April 13, 2024

New York financial advice columnist embarrassingly reveals how scammers duped her into handing over $50K in a shoe box to a stranger after claiming to be from the CIA, FTC and Amazon

  • Charlotte Cowles, 39, described in-depth the con in a piece featured in The Cut 
  • The publication, along with The New York Times, employs Cowles as a columnist
  • This one came in the form of personal tale, culminating with her losing the cash

A New York financial advice columnist got scammed out of more than $50,000 – after falling for a scheme that saw her hand the cash over to a stranger in a shoe box.

Charlotte Cowles, 39, described the in-depth con in a piece featured in The Cut – a women-centered website run by New York Magazine.

The publication, along with The New York Times, employs Cowles as a columnist, penning articles mostly about personal finance.

This one, though, came in the form of a cautionary tale – one involving criminals posing as CIA agents, investigators from the FTC, and a Amazon customer service agent who told her she had been a victim of identity theft.  

They all told her she was in ‘imminent danger’ – leading her to pack up the shoe box and put in the backseat of a White Mercedes that pulled up aside her home.

The first-person feature, published Thursday, clocks in at nearly 6,000 words, and is fittingly titled, The Day I Put $50,000 in a Shoe Box and Handed It to a Stranger. 

Charlotte Cowles, 39, described how she fell for the in-depth con in a piece featured in The Cut – one of several publications where she regularly provides financial advice
Cowles – seen here at a 2019 event in New York centered around starting your own company -also writes articles about personal finance for The New York Times, but still fell for the almost-unbelievable scheme

‘How could I have been such easy prey?’ Cowles, previously the senior features editor at Harper’s Bazaar, writes at one point in the article.

‘Scam victims tend to be single, lonely, and economically insecure with low financial literacy,’ she continues. ‘I am none of those things. 

‘I’m closer to the opposite,’ the writer of The Cut’s ‘My Two Cents’ advice column insists.

‘I’m a journalist who had a weekly column in the “Business” section of the New York Times. I’ve written a personal-finance column for this magazine for the past seven years. I interview money experts all the time,’ 

She adds. ‘I’m married and talk to my friends, family, and colleagues every day… I’m not someone who loses her head.

My mother-in-law has described me as even-keeled… I am listed as an emergency contact for several friends… I vote, floss, cook, and exercise.’

Apparently modest, the accomplished contributor eventually got to the meat of the story – a so-called ‘conspiracy’ involving, as she puts it, ‘drug smuggling, money laundering, and [fake] CIA officers [showing up] at my door.’

It happened this past Halloween, and started with a call from a scammer posing as an employee for Amazon, Cowles – who has a B.A. in English from Columbia – recalls.

‘That morning… I dressed my toddler in a pizza costume for Halloween and kissed him good-bye before school,’ she writes.

‘I wrote some work emails. At about 12:30 p.m., my phone buzzed.   

‘The caller ID said it was Amazon,’ Cowles continues. ‘I answered. A polite woman with a vague accent told me she was calling from Amazon customer service to check some unusual activity on my account. 

‘The call was being recorded for quality assurance. Had I recently spent $8,000 on MacBooks and iPads?

‘I had not,’ Cowles – whose work has been featured in both Glamour and Politico – continues. 

‘I checked my Amazon account. My order history showed diapers and groceries, no iPads.’

The woman, who said her name was Krista, told Cowles the orders were made under her ‘business account.’

When the freelancer said she didn’t have one, the scammer feigned confusion.

Cowles currently provides financial advice in her ‘My Two Cents’, found on the New York Magazine-run website
Pictured: A sign stands outside the Federal Trade Commission building in Washington, DC

‘”Hmm,” she said. “Our system shows that you have two.”‘ the mom-of-one recalls of the exchange.

The woman went on to tell her that she would flag the two business accounts and freeze their activity – providing Cowles with a phony case number for future reference.

They urged her to check her credit cards, which she did, with Cowles eventually thanking the woman for her help.

Then, the journalist writes, the scammer began to tell her how, recently, the Jeff Bezos-run company had encountered an influx of identity theft incidents similar to the one they were seeing.

The three warning signs to look out for to spot the scammers

Here are HSBC’s tips on what to look out for:

  • You may be told you have been a victim of fraud within the bank and should not trust them.
  • Fraudsters may claim you are helping a police investigation.
  • You may be told you need to buy gold or jewelry to stay safe. Legitimate fraud investigations will not ask you to do this 

It had become so pervasive, the fake agent reportedly told her, that the eCommerce firm head begun working ‘with a liaison at the Federal Trade Commission.’

When the woman asked if she could connect the two, Cowles not-so-hesitantly replied: ‘Um, sure?’ 

This put her into contact with a man who called himself as Calvin Mitchell, she recalls – noting how the supposed investigator provided a badge number, and had her take down his direct phone line.    

He told her the call was being recorded and monitored for her safety, and read her last four digits of her Social Security number.

He also knew her home address in a high-rise near Prospect Park, and her correct date of birth. 

‘The fact that he had my Social Security number threw me,’ Cowles writes, ignoring the fact the phony agent only provided the final four numerals.

‘We’ve been working on [it] for a while now,’ he reportedly warned. ‘It’s quite serious.’

The scam dragged on from there, with ‘Calvin’ telling Cowles that from what he could tell, the journalist had a whopping 22 bank accounts, nine vehicles, and four properties registered under her name. 

The bank accounts had wired more than $3 million overseas, he told her – mostly to Jamaica and Iraq. When he asked if this information was correct, a shaken Cowles reportedly told her chiseler, ‘No.’

The man on the line’s claims only got more over the top from there.

He asked her if he knew a woman by the name of Stella Suk-Yee Kwong, after which a texted me a photo of what looked like the woman’s ID, which he claimed had been found in a car rented under her name abandoned on the Southern Border.

The car, discovered in Texas, was found with blood and drugs in the trunk, Calvin claimed.

After falling for the scam, friends assured Cowles – seen here at an even in Manhattan back in 2010 – that she would not have felt the need to hand over the cash if the scammers had not mentioned her son
The exterior of The Spheres are seen at the Amazon.com Inc. headquarters on May 20, 2021 in Seattle is seen here. Cowles scam started with a call from a woman claiming to be a customer service agent for the eCommerce firm, and got increasingly unbelievable from there

A home in New Mexico affiliated with the car rental had also been raided, the phony FTC sleuth further claimed – telling Cowles that there, cops recovered drugs, cash and bank statements registered under her name.

‘He finally added that there were warrants out for my arrest in not only Texas, but Maryland as well – both involving accusations of cybercrimes, money laundering and drug trafficking.’

Overwhelmed, Cowles, still on the line, responded by Googling her own name along with the words ‘warrant’ and ‘money laundering.’

A scared-stiff Cowles texted her husband. 

‘I’m in deep shit,’ she reportedly wrote, before eventually deleting the text at the scammer’s insistence. ‘My identity was stolen,’ she told her husband before. ‘It seems really bad.’

The conversation with Calvin then turned to potential ‘suspects,’ with the unseen agent telling her, ‘Everyone around you is a suspect.’

‘These are sophisticated criminals with a lot of money at stake,’ Calving reportedly told her. ‘You should assume you are in danger and being watched. You cannot take any chances.’

Fearing these phony federal offenses could ‘really f*ck up [her] life,’ she went on with the ruse.

When asked, Cowles told the man she only had checking and savings that boasted a combined balance of roughly $80,000. 

‘You must have worked very hard to save all that money,’ he went on to tell her. ‘Do not share your bank-account information with anyone.’

Assuring her that he was ‘going to keep [her] money safe,’ Calvin told her that he was going to transfer her over to a colleague of his at the CIA – billed as ‘the lead investigator on [her] case and the point man for such talks.’

Before finishing the call, he provided a nine-digit case number he said was meant for her records – a number that, after another Google search, did not point Cowles to and particular webpage.

Noting that they were not seeking her personal details as they already knew them, she recalled how she felt comfortable enough to go through with the third call.

The next man, Cowles recalls, had ‘a deeper voice and a slight British accent flecked with something [she] couldn’t identify.’

He gave his name as Michael Sarano – a CIA agent exclusively assigned to cases involving the FTC. Again, the man provided a badge number – sparking some of the first signs of skepticism from the widely published writer.  

As for an explanation, the man presenting himself as Michael said that in such cases, the CIA is forced to investigate the victim’s spouse as well, before insisting that the less he knows, the less chance he could ever be implicated.

Insisting she must adhere to this protocol, Michael responded with a more strict tone when Cowles – conceding that by this point she was ‘feeling stupid’ – reportedly expressed a hesitance to lie to her husband.

‘You are being investigated for major federal crimes,’ he told her. ‘By keeping your husband out of this, you are protecting him.’

Michael, at that point, bombarded her with the same sensational claims his phony FTC accomplice had  – telling her about the Texas border, the property in New Mexico, the drugs, and finally, the nearly two dozen bank accounts. 

‘If you talk to an attorney, I cannot help you anymore,’ the man on the line said sternly. ‘You will be considered noncooperative. Your home will be raided, and your assets will be seized. You may be arrested. It’s your choice.’

Noting how ‘ludicrous’ that seemed, Cowles responded by asking if she could visit Michael’s office in person to resolve the situation.

He told her that his office was at the CIA’s well-known headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and that they did not have enough time – telling her: ‘It’s going to sound crazy, but we must follow protocol if we’re going to catch the people behind this.’

He explained how the CIA would need to freeze all of her assets, including her real bank accounts, to halt the activity on the 22 fraudulent ones.

They would also deactivate her Social Security number, he told her – as it, too, had been compromised.

He promised to provide her a new one, saying they would continue to monitor any activity coming from the old one in hopes of catching the criminals in the act.  

Until then, he told her, she would need to use cash for day-to-day expenses.

‘It was far-fetched,’ Cowles writes at this point. ‘Ridiculous. But also not completely out of the realm of possibility.’

Asking if she had any other options, Cowles kept on, finally agreeing to follow each one of Michael’s instructions to the T.

The fake agent began by asking her how much cash she believed she would need to support myself for a full year – explaining that her assets could be frozen for such a span.

He told her that there could be a trial, and that these things ‘take time’ – after which Cowles said she could probably survive on $50,000.

Wondering how she could continue to receive freelance checks without a bank account and hoping her husband would float her some cash, she agreed to head to her local bank to withdraw the sum.   

‘You need to go to the bank and get that cash out now,’ Michael reportedly told her. ‘You cannot tell them what it is for. In one of my last cases, the identity thief was someone who worked at the bank.’

He also instructed her to keep him on the line – secretly, on speaker – so he could monitor the interaction, telling her: ‘It’s important that I monitor where this money goes from now on.’

He added that one his colleagues would arrive meet me her at her Prospect Heights home at 5 pm – less than five hours than the first scammers’ call came in – to guide her through the next steps.

First, though, they told her they needed to confirm the amount of cash – before cutting her a check afterwards. A man claiming to be from the FTC quelled her suspicions by changing his Caller ID to show the agency’s official phone number – a practice called ‘spoofing’

When she reached the bank, she told a guard that she needed to make a sizable cash withdrawal, leading her to send her upstairs. 

Michael, meanwhile, was on speakerphone in my pocket, Cowles recalls – writing how when she reached the teller, she asked for the agreed-upon $50,000. 

The woman behind the glass ‘raised her eyebrows,’ Cowles says, before disappearing into a back room.

She returned with with a metal box filled with $100 bills, and began funneling them into a counting machine.

Cowles recalls how when she left without issue, Michael ‘was bursting with praise.’

She then writes how during her walk back, she finally became suspicious of what was going on.

‘I don’t even believe that you’re a CIA agent,’ Cowles reportedly told him. ‘What you’re asking me to do is completely unreasonable.’

He responded with an exasperated sigh.

A picture of Michael’s badge soon appeared on her phone, and a still-skeptical Cowles decided against asking for further verification.

When she got home, Michael unleashed a new barrage of orders, Cowles writes.

He commanded her to get a box, put the cash in, and take a picture, before taping it shut.

Labeling it with her name, fake case number, address, and signature, Cowles took another picture of the labeled box at Michael’s behest.

‘My colleague will be there soon,’ he told her. ‘He is an undercover CIA agent, and he will secure the money for you.’

‘You are being charged with money laundering,’ he said. ‘If we secure this cash and then issue you a government check under your new Social Security number, that will be considered clean money.’

Cowles responded by saying that she would need to see the undercover’s badge if she was going to hand the shoe box over, after which Michael insisted: ‘Undercover agents don’t carry badges.’

Again, Cowles accepted the man’s warped logic, and conceded in the Thursday piece: ‘I didn’t know what else to do.’

By 6 pm, Cowles received the call to go downstairs. Michael’s colleague was arriving, he told her.

By then, her husband had returned from work and was reading to our son. 

‘What’s going on? Is everything OK?’ he asked her as she got her coat on and affixed herself to go outside. She motioned to the phone as if she was busy on the other line. 

She told her: ‘I have to go downstairs and meet a guy who’s helping with the identity-theft case. I’ll explain more later.’

She left and walked out of her building, all while Michael remained on the line.

Within three minutes, a White SUV pulled up to the curb. It was 6:06 pm.

Following instructions, she left the box in the back seat. She writes that she did not get a good look at the person or people inside, as the windows were tinted and it was dark. By the time she returned inside, Michael had texted her a photo of a Treasury check made out to her for $50,000.

He assured her a hard copy would be hand-delivered to me in the morning. It never came.

Before that, though, Michael told his mark to stay on the line, as he was working on setting up my appointment for her with the Social Security office. 

Feeling comforted by the concept of a real appointment with an actual government agency, Cowles kept the scammer on speaker in her pocket while she took her two-year-old trick-or-treating.

At one point, she said she checked to see if Michael was still there, but was instead met with his female colleague who told her he’d be back soon.

Then, when she returned home, she found that the call had been ended.

Panicking, she called back, and was again met with the unnamed woman who said Michael was busy and that the Social Security Office was closed.

Finally realizing that the woman was likely not telling the truth, Cowles began to tear into her unseen aggravators.

‘You are lying to me. Michael was lying,’ she told the woman. 

After hanging up, she told her husband what had happened. 

‘Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked her, in disbelief that she had fallen for such an obvious scam.

They proceeded to put their son to bed, and called Cowles’ parents and brother for advice.

They agreed that the proper course of action was to phone 911, and by 10:30 pm, three officers arrived. 

She recalled how one cop told her that no government agency will ever ask anyone for money, to which she replied: ‘It didn’t really feel like he was asking.’

The police told her not to worry, but to consider the cash as good as gone.

They promised to check traffic cameras for the car, but four months later, an arrest has yet to be made, Cowles admits.

She said that friends told her that if the scammers never mentioned her son, she would never have fallen for such a scam – something she says she now believes to be true.

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