Thursday, March 21, 2024

Fifty Thousand Regrets and One Important Lesson


Do you recognize the name Charlotte Cowles?  No?  Then maybe you know her instead for what she did.  She is the financial-advice journalist—of all things—that fell for a scam that led her to hand over a shoebox full of cash—$50,000 of her own money—to a stranger.

There can be two basic reactions to that story: “What an idiot she is!  How could she let that happen?”  Or a more empathetic “I feel so bad for her.  Could that happen to me?”  And Ms. Cowles has had plenty of both on social media. 

I tend to fall into the latter group.  There are so many sophisticated methods that scammers can use, and so much personal information compromised through computer hacking of companies we legitimately deal with every day, from your bank to the local hospital to your own employer, that those who would steal your money stealthily seem to have all the advantages.  In Ms. Cowles’s case, someone posing as an employee of Amazon phoned her, transferred her to someone else posing as a worker at the Federal Trade Commission, and eventually even had a third person pretending to be a CIA employee involved.

But look at that sequence again.  She likely orders from Amazon (and by the way, evidence seems to indicate I’m the only person in the United States never to have ordered from Amazon; contact me if you know differently) so it was reasonable to assume Amazon might have reason to call her about an identity theft issue, especially if the caller had any personal information about her that he could cite.  The Federal Trade Commission is the agency to contact about identity theft scams, so that seemed like a reasonable next step to be handed off to them.  And if she were told that the identity thieves were based overseas and the victim is convinced she is part of a plan to help trap them, wouldn’t she do anything she could to help out?  Including handing over some bait money for safe keeping or to lure them into the trap?

Now that part about the CIA agent does seem far-fetched until we realize what happened in steps one and two.  Ms. Cowles’s defense mechanisms were turned off by inducing her fear response.  She was convinced her identity, bank accounts, reputation, and even her freedom (think: jail time for fraud) were in danger so instead of thinking rationally she went into panic mode, didn’t question what she was told, and simply followed the scammers’ directions.  And it is this aspect of the scam that causes me to empathize with the victim.  If a scammer hits just the right nerve, just the right fear and dread of the intended victim, then the path to a successful theft is paved for him.  A doting grandparent is told his grandchild is in jail unjustly in another state, wire some money to him.  A retiree is told that his Social Security account has been compromised and she could lose her benefits unless she can verify her direct deposit information.  Anyone can fall for it.  You can.  I can.

I salute Ms. Cowles for coming forward to admit her failing.  Her experience should teach us that anyone can fall for a clever scam and that these are not backstreet muggers trying to take our money.  These are organized criminals who can make a phone call look like it’s coming from a legitimate known business.  Who can use artificial intelligence to mimic a loved one’s voice.  Who are stealing billions of dollars every year from Americans.

I repeat here what I’ve said before: Stop.  Think.  Slow down the process if it seems you are being pulled into a similar situation.  You are not going imminently to jail.  Social Security does not phone you to tell you that you will lose your benefits.  No government agency accepts Walmart gift cards as a method of payment.  If ANYTHING seems the slightest bit off, call a halt.  Hang up, then look up online the real number of the alleged legitimate party that was calling (Amazon, Social Security, the FTC, etc.) and call them to ask if something really is wrong.  The same is true for e-mails or any other form of communication that seems strange and even slightly suspicious.  Keep your emotions in check, as hard as that might be. 

And have some empathy for Ms. Cowles.  You’d want the same for yourself if you fell victim.

Until next time,



“I see violence and strife in the city….and mischief and trouble are within it…oppression and fraud do not depart from its marketplace.” Psalm 55:9-11 RSV