Financial journalist hands $50k in cash to ‘CIA agent’ fraudsters

Charlotte Cowles
Charlotte Cowles is a financial advice writer for the Cut, an offshoot of New York Magazine

A New York Magazine financial columnist has described how she handed fraudsters $50,000 (£39,690) in cash after she fell for a “cruel and violating” scam.

Charlotte Cowles was conned into thinking she was a victim of identity theft and there were warrants out for her arrest for cybercrimes, money laundering and drug trafficking.

Criminals posing as CIA agents said she was in “imminent danger”. They instructed her to take out tens of thousands of dollars, put it in a shoe box, tape it shut and put it in the backseat of a white Mercedes SUV which pulled up outside her home.

The scammers knew her social security number, her Brooklyn address, names of her family members and details about her two-year-old son.

They convinced her not to tell anyone about the conversation, including her husband, over fears he was behind her identity theft.

‘I felt violated, unreliable’

Writing about her experience in New York Magazine’s The Cut, she said she is “not senile or hysterical, or a rube”.

“Now I know this was all a scam – a cruel and violating one but painfully obvious in retrospect”, she said.

“I felt violated, unreliable; I couldn’t trust myself ... I still don’t believe that what happened to me could happen to anyone, but I’m starting to realise that I’m not uniquely fallible,” she wrote.

“Either way, I have to accept that someone waged psychological warfare on me, and I lost.”

Newly released Federal Trade Commission (FTC) data found Americans reported losing nearly $8.8 billion (£6.9 billion) to fraud in 2022, an increase of more than 30 per cent compared to the previous year.

The second highest reported loss amount came from imposter scams, where the fraudsters pose as a trusted organisation, with losses of $2.6 billion reported, up from $2.4 billion in 2021.

On Oct 31 at around 12:30pm, Ms Cowles received a call from a woman called Krista who claimed to be from Amazon customer service who told her she had been a victim of identity theft.

She transferred her to someone who claimed to work for the FTC, who said the case was “quite serious” and 22 bank accounts, nine vehicles and four properties were registered to her name.

The bank accounts had sent more than $3 million overseas to Jamaica and Iraq, he said, and a car in her name was found abandoned on the Texas border with blood and drugs in the trunk.

She was asked about her savings and she revealed she had $80,000, including some inheritance from her late grandfather. He said he would help keep her money safe, before transferring her to Michael Sarano, a supposed CIA agent.

The next scammer said he needed to freeze her assets and instructed her to go to the bank and take out $50,000 – enough money for her day-to-day expenses for up to two years – all while keeping him on speakerphone.

She was told to put the cash in an old shoe box, take a picture of it, tape it shut and label it with her name, a case number, her address and a locker number he read out to her and her signature.

At around 6pm, she went downstairs, put her coat on and put the money in the backseat of the car of an “undercover CIA agent” who drove to her house.

Hours later, upon realising it was a scam, she told the people on the phone: “Oh my God… You are lying to me. Michael was lying. You just took my money and I’m never getting it back.”

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.