Here are all the red flags Charlotte Cowles missed in that viral NY Mag article

Emma McGowan 20 Feb 2024

What happened with a fake call purporting to be from Amazon tricked a financial advice columnist into handing over $50,000 to a stranger.

Last week, Charlotte Cowles—a seasoned journalist with a notable tenure at the New York Times and a seven-year streak of writing a personal finance column at The Cut—published a piece about how she’d fallen for a wild scam. It began innocently enough: a phone call from someone claiming to be from Amazon customer service, checking in about some suspicious account activity. What she didn’t know when she picked up the phone was that this call was the start of an elaborate scam that would eventually lead her to part with $50,000 from her emergency savings.

The situation escalated quickly: The scammers told Charlotte her personal information and identity were being used in a sprawling criminal enterprise that included everything from drug trafficking to international money laundering. Posing as government agents, they painted a dire picture: her home was under surveillance, her family was in danger, and her reputation was at risk.

By the end of the day, Charlotte had withdrawn $50,000, put it in a shoe box, and handed it over to a complete stranger. She didn’t even see his face.

Charlotte's experience serves as a stark reminder that scams can trap anyone, regardless of their intelligence or experience. And while it was obviously an absolutely terrible ordeal, we can learn from her story. Here are some red flags that popped up that day, starting with the call from "Amazon" and ending with the shoebox.

🚩The unexpected call: The ordeal began with an unsolicited call from someone claiming to represent Amazon, reporting unusual activity on Charlotte's account. Unexpected calls alleging problems or unauthorized transactions are often the first step in many scams. Scammers will impersonate trusted entities like government officials, banks, or respected brands to create a veneer of legitimacy, leveraging the shock and concern triggered by supposed account breaches to bypass a victim's usual skepticism.

🚩A veil of secrecy: A particularly manipulative tactic was the insistence that Charlotte speak to no one about the situation —not the police; not a lawyer; not even her husband. Scammers will almost always work to isolate a victim quickly in order to keep them firmly in the grip of their new “reality.” By instilling the fear that any breach of silence could worsen her predicament, the fraudsters effectively muzzled Charlotte, ensuring that their script remained unchallenged.

🚩An avalanche of personal data: Scammers presented Charlotte with her own personal information as a trust-building measure. However, this should have been a red flag: In today's digital age, personal information can be compromised, sold, or even just looked up on public social media accounts. That means pretty much anyone could have it, making it a poor way to verify that an official sounding person is actually official.

🚩An artificial urgency: Throughout the scam, there was a calculated push to keep Charlotte hurried and harried, leaving her no time to critically assess the situation. This artificial urgency is a common psychological manipulation used by scammers to override their victims' logical processes. By insisting on swift, decisive action, they aim to keep the individual in a heightened emotional state in which they're more likely to making hasty decisions.

🚩A scripted catastrophe: The complexity and dire nature of the scenario presented to Charlotte — involving cybercrimes, drug trafficking, and significant legal threats — were designed to overwhelm and disorient. Scammers often concoct plausible yet intricate stories that prey on a victim's fears and sense of duty, making the fabricated crisis seem too urgent to question.

🚩Financial oddities: The request for Charlotte to withdraw $50,000 in cash and the specific instructions for its handover—which were literally to put the money in a shoebox and put it through the window of a stranger’s car, without looking at his face—were abnormal and impractical. Legitimate agencies will never ask you to withdraw large sums of money, let alone in such a secretive and weird way. This unusual financial demand, divorced from standard legal or banking procedures, stands out as a huge red flag. But, unfortunately, Charlotte was so deep into the scammer’s story by that time that she wasn’t able to see it.

🚩Inconsistent and evolving instructions: The shifting dynamics—with Charlotte being bounced between different “officials,” and the evolving set of instructions she was given—are a major scam red flag. Legit institutions have processes that are consistent, transparent, and verifiable, not shrouded in mystery or subject to sudden changes.

🚩The use of intimidation and fear: The use of threats and intimidation to compel Charlotte to act is a classic red flag. Real government agencies do not operate by instilling fear; instead, they follow due processes and allow individuals their legal rights, including consultation with legal counsel. The escalation of threats in Charlotte's case was a tactic aimed at keeping her compliant and panicked.

🚩False credentials and verifications: The fraudsters provided badge numbers and case IDs, creating an illusion of authority and legitimacy. However, there was no way for Charlotte to independently verify any of that “proof.” (Do you know how to look up an FBI agent’s badge number? Probably not!) In legitimate scenarios, one can and should confirm the identity of the individuals and the veracity of their claims through official channels.

🚩Emotional manipulation: Lastly, the most insidious aspect of this scam was the exploitation of Charlotte's maternal instincts. By bringing her child into the narrative, the scammers struck at her most vulnerable point, clouding her judgment with the primal urge to protect her family. Emotional manipulation is a powerful tool in the scammer’s arsenal, one that can make even the most rational individuals act against their better judgment.

Charlotte’s account serves as a stark reminder that anyone can fall victim to fraud, regardless of their knowledge or experience. Her story illustrates that scammers use fear, urgency, and personal data to craft convincing, urgent scenarios that can deceive even the most informed individuals.

Ultimately, Charlotte's story is a collective warning. It shows that scams target human emotions and can bypass logic and reason. By sharing her ordeal, she provides valuable lessons on recognizing and responding to fraud, aiming to prevent others from falling into similar traps. Her narrative encourages ongoing conversation and increased awareness to better defend against the sophisticated tactics of today's scammers.


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