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How A Personal Finance Expert Fell For A Financial Scam With Charlotte Cowles

Haley Paskalides  |  March 20, 2024

A terrifying scam that involved Amazon, the FTC, and handing a box with $50,000 in cash through the window of a car.

When we envision the type of person who falls for a financial scam, there are usually a few key characteristics that come to mind: They may be elderly, using a landline phone, or in a state of panic as the person on the other end of the line informs them that if they don’t hand over $10,000 immediately, they’ll be arrested. But those stereotypes are just plain wrong. 

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The Federal Trade Commission recently reported that younger adults, people ages 18 to 59, are 34% more likely than older adults to report losing money to fraud, even if the type of scam may be different. Younger adults are more likely to be targeted for online shopping scams, which often start with an ad on social media, and most said they simply did not get the items they ordered. Younger adults are over four times more likely than older adults to report a loss on an investment scam. 

But Charlotte Cowles, financial advice columnist for The Cut since 2016 and a longtime freelance business columnist for The New York Times, did not fall for a shopping or cryptocurrency scam… She fell for an elaborate one that involved Amazon, the FTC, threatening her child, and handing a box with $50,000 in cash through the window of the backseat of a car.

Cowles was working from home when she received a call from a recognized Amazon number saying she had unusual activity on her account and they were calling to verify some transactions that had been made. The person said that they were working with someone directly at the Federal Trade Commission to investigate these identity theft instances and asked if it would be okay with Cowles if she connected her to their liaison as part of their investigation.

LISTEN: How To Spot A Financial Scam

After transferring Cowles over to a supposed “FTC agent,” she was told that she was under a much larger investigation that involved millions of dollars being wired overseas and that there were arrest warrants out in her name in several states. “Most importantly, he knew my social security number, the names of my family members, and where I lived, and he told me that we were in danger. What preceded was several hours on the phone that ultimately culminated in me handing over the contents of my emergency fund,” Cowles says.

Cowles says if your intuition is telling you that you may be the target of a financial scam the number one thing to do before you transfer any money is to talk to someone you trust. “Most people who wind up not losing money, it’s not because they were smarter or because they noticed a red flag,” Cowles says. “It’s because they were interrupted by someone else who snapped them out of it and broke the spell.” Listen to the HerMoney Podcast to hear more about how she ended up handing over all of the money in her savings account and more tips if you’re on the phone with a retailer or government agency and something feels not quite right. 

In Mailbag, we hear from a listener who’s wondering what the difference is between an hourly financial advisor and one that charges a flat fee. We also advise on how to shop around for title insurance when you’re buying a home. In our news of the week, we talk about the big changes coming to the commissions we pay when we buy and sell homes, what the producer price index (or PPI) coming in hotter than expected means, and a new study about how Americans are feeling about their finances. 


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All advisory services offered through Financial Engines Advisors L.L.C. (FEA), a federally registered investment advisor. Results are not guaranteed. AM1969416

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