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Tips to follow from one incredibly costly conversation with cyber crooks


It is the crummiest feeling of getting fooled and ripped off by online swindlers.  

A former New York Times writer courageously shares a day from hell when an orchestrated attack starting with a phone call ended with her handing crooks $50,000 in cash. 

Before you rush to conclusions and think, “That could never happen to me,” think again.

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Woman talking on her cell phone  (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

The anatomy of a $50,000 scam

In “The Day I Put $50,000 in a Shoe Box and Handed It to a Stranger,” Charlotte Cowles, a finance writer, explains how she was deceived by a very complex fraud.

It started when Cowles received a phone call from someone claiming to be from Amazon customer service, alerting her to suspicious activity on her account, which quickly escalated into a total nightmare scenario involving identity theft, drug trafficking and money laundering charges linked to her name.  

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Here’s what happened:

  • The scam escalated when she was transferred to someone claiming to be from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), who informed her that her identity was linked to serious criminal activities, including money laundering and drug trafficking.
  • The scammer, now pretending to be a CIA agent, convinced her that her assets were being investigated and that she needed to secure her funds by withdrawing $50,000 in cash.
  • Under the pretense of protecting her from supposed criminal charges and ensuring the safety of her assets, the scammer instructed Cowles to place the $50,000 in cash inside a shoebox and hand it over to an accomplice who would arrive at her location.
  • The scammer exploited personal information about Cowles, such as her home address, Social Security Number and details about her family, to create a sense of urgency and fear.
  • Despite her background in financial journalism and personal finance, Cowles was manipulated into complying with the scammer’s demands, highlighting that scam victims can come from any demographic and possess various levels of education and financial literacy.
  • The scam concluded with Cowles handing over the money to a stranger in a white Mercedes SUV. She later realized the extent of the deception and reported the incident to the police, though the money was never recovered.

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The con’s manipulation

Charlotte is manipulated into believing her and her family’s safety is at risk, which leads her to withdraw a whopping $50,000 from her savings and hand it over to the scammers under the guise of protecting her assets.

scammer at laptop

Scammer on a laptop committing a crime  (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

MORE: HOW SCAMMERS USE GOOGLE VOICE VERIFICATION CODES TO STEAL YOUR IDENTITY AND MONEY  

Drawn into the scammer’s web of lies

Despite her background in personal finance and being considered rational and dependable, Charlotte is drawn into the scammer’s web of lies, highlighting the psychological manipulation techniques used by scammers.

The psychology of Charlotte’s scam

The scam taps into Charlotte’s deep-seated fears for her family’s well-being, initially hooking her attention. The scammer then isolates her by insisting she communicate with no one else, effectively cutting off potential sources of support or reality checks. The sense of urgency is escalated as the scammer pressures her to act swiftly and forego any form of verification.  

The scam preyed on her trust in authority figures and her desire to resolve the fabricated crisis, leading her to make decisions that, in hindsight, seem totally irrational.

The lessons for all of us

Her account sheds light on how scammers use fear, urgency and isolation to exploit even the financially knowledgeable, underscoring the critical need for vigilance and skepticism toward unexpected requests for personal information or money.

More alarming are recent stats that younger adults that fall into the Gen Z, Gen X and millennial groups are 34% more likely to report getting ripped off by fraud, according to the FTC. 

To enhance your protection against elaborate scams and identity theft, consider these strategies:

cash and fraud

Cash and the word “fraud” written on a pad of paper  (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

MORE: HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM VENMO, ZELLE AND CASH APP SCAM THAT CAN WIPE OUT YOUR SAVINGS IN SECONDS  

How to make yourself strong to help fend off scams and attacks

Here are four tips that can help you protect your identity, your data and your devices from online fraudsters and hackers. By following these steps, you can increase your security and confidence when dealing with online transactions and communications.

Tip No. 1 — Verify unexpected contacts 

If you receive an unexpected text, email or call involving financial transactions of any sort, independently verify they are legit.

Tip No 2 — Make yourself resilient from online malware and attacks with strong antivirus protection 

Equip all your connected devices with robust antivirus software to defend against malware, ransomware and other cyberthreats that could compromise your personal and financial information.

Having good antivirus software actively running on your devices will alert you of any malware in your system, warn you against clicking on any malicious links in phishing emails and ultimately protect you from being hacked. Get my picks for the best 2024 antivirus protection winners for your Windows, Mac, Android and iOS devices.

These proactive measures can significantly lower your risk of falling victim to sophisticated scams by limiting access to your personal information and enhancing your ability to respond quickly to potential threats.

Tip No. 3 — Remove your personal information from the internet 

Today’s scammers are crafty and take advantage of any personal details they can learn about you.  Data removal services can make it tougher for them to find intimate details about you.

While no service promises to remove all your data from the internet, having a data removal service is great if you want to constantly monitor and automate the process of removing your information from hundreds of sites continuously over a longer period of time. Check out my top picks for removal services here. 

On your own, you should take the time to make all your social media posts private or only accessible to friends and family to keep strangers from harvesting personal details about your life.

Tip No. 4 — Use identity protection services to know when your identity is being stolen 

Theft protection companies can monitor personal information like your home title, Social Security Number, phone number and email address and alert you if it is being used to open an account. They can also assist you in freezing your bank and credit card accounts to prevent further unauthorized use by criminals. Read more of my review of best identity theft protection services here.

MORE: PROTECT YOUR BACON: THE RISE OF PIG BUTCHERING SCAMS AND HOW TO AVOID THEM  

Kurt’s key takeaways

The story of Charlotte Cowles is a sobering reminder of how vulnerable we all are to online fraud, especially in times of stress and uncertainty. Scammers are constantly evolving their tactics and targeting new victims, regardless of their age, education or income level. No one is immune to the power of fear, isolation and urgency that scammers use to manipulate us into giving away our money or personal information.

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The best way to protect ourselves and our loved ones from these scams is to be aware, alert and skeptical of any unsolicited or suspicious contact, whether it is by phone, email, text or social media. We should also take steps to safeguard our personal information online, such as antivirus protection, identity protection services and removing our data from public databases. By doing so, we can reduce the chances of becoming a victim of fraud and identity theft.

Have you ever been a victim of a scam or attempted scam? How did it happen, and how did you deal with it? Let us know by writing us at Cyberguy.com/Contact

For more of my tech tips and security alerts, subscribe to my free CyberGuy Report Newsletter by heading to Cyberguy.com/Newsletter

Ask Kurt a question or let us know what stories you’d like us to cover

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