on its “Contact” page (under a warning that it will never demand money, make threats, tell you to transfer money, or promise you a prize), but the CIA’s number is not listed

Red Flag No. 4: A false claim. The scammer claimed to be a CIA agent working on cases with the FTC. However, the CIA has no law enforcement function and can’t collect information on U.S. citizens. It provides intelligence only on foreign countries.

Red Flag No. 5: A spoofed phone number.  The scammer told Cowles that government numbers can’t be spoofed. However, caller ID can be faked to show a government agency’s phone number or name, according to the FTC. Also, note that Michael claimed to be calling from the FTC even though he said he was a CIA agent (likely because the FTC publishes its phone number on its website, but the CIA does not).

Red Flag No. 6: Threats. The scammer told Cowles that he wouldn’t be able to help her if she contacted an attorney and said her home would be raided. Scammers often use threats to scare people into cooperating. However, the FTC, Social Security Administration, IRS and other government agencies won’t threaten you, according to the FTC.

Red Flag No. 7: A sense of urgency. The scammer told Cowles that she needed to act immediately and follow protocol. Scammers often create a sense of urgency so that people don’t have time to evaluate the situation. 

Red Flag No. 8: A request to stay on the phone. The scammer asked Cowles to keep him on the line on speaker as she went to the bank to withdraw money. Scammers often make this request to maintain control of a situation and even coach people on what to say to bank employees or others they have to interact with when withdrawing money or making transactions. 

How to protect yourself from scams

Being able to recognize the warning signs of a scam might not be enough to prevent you from believing the story you are being told. “The red flags might be glaringly obvious,” Cowles said. “They were to me.”

Cowles said she didn’t feel like she could take a calculated risk and call the scammers’ bluff because she was convinced that she and her family were in danger. “Everybody has their points of vulnerability,” she said. “What might scare one person enough to keep them on the phone could be ridiculous to someone else.”

Now, Cowles lets calls go to voicemail to screen them. However, she said this strategy to avoid scams isn’t always realistic because she worries that she’ll miss important calls from her child’s school. 

In retrospect, Cowles said there are things she should have done that would have stopped her from handing over her savings to scammers.

Disengage: The scammer kept telling Cowles that she couldn’t hang up but had given her a number to call him back. During the call, she wondered what would happen if she lost service or something happened to her phone. She even thought about inventing a reason to get off the phone to take a minute to think clearly. “I wish I had done that,” she said. 

If you find yourself on a call with someone claiming that you need to stay on the line, it’s OK to make up an excuse (you need to go to the restroom, someone’s at the door) to pause the conversation.

Ask questions: If a story you’re being told doesn’t add up, don’t be afraid to ask questions to throw scammers off their scripts. For example, if people call and claim to be from a government agency, ask what department they work in, Cowles said. If they can’t answer, you know they’re scammers. If they do answer, check their claims by searching online or putting them on hold to call the agency directly. 

Talk to someone you trust: Cowles said she spoke to psychologists when writing her article about being scammed and learned that you can’t think rationally when you’re in a place of fear. That’s why it’s important to reach out to someone else you trust, even if the scammer is telling you not to talk to anyone else. 

This is the most effective strategy because it can be used if you receive any sort of questionable communication: a call, email, text message or letter. Before responding, get a second opinion. That might mean taking a screenshot of a suspicious text message and sending it to your spouse or partner before replying. You could forward emails alerting you to issues with an account to your adult children to ask whether they appear legitimate. You could drive to the police department while staying on the phone with someone who is telling you not to hang up. 

“I wish I had figured out a way to talk to someone,” Cowles said. “That would’ve broken the spell.” 

If you receive a suspicious call, email or text message, you can speak with a Carefull Care Agent by calling 833-836-0500. Carefull subscribers can use the Scam Check feature in their Carefull dashboard to find out if something is a scam.

Cameron Huddleston

Cameron Huddleston

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