The 50000 Scam FTC CIA and Amazon Incriminate NY Magazine39s

The $50,000 Scam: FTC, CIA and Amazon Incriminate NY Magazine's Charlotte Cowles

When New York Magazine's Financial Guide published an article Thursday about the victim of a $50,000 scam that went viral, my heart skipped a beat.

My own financial planner had gone to prison years ago, which I had written about in a few columns. Almost all of us are vulnerable to fraud at least sometimes. What would I have done if someone had called and insisted that my children, in particular, were in grave danger?

Author Charlotte Cowles, who once published a weekly business column for The New York Times, described scammers telling a fantastic story: First they posed as Amazon and told her she was the victim of identity theft. Then a thief passed her on to someone posing as a Federal Trade Commission investigator, who told her that nine vehicles, four properties and 22 bank accounts were registered in her name. Eventually, a supposed Central Intelligence Agency “senior investigator” persuaded her to withdraw money from her bank and give it to them for safekeeping while her husband and son watched.

But what would these companies do if they believed that one of us was actually a victim of some kind of identity fraud? What would they say, demand and what should we do?

I called them all and asked. Here's what they said.

Ms. Cowles' story begins with a call in October that purportedly came from Amazon, when a woman on the phone told her about $8,000 worth of fraudulent purchases and said she had been the victim of identity theft.

The woman then offered to connect Ms. Cowles with Amazon's liaison at the FTC. Soon he was on the phone.

However, Amazon does not turn over customers to the FTC or any other government agency, according to Tim Gillman, a spokesman.

The company sometimes calls people to check account activity, which is likely to become much more difficult as Ms. Cowles' story continues to go viral. However, if you don't like the call, just hang up and contact us directly via the Amazon app or website.

“Do not call numbers sent via text message, email, or found in online search results,” Mr. Gillman added. And if anyone suggests you download or install Amazon customer service software, don't do it.

When Ms. Cowles spoke on the phone with the alleged FTC investigator, he revealed his ID number and asked about the contents of her bank account.

On Thursday afternoon, Lina Khan, the chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, said Posted on X: “Becoming a victim of fraud can be devastating. A reminder that no one from @FTC will ever give you an ID number, ask you to verify your social security number, ask you how much money you have in your bank account, wire you to a CIA agent, or text you out of the blue will send.”

Coincidentally, the FTC passed a new rule on Thursday that gives it more effective tools to combat criminals posing as companies. According to the agency, consumers reported fraud losses of over $10 billion for the first time in 2023, up 14 percent from the previous year.

Last month, the FTC issued a warning about scammers trying to convince you to move your money to a safer location. It sounded a lot like what had already happened to Ms. Cowles.

Before getting her to wire her money, the FTC impersonator wanted to pass it on to the lead investigator on her case, who supposedly worked for the CIA. She had her doubts, but he called from what appeared to her to be the FTC's main phone number.

She suspected he might be “spoofing” and using tools to pretend he was actually calling from that number. But he quickly moved on to telling her not to talk to her husband or a lawyer about the situation. Soon after, the exchange turned to freezing its assets and issuing a replacement Social Security number.

“The CIA is a foreign intelligence organization; “This is simply not the type of matter we would be involved in,” a CIA spokesman said.

The CIA website lists some relevant points. The agency collects foreign intelligence and conducts covert operations. “We are not a law enforcement organization,” the website states. And while it may work with law enforcement, it typically focuses on things like counterintelligence and terrorism.

The FAQ notes in even more detail that “employees/contractors are not required to obtain monetary assurances or personal information (such as your Social Security number, driver's license, or banking information) in order to begin a relationship.”

Still, Ms. Cowles' contact told her to go to her bank and withdraw $50,000 – and not tell the bank why.

Ms. Cowles did what her CIA handler told her. At a Bank of America branch, someone led her upstairs, where a teller handed her the money and a piece of paper with some warnings about fraud.

“Going in, I was honestly hoping they would say no to my withdrawal or make me wait, but they didn't,” Ms. Cowles told me via email. “I was concerned about the scam alert, but since the scammers hadn't yet asked me to give them the money, I didn't feel like it really applied to my situation. What’s more, I was so afraid of what would happen if I didn’t follow the instructions that it outweighed my skepticism.”

Ms. Cowles is not a senior citizen. If that were the case, the bank teller might have slowed things down a bit. Banks are very concerned about elder fraud and will close any person's account if they suspect it.

Ms. Cowles said she didn't blame Bank of America because it was actually her money she was withdrawing. But do banks typically hand over large amounts of cash?

“We make extensive efforts to warn customers about fraud,” a Bank of America spokesman, William P. Halldin, said by email. The bank declined further comment.

“We do not restrict customers from accessing their money,” Justin K. Page, a spokesman for Chase, said by email. “However, there are cases where funds are withheld for additional verification. This includes cases where one of our bankers suspects that our client may be accompanied by someone who appears to be pressuring them. We train our bankers to pay attention to this.”

The thief, posing as a CIA agent, eventually demanded that Ms. Cowles hand over the money. Ultimately, he said, she was accused of money laundering; If she allowed the agency to convert the money into a government check using her new Social Security number, she would make a $50,000 clean sweep.

That sounds absurd. However, it also led to a contradictory internal dialogue.

“People who have always used their brains don't pay attention to their emotions, and I think we need to pay attention to what our bodies are telling us,” said Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support for AARP's Fraud Watch Network. “The gut is actually a scientific deposit of chemicals. I have heard countless victims say to me, “My gut told me I shouldn’t do this, but my brain told me I should.”

Eva Velasquez, who saw it all as president of the Identity Theft Resource Center, saw the situation similarly. “The bad actors hijack our brains,” she said. “And it works, because at the end of the day we’re all human.”

Tara Siegel Bernard contributed reporting.