Could getting scammed out of $50,000 really happen to anyone?

One financial advice columnist didn’t think it could happen to her. Then it did

We all think we’re too smart to fall for a scam until we do. A financial advice columnist for New York Magazine thought she was. Then she handed $50,000 (€46,200) to scammers. In cash. In a shoebox.

In a now-viral article for the Cut, Charlotte Cowles explained how a phone call one afternoon from “Amazon” resulted in her handing over her savings in a box that came with her slippers to a complete stranger. Here is how it went.

A woman claiming to be from Amazon calls last October while Cowles is home alone with her son. She asks whether she spent $8,000 on Apple products. Cowles says no. For the next five hours she will be on the phone with multiple people convincing her she is the victim of identity theft and in big, big trouble. The “Amazon” worker tells Cowles that she’s transferring her through to a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigator. He tells her a car rented under name has been found abandoned with drugs and blood. There are warrants out for her arrest for cybercrimes, money laundering and drug trafficking. But don’t worry, he’s here to help. He knows her social security number, home address and date of birth. He transfers her to a CIA agent working the case who says her assets are about to be frozen and that she needs to get out as much money as she can to live off for two years. Then an undercover CIA agent (who won’t have a badge because he’s undercover so don’t ask to see it) will collect it in a shoebox. Then she’ll get that amount back in a “clean” US government cheque.

She can’t tell anyone, especially not her husband. He could be involved. The agent warns that if she calls her lawyer, he “can’t help” her. She is under surveillance from criminals. She could be putting her son at risk by not complying. The FTC investigator texts her photos of drugs and fake IDs to convince her she’s being investigated. No, she can’t come into the CIA offices and sort this out in person. It has to be done now.


These are details that start to ring alarm bells for the audience. We have the benefit of hindsight. We can say if a warrant was out for her arrest, surely she’d be easy to find as a journalist with public social media accounts. That evidence isn’t usually texted to your phone. That usually you always have the right to speak to legal counsel. She even went online herself and was unable to see any published warrants or any weird activity on her Amazon account or bank transactions. “I had not seen a shred of evidence,” she admits, yet says she still complied in the end, largely out of fears for her family.

While her story is a well-told dramatic account of the tactics used by scammers – isolation, coercion, fear, constant contact – it was not welcomed as a brave public service announcement.

Even though she could expect to receive some sympathy for losing the equivalent of a house deposit to a scam, the internet is still the internet.

Hours later, across X, Reddit and other social platforms people were shaking their heads virtually over the details of the story.

The line “I’d been on the phone for nearly five hours. I wanted to take my son trick-or-treating” provoked a particular reaction among those who felt they would rather hang on to $50,000 than take a two-year-old out for something they might not remember anyway.

As a rule, the internet (and humans as a group) always has a reservoir of collective schadenfreude ready to be released. What pushes the little red button in a lot of cases is something bad happening to someone who has a lot more than us.

Throughout Cowles’s story little details were scattered hinting at her wealth: her son playing with the neighbours’ nanny; an inheritance; her neighbourhood; her best friend and brother being lawyers. Oh and the fact she was a freelance journalist in her late 30s with access to $80,000.

Showing either naivety or too much faith in humanity, she had left her Instagram on public when she published the story, meaning it was easy to see where and when she had bought her home and for how much. Teeth-gnashing nosy-holes wondered how a freelance journalist (no matter how successful) and a husband who, she said, works for a “non-profit” could afford a property worth just shy of $4 million.

Those looking for hints of generational wealth found it. Cowles has the name Roosevelt in her family tree. She is president of the Cowles Family Foundation, according to tax documents filed in 2023. The tax-exempt organisation’s revenue was $2.3 million in 2022. She attended elite schools. She, as many social media commentators wrote, would likely be “okay” even with her substantial loss and the career risks linked to admitting to making financial mistakes as someone paid to give advice on the subject.

So do we just feel less sorry for rich people?

We know from a series of studies summarised in 2012 in Scientific American that people who have wealth and status show less compassion to those without it. But what about the other way? Research from the Kellogg School at Northwestern University in 2018 showed those with egalitarian beliefs were less likely to feel empathy for a high-earning executive losing money than a factory floor worker.

But is the viral outrage to this scam an example of jealous have-nots being mean to a victim because she is wealthy, white and a woman?

Maybe, in part, but Cowles had written a few lines that rubbed people up the wrong way if her privilege hadn’t already.

“Still, how could I have been such easy prey? Scam victims tend to be single, lonely and economically insecure with low financial literacy,” she said.

“I am none of those things. I’m closer to the opposite….”.

“I’m married and talk to my friends, family and colleagues every day.”

This suggests a belief that falling for scams couldn’t happen to people like her. She repeatedly notes that scams can happen even to those with good jobs and a good education, yet some readers felt she wrote as if she thought a university degree, marriage or a “good job” should insulate people against being conned.

She also intimated that she thought her personality – “I’m not someone who loses her head ... I’m not a person who panics under pressure” – should have protected her from being scammed. The unintended message was interpreted by some as suggesting that less level-headed characters are scam bait – along with those who don’t have “good jobs” or husbands or an education.

Journalists jumped to Cowles’s defence online by insisting what happened to her “could happen to anyone”.

But it wouldn’t happen to the majority of us, who wouldn’t have $50,000 in the first place.

The irony is those who handle their own accounting or have dealt with law enforcement bodies before might have picked up on a few inconsistencies. Those who don’t have the privilege of working from home would have been less able to sit on the phone for five hours. And on it goes.

I have seen passengers on the Red Line Luas late at night refuse to hand over €50, never mind $50,000 despite vague threats to personal safety.

Cowles’s story has made it harder for the next person to get scammed and that’s a good thing. I hope she recovers from the ordeal. One thing it has taught us is that privilege is not a protector against scams. And another is that we should never answer the phone to an unknown number.