A financial columnist was scammed out of $50,000. Here’s how to prevent it from happening to you

Scams are growing more sophisticated each year. No one is immune from the potential for loss, experts say.
Scams are growing more sophisticated each year. No one is immune from the potential for loss, experts say. | stock.adobe.com

The Cut’s personal finance columnist Charlotte Cowles shared a story from last year about how she was scammed out of $50,000 through an Amazon scam call.

Cowles works as a financial advice columnist for the publication, which is under New York Magazine, according to KTLA 5.

The beginning

Per The Cut, Cowles’ story occurred this past Halloween. She received a call from what looked to be Amazon. The customer service agent told Cowles that there was “unusual activity” with her Amazon account, claiming she purchased “$8,000 on MacBooks and iPads.”

After checking her account history, Cowles couldn’t find the purchase, and the agent, Krista, then claimed the order was made under her business account — which Cowles said she didn’t have, but Krista claimed she had two.

Reasoning that Cowles was a victim of identity theft, Krista went on to “flag the fraudulent accounts and freeze their activity,” telling Cowles to check her credit cards, reported The Cut.

After checking her banking information, Cowles saw nothing out of the ordinary.

Krista then explained that Amazon often dealt with identity theft and false accounts, even stating that they were “working with a liaison at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and was referring defrauded customers to him,” as she wrote for The Cut.

Amazon’s agent then recommended Cowles transfer to the liason, to which she agreed.

The FTC transfer

Cowles was then transferred to the supposed FTC investigator identifying himself as, according to The Cut, Calvin Mitchell, who shared his “badge number.”

To verify Cowles’ identity, Mitchell had her spell out her name and confirm personal information, such as her home address, birthday and the last four digits of her Social Security Number, which frightened Cowles.

From what Cowles shared in The Cut, Mitchell told Cowles that “22 bank accounts, nine vehicles, and four properties” were registered under her name, with the accounts having wired “more than $3 million overseas, mostly to Jamaica and Iraq.”

He then claimed that a car was rented under Cowles’ name, abandoned near the border of Mexico, with “blood and drugs in the trunk.” Additionally, he claimed her name and SSN were found in a “New Mexico raid” for cash and drugs, reported The Cut.

According to Mitchell, there were warrants for Cowles in Maryland and Texas for “cybercrimes, money laundering, and drug trafficking,” as she mentioned in The Cut.

Mitchell, telling her that everyone is a “suspect,” asked how much was in her bank accounts. She said she had around $80,000.

The CIA Transfer

Mitchell then transferred Cowles to alleged CIA agent Michael Sarano, who provided what he claimed was his badge number.

Per The Cut, Sarano told her that since she was being “investigated for major federal crimes,” Cowles should “reassure him that everything is fine” to protect him. Additionally, he warned Cowles not to contact a lawyer, as she would be considered “noncooperative,” and would be raided, arrested and have her assets seized.

She needed to promptly act by withdrawing (what she estimated as) $50,000 in cash to support her family for up to a year.

The shoebox incident

Cowles went to the bank and withdrew the $50,000 and was advised by Sarano to ready the money in a shoebox for a “undercover CIA agent,” reported The Cut.

After some back-and-forth arguing, Cowles eventually agreed to meet the undercover agent around 6 p.m. by her home that night. Doing as she was instructed, Cowles met the car outside her home and placed the box through the back window.

Later that night she realized: She’d been duped.

She confessed it all to her husband and called the police. The authorities informed her that the last four-digits of her SSN, birthday and every other personal piece could all be found, or sold online, showing how the scammers got her information.

How to protect yourself from scams

As Cowles explains in The Cut, scams can happen to anyone: “I had known that fraud was on the rise but was shocked to learn the numbers — financial losses ballooned by more than 30% in 2022.”

Per Gallup, the FTC reported receiving 2.4 million reports of fraud from Americans in 2022 — 609,000 of which said they lost money.

The FTC shares some signs that you’re being scammed:

  • Scammers pretend to be from an organization you know.

  • Scammers say there’s a problem or a prize.

  • Scammers pressure you to act immediately.

  • Scammers tell you to pay in a specific way.

They recommend to protect yourself from scam calls and messages by:

  • Blocking unwanted calls/text messages.

  • Not giving personal or financial information to a request you didn’t expect.

  • Resisting to act immediately.

  • Knowing the methods of how scammers tell you to pay.

  • Stopping and talking with those you trust.


After realizing she was scammed, Cowles spoke to Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies coerced confessions.

“If someone is trying to get you to be compliant, they do it incrementally, in a series of small steps that take you farther and farther from what you know to be true,” he told The Cut. “It’s not about breaking the will. They were altering the sense of reality.”