Finance columnist goes viral after admitting to being scammed out of $50,000

Finance columnist Charlotte Cowles reveals how she was conned into thinking she was the victim of identity theft in ‘The Cut’ essay

Meredith Clark
New York
Monday 19 February 2024 04:20 GMT
Related: Prisoners scammed military troops through dating app extortion ring and stole more than $500,00

A financial columnist for New York Magazine has gone viral after she admitted to being scammed out of $50,000 from someone posing as a CIA agent.

Charlotte Cowles, a writer living in New York City, recently shared how she was conned into thinking she was the victim of identity theft in an essay published in The Cut on 15 February. The first-person essay, titled “The Day I Put $50,000 in a Shoe Box and Handed It to a Stranger,” has since sparked much discourse online about scams.

Cowles began by explaining that she received a phone call from an Amazon customer service agent, who said there was fraud on her account. While Cowles didn’t notice any unusual activity on her Amazon account, she said she was connected to an investigator allegedly from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) who knew her Social Security number, her Brooklyn address, and the names of her family members and two-year-old son.

The man, who said his name was Calvin Mitchell, told Cowles that she was in “imminent danger” with 22 bank accounts, nine vehicles, and four properties registered to her name. He also claimed that her bank accounts were used to wire more than $3m overseas, and there were warrants out for her arrest linked to cybercrimes, money laundering, and drug trafficking.

The scammer convinced her not to tell anyone about their conversation, including her husband, over fears he was behind her identity theft. He transferred her to someone purporting to be a CIA agent named Michael Sarano, who instructed Cowles to withdraw $50,000 from her bank account so they could freeze her assets.

She was told to put the cash in a shoe box, tape it shut and label it with her name, case number, address, a locker number he had read out to her, and her signature before texting a picture of the box to him. When an “undercover CIA agent” arrived outside her Brooklyn home that evening, she put the shoe box filled with $50,000 cash in the back seat of the SUV.

The alleged CIA agent then texted Cowles a photo of a Treasury check made out to her for $50,000, saying that a hard copy of the check would be hand-delivered to her in the morning. When she tried to set up an appointment with the Social Security office to receive a “new Social Security number”, a woman told her over the phone that “Michael [was] busy” and he will “call [her] in the morning”.

Upon realising that she was the victim of a scam, Cowles told the woman: “You are lying to me. Michael was lying. You just took my money and I’m never getting it back.”

“I felt violated, unreliable; I couldn’t trust myself,” Cowles wrote. “I considered keeping the whole thing a secret. I worried it would harm my professional reputation. I still do.”

She added: “If I had to pinpoint a moment that made me think my scammers were legitimate, it was probably when they read me my Social Security number.”

Since it was published on 15 February, Cowles’ essay has received much attention online. Taking to X, formerly Twitter, many users debated whether it’s easy or difficult to fall for a scam. NBC reporter Kat Tenbarge defended Cowles from critics, emphasising how emotions can run high in the midst of a scam.

“Everyone who reads this thinks they would never fall for a scam like this, but the truth is you would,” Tenbarge wrote on X. “You just have no idea how you will react when your emotions are toyed with to this level. Everyone is capable of being abused, manipulated, and scammed.”

Some people used it as an opportunity to teach others about the warning signs of a scam, like one person who posted: “THE FTC DOES NOT DEAL WITH FRAUD OR HAVE BADGE NUMBERS.”

“There’s no gentle way to say this but I feel like it might be cool to teach people scam avoidance and instill in them that it CAN be prevented more instead of this ‘it can happen to anyone’ thing that sometimes veers into helpless coddling,” another user pointed out.

Others simply explained they wouldn’t fall victim to a scam because they have no money, or would never answer calls from an unknown number.

“One reason the $50,000 scam wouldn’t work on me is because I don’t have $50,000,” said one person, while another user said: “Shocked to discover how many of y’all are still picking up phone calls from numbers you don’t recognise in 2024.”

In 2022, the FTC found that young adults - including Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zers ages 18 to 59 - were 34 per cent more likely than older adults to report losing money to fraud. Most recently, US adults lost a record $10bn to fraudsters in 2023, according to the FTC. These types of scams related to investments, business decisions, romance, and government service.

In fact, scams mimicking government officials and services - such as the one in Cowles’ story - grew 15 per cent from 2022 to 2023.

The Independent has contacted Cowles for comment.

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