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The $50K Fraud: The FTC, CIA and Amazon by Charlotte Cowles of NY Magazine


When a New York magazine financial advice columnist was dropped An article I fell victim to a $50,000 scam on Thursday and my heart skipped a beat.

I had my own financial planner He went to jail Years ago, I described it in a few paragraphs. Almost all of us fall victim to scams at least sometimes. Especially if someone called and insisted that my children were in grave danger, what would I have done?

writer, Charlotte Cowles, who once had a weekly business column with The New York Times, described the scammers spinning a fantastic story: First, they impersonated Amazon and told her they were victims of identity theft. Later, a thief sent her to a man impersonating a Federal Trade Commission investigator who said she had nine vehicles, four properties and 22 bank accounts registered in her name. Finally, a CIA “chief investigator” forced her to withdraw money from her bank and put it in a safe while her husband and son watched.

But what would those companies do if any of us thought it was one of them? In fact Victim of some sort of identity fraud? What will they say, demand, and do?

I called everyone and asked. Here's what they said.

Ms. Cowles' story begins with a call she allegedly received from Amazon in October, when a woman on the line told her she had been defrauded of $8,000 and was a victim of identity theft.

The woman then offered to connect Ms. Cowles with Amazon's contact at the FTC, and soon she was in line.

But Amazon does not turn customers over to the FTC or any other government agency, says spokesman Tim Gilman.

The company sometimes calls people to verify account activity, Ms. As Cowles' story continues to go viral, this will become more difficult to do. But if the call seems fishy, ​​reach out directly via the Amazon app or website.

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“Don't call numbers sent by text or email or found in online search results,” says Mr. Gilman added. If someone suggests you download or install Amazon customer service software, don't.

Once Mrs. When Cowles was on the phone with what was said to be an FTC investigator, he gave her his badge number and asked about the contents of his bank account.

On Thursday afternoon, Lina Khan, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, Published in X: “Being a victim of a scam can be devastating. A 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, turn you over to a CIA agent, or send you texts. .”

Incidentally, the FTC on Thursday Finalized A new rule gives more powerful tools to fight criminals impersonating businesses. Consumers reported high fraud losses $10 billion For the first time in 2023, 14 percent more than the previous year, according to the agency.

Last month, the F.T.C A warning About scammers trying to convince you to move your money to a safe place. It sounded a lot like what had already happened to Mrs. Cowles.

Before prompting her to move money, the FTC impersonator wanted to hand her over to the lead investigator on her case, who allegedly worked for the CIA, whom she suspected but called since what appeared to be the FTC's main phone number. .

She thought he was “cheating” by using tools to pretend he was calling from that number. But she was quick to not discuss the situation with her husband or attorney. Soon after, the exchange turned to freezing his assets and issuing a replacement Social Security number.

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“The CIA is a foreign intelligence agency; This is simply not something we engage in,” said a CIA spokesperson.

The CIA's website provides some relevant points. The agency collects foreign intelligence and conducts covert operations. “We are not a law enforcement agency.” The site says. When it works with law enforcement agencies, it's on things like counterintelligence and terrorism.

Its Frequently Asked Questions It states that “employees/contractors are not required to receive money or any personal information (such as your 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 the $50,000 – without telling the bank why.

Ms. Cowles did as his CIA minder told him. At a Bank of America branch, someone led her to a stairwell, where a teller gave her money A piece of paper with some caveats About scams.

“Going in, I honestly hoped they would tell me not to come back or make me wait, but they didn't,” Ms. Cowles told me by email. “The fraud alert gave me pause, but the scammers didn't ask me to pay them. to do They, I don't feel it really fits my situation. Also, I was so afraid of what would happen if I didn't follow the instructions that it defied my doubts.

Mrs. Cowles is not a senior citizen. If she had, maybe the bank teller would have slowed things down. Banks are very concerned about elder fraud and will close every account one has in case of any mishap.

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Ms Cowles said she was not holding it against Bank of America, it was actually her refund. But do banks usually hand over large sums of money?

“We have Comprehensive efforts To alert customers to avoid scams,” Bank of America spokesman William P. Haltin said via email. The bank declined to comment further.

“We do not restrict access to customers' money,” said Chase spokesman Justin K. Page said via email. “However, there are cases where funds are held for additional verification. These include cases where one of our bankers is suspicious of someone who appears to be pressuring our customer. We train our bankers to look for that.

The thief, posing as a CIA agent, eventually asked Mrs. Cowles to hand over the money. After all, she was going to be accused of money laundering; She would be $50,000 clean if the agency allowed her to use her new Social Security number to cash the money into a government check.

It seems ridiculous. However, this created a conflicting internal dialogue.

“People who use their brains all the time don't pay attention to their emotions, and I think we should pay attention to what our bodies are telling us,” he said. Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support for AARP's Fraud Watch Network. “The gut is actually a scientific dump of chemicals. I've heard countless sufferers tell me, 'My gut told me I shouldn't do this, but my brain told me I should.'

Eva Velázquez, as president, has seen it all Identity Theft Resource Center, saw the situation similarly. “Bad actors hijack our brains,” he said. “It works because we are all, after all, human.”

Tara Siegel Bernard Contributed report.

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