April 13, 2024

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$50,000 Scam: FTC, CIA and Amazon Pressure on New York Magazine's Charlotte Cowles

$50,000 Scam: FTC, CIA and Amazon Pressure on New York Magazine's Charlotte Cowles

When a New York Magazine financial advice columnist dropped by article That went viral on Thursday about me being the victim of a $50,000 scam, my heart skipped a beat.

He was my own financial planner He went to prison years ago, which I chronicled in a few columns. Almost all of us are vulnerable to scams, at least sometimes. What would I do if someone called me and insisted that my children, in particular, were in grave danger?

Writer, Charlotte Cowles, who wrote a weekly business column for The New York Times, described the scammers telling a fictional story: First, they posed as Amazon and told her she was a victim of identity theft. One of the thieves then turned her over to someone posing as an FTC investigator, who told her that nine vehicles, four properties and 22 bank accounts were registered in her name. Finally, the CIA's supposed “principal investigator” convinced her to withdraw the money from her bank and give it to them for safekeeping under her husband and son.

But what would any of those entities do if they thought any of us were? In reality Victim of some type of identity fraud? What will they say, ask and ask us to do?

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

Ms. Cowles' story begins with a phone call in October supposedly from Amazon, when a woman on the line told her about $8,000 in fraudulent purchases and said she was the victim of identity theft.

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

But Amazon does not take customers to the Federal Trade Commission or any other government agency, according to Tim Gilman, a spokesman.

The company will occasionally contact people to verify account activity, something that is likely to become more difficult as Ms. Cowles' story continues to spread. But if the call seems suspicious, just hang up and reach out directly through the Amazon app or website.

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

Once Ms. Cowles was on the phone with the supposed FTC investigator, he displayed his badge number and asked about the contents of her bank account.

On Thursday afternoon, Lina Khan, Chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, spoke, Published on X: “Being the victim of a scam can be devastating. Reminder that no one from the @FTC will give you a badge number, ask you to confirm your Social Security number, ask how much money is in your bank account, or refer you to an agency agent CIA, or sending you text messages out of the blue.”

Coincidentally, the Federal Trade Commission on Thursday It's finished A new rule gives it more powerful tools to combat criminals impersonating companies. Consumers have reported fraud losses of over 10 billion dollars For the first time in 2023, according to the agency, an increase of 14 percent from the previous year.

Last month, the Federal Trade Commission issued warning About scammers trying to convince you to move your money to a safer place. It sounded very similar to what actually happened to Mrs. Cowles.

Before urging her to transfer her money, the FTC impersonators wanted her to transfer it to the lead investigator on her case, who allegedly worked for the CIA. She had her doubts, but he called from what appeared to her to be the FTC's main phone number. .

I thought maybe he was “spoofing”, 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. The stock exchange quickly moved to freeze its assets and issue a replacement Social Security number.

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“The CIA is a foreign intelligence organization. A CIA spokesman said: “This is simply not the kind of thing we would get involved in.”

The CIA website makes some relevant points. The agency collects foreign intelligence and conducts covert work. “We are not a law enforcement organization.” The website says. Although they may work with law enforcement agencies, they tend to be in things like counterintelligence and terrorism.

that it Instructions He goes into more detail, noting that it “does not require employees/contractors to have financial guarantees or any personal information (such as Social Security number, driver's license, or banking information) to initiate a relationship.”

However, Ms Cowles' contact told her to go to her bank and withdraw $50,000, without telling the bank why.

Mrs. Cowles did what the CIA Director told her. At a Bank of America branch, someone directed her up a flight of stairs, where a teller handed over money and A piece of paper with some warnings About scams.

“When I walked in, I was honestly hoping they would deny my withdrawal or make me wait, but they didn’t,” Ms. Cowles told me via email. “The scam warning stopped me, but since the scammers have not yet asked me to give money to To them, I didn't feel like that really applied to my situation. Furthermore, I was so terrified of what would happen if I didn't follow the instructions that it overcame my doubts.

Mrs. Cowles is not a senior citizen. If it had been, the bank teller might have slowed things down. Banks worry a lot about defrauding the elderly and will close every account a person has if they suspect anything untoward.

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Ms. Cowles said she did not bring that accusation against Bank of America, since it was actually her own money she was withdrawing. But do banks usually hand out large sums of cash?

“we've got Extensive efforts “To warn customers to avoid scams,” Bank of America spokesman William P. Haldane said via email. The bank declined to comment further.

“We do not restrict clients from accessing their funds,” said Justin K. Page, a Chase spokesman, via email. “However, there are instances where funds are held 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 him. We train our bankers to look for this.”

The thief posing as a CIA agent eventually told Ms. Cowles to hand over the money. After all, he said, she would be charged with money laundering; Allowing the agency to transfer the money to a government check using her new Social Security number would leave her clean for $50,000.

This seems unreasonable. However, it also created a conflicting internal dialogue.

“People who have always used their minds don't care about their feelings, and I think we need to care about what our bodies are telling us,” he said. Amy Nofziger, Director of Fraud Victim Support for AARP's Fraud Monitoring Network. “The bowels are actually a scientific discharge of chemicals. I've 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 Identity Theft Resource CenterI looked at the situation similarly. “Bad actors hijack our brains,” she said. “And this works, because we are all, at the end of the day, human.”

Tara Siegel Bernard Contributed to reports.