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The Day I Put $50,000 in a Shoe Box and Handed It to a Stranger

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FIRST PERSON FEB. 15, 2024

The Day I Put $50,000 in a Shoe Box and Handed It to a Stranger


I never thought I was the kind of person to fall for a scam.​

Portrait of Charlotte Cowles
By Charlotte Cowles, the Cut’s financial-advice columnist.
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Illustration: Nicole Rifkin


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By Charlotte Cowles, the Cut’s financial-advice columnist.

On a Tuesday evening this past October, I put $50,000 in cash in a shoe box, taped it shut as instructed, and carried it to the sidewalk in front of my apartment, my phone clasped to my ear. “Don’t let anyone hurt me,” I told the man on the line, feeling pathetic.

“You won’t be hurt,” he answered. “Just keep doing exactly as I say.”

Three minutes later, a white Mercedes SUV pulled up to the curb. “The back window will open,” said the man on the phone. “Do not look at the driver or talk to him. Put the box through the window, say ‘thank you,’ and go back inside.”

The man on the phone knew my home address, my Social Security number, the names of my family members, and that my 2-year-old son was playing in our living room. He told me my home was being watched, my laptop had been hacked, and we were in imminent danger. “I can help you, but only if you cooperate,” he said. His first orders: I could not tell anyone about our conversation, not even my spouse, or talk to the police or a lawyer.

Now I know this was all a scam — a cruel and violating one but painfully obvious in retrospect. Here’s what I can’t figure out: Why didn’t I just hang up and call 911? Why didn’t I text my husband, or my brother (a lawyer), or my best friend (also a lawyer), or my parents, or one of the many other people who would have helped me? Why did I hand over all that money — the contents of my savings account, strictly for emergencies — without a bigger fight?

When I’ve told people this story, most of them say the same thing: You don’t seem like the type of person this would happen to. What they mean is that I’m not senile, or hysterical, or a rube. But these stereotypes are actually false. Younger adults — Gen Z, millennials, and Gen X — are 34 percent more likely to report losing money to fraud compared with those over 60, according to a recent report from the Federal Trade Commission. Another study found that well-educated people or those with good jobs were just as vulnerable to scams as everyone else.

Still, how could I have been such easy prey? Scam victims tend to be single, lonely, and economically insecure with low financial literacy. I am none of those things. I’m closer to the opposite. I’m a journalist who had a weekly column in the “Business” section of the New York Times. I’ve written a personal-finance column for this magazine for the past seven years. I interview money experts all the time and take their advice seriously. I’m married and talk to my friends, family, and colleagues every day.

And while this is harder to quantify — how do I even put it? — I’m not someone who loses her head. My mother-in-law has described me as even-keeled; my own mom has called me “maddeningly rational.” I am listed as an emergency contact for several friends — and their kids. I vote, floss, cook, and exercise. In other words, I’m not a person who panics under pressure and falls for a conspiracy involving drug smuggling, money laundering, and CIA officers at my door. Until, suddenly, I was.


That morning — it was October 31 — I dressed my toddler in a pizza costume for Halloween and kissed him good-bye before school. I wrote some work emails. At about 12:30 p.m., my phone buzzed. The caller ID said it was Amazon. I answered. A polite woman with a vague accent told me she was calling from Amazon customer service to check some unusual activity on my account. The call was being recorded for quality assurance. Had I recently spent $8,000 on MacBooks and iPads?

I had not. I checked my Amazon account. My order history showed diapers and groceries, no iPads. The woman, who said her name was Krista, told me the purchases had been made under my business account. “I don’t have a business account,” I said. “Hmm,” she said. “Our system shows that you have two.”

Krista and I concurred that I was the victim of identity theft, and she said she would flag the fraudulent accounts and freeze their activity. She provided me with a case-ID number for future reference and recommended that I check my credit cards. I did, and everything looked normal. I thanked her for her help.

Then Krista explained that Amazon had been having a lot of problems with identity theft and false accounts lately. It had become so pervasive that the company was working with a liaison at the Federal Trade Commission and was referring defrauded customers to him. Could she connect me?

“Um, sure?” I said.

Krista transferred the call to a man who identified himself as Calvin Mitchell. He said he was an investigator with the FTC, gave me his badge number, and had me write down his direct phone line in case I needed to contact him again. He also told me our call was being recorded. He asked me to verify the spelling of my name. Then he read me the last four digits of my Social Security number, my home address, and my date of birth to confirm that they were correct. The fact that he had my Social Security number threw me. I was getting nervous.

“I’m glad we’re speaking,” said Calvin. “Your personal information is linked to a case that we’ve been working on for a while now, and it’s quite serious.”

He told me that 22 bank accounts, nine vehicles, and four properties were registered to my name. The bank accounts had wired more than $3 million overseas, mostly to Jamaica and Iraq. Did I know anything about this? “No,” I said. Did I know someone named Stella Suk-Yee Kwong? “I don’t think so,” I said. He texted me a photo of her ID, which he claimed had been found in a car rented under my name that was abandoned on the southern border of Texas with blood and drugs in the trunk. A home in New Mexico affiliated with the car rental had subsequently been raided, he added, and authorities found more drugs, cash, and bank statements registered to my name and Social Security number. He texted me a drug-bust photo of bags of pills and money stacked on a table. He told me that there were warrants out for my arrest in Maryland and Texas and that I was being charged with cybercrimes, money laundering, and drug trafficking.

My head swam. I Googled my name along with “warrant” and “money laundering,” but nothing came up. Were arrest warrants public? I wasn’t sure. Google led me to truthfinder.com, which asked for my credit-card information — nope. “I’m in deep sh!t,” I texted my husband. “My identity was stolen and it seems really bad.”

Calvin wanted to know if I knew anyone who might be the culprit or if I had any connections to Iraq or Jamaica. “No,” I said. “This is the first I’m hearing about any of this, and it’s a lot to take in.” He asked if I had ever used public or unsecured Wi-Fi. “I don’t know. Maybe?” I said. “I used the airport Wi-Fi recently.”

“Ah,” he said. “That’s unfortunate. It’s how many of these breaches start.” I was embarrassed, like I’d left my fly unzipped. How could I have been so thoughtless? But also — didn’t everyone use the airport Wi-Fi?

Calvin told me to listen carefully. “The first thing you must do is not tell anyone what is going on. Everyone around you is a suspect.”

I almost laughed. I told him I was quite sure that my husband, who works for an affordable-housing nonprofit and makes meticulous spreadsheets for our child-care expenses, was not a secret drug smuggler. “I believe you, but even so, your communications are probably under surveillance,” Calvin said. “You cannot talk to him about this.” I quickly deleted the text messages I had sent my husband a few minutes earlier. “These are sophisticated criminals with a lot of money at stake,” he continued. “You should assume you are in danger and being watched. You cannot take any chances.”

I felt suspended between two worlds — the one I knew and the one this man was describing. If I had nothing to do with any of these allegations, how much could they truly affect me? I thought of an old This American Life episode about a woman whose Social Security card was stolen. No matter how many times she closed her bank accounts and opened new ones, her identity thief kept draining them, destroying her credit and her sanity. (It turned out to be her boyfriend.) I remembered another story about a man who got stuck on a no-fly list after his personal information was used by a terrorist group. It dawned on me that being connected to major federal offenses, even falsely, could really fµck up my life.

Calvin wanted to know how much money I currently had in my bank accounts. I told him that I had two — checking and savings — with a combined balance of a little over $80,000. As a freelancer in a volatile industry, I keep a sizable emergency fund, and I also set aside cash to pay my taxes at the end of the year, since they aren’t withheld from my paychecks.

His voice took on a more urgent tone. “You must have worked very hard to save all that money,” he said. “Do not share your bank-account information with anyone. I am going to help you keep your money safe.” He said that he would transfer me to his colleague at the CIA who was the lead investigator on my case and gave me a nine-digit case number for my records. (I Googled the number. Nothing.) He said the CIA agent would tell me what to do next, and he wished me luck.

If it was a scam, I couldn’t see the angle. It had occurred to me that the whole story might be made up or an elaborate mistake. But no one had asked me for money or told me to buy crypto; they’d only encouraged me not to share my banking information. They hadn’t asked for my personal details; they already knew them. I hadn’t been told to click on anything.

Still, I had not seen a shred of evidence. I checked my bank accounts, credit cards, and credit score; nothing looked out of the ordinary. I knew I should probably talk to a lawyer or maybe call the police, though I was doubtful that they would help. What was I going to say — “My identity was stolen, and I think I’m somehow in danger”? I had no proof. I was also annoyed that my workday had been hijacked. It was 2 p.m., and I had already pushed back one deadline and postponed two work calls. I had to get myself out of this.

The next man who got on the line had a deeper voice and a slight British accent flecked with something I couldn’t identify. He told me his name was Michael Sarano and that he worked for the CIA on cases involving the FTC. He gave me his badge number. “I’m going to need more than that,” I said. “I have no reason to believe that any of what you’re saying is real.”

“I completely understand,” he said calmly. He told me to go to the FTC home page and look up the main phone number. “Now hang up the phone, and I will call you from that number right now.” I did as he said. The FTC number flashed on my screen, and I picked up. “How do I know you’re not just spoofing this?” I asked.

“It’s a government number,” he said, almost indignant. “It cannot be spoofed.” I wasn’t sure if this was true and tried Googling it, but Michael was already onto his next point. He told me the call was being recorded, so I put him on speaker and began recording on my end, too. He wanted to know if I had told anyone what was going on.

I admitted that I had texted my husband. “You must reassure him that everything is fine,” Michael said. “In many cases like this, we have to investigate the spouse as well, and the less he knows, the less he is implicated. From now on, you have to follow protocol if you want us to help you.”

“I don’t think I should lie to my husband,” I said, feeling stupid.

“You are being investigated for major federal crimes,” he said. “By keeping your husband out of this, you are protecting him.” He then repeated the point Calvin had made about my phone and computer being hacked and monitored by the criminals who had stolen my identity.

By that point, my husband had sent me a series of concerned texts. “Don’t worry. It will be okay,” I wrote back. It felt gross to imagine a third party reading along.

Michael snowed me with the same stories Calvin had. They were consistent: the car on the Texas border, the property in New Mexico, the drugs, the bank accounts. He asked if I shared my residence with anyone besides my husband and son. Then he asked more questions about my family members, including my parents, my brother, and my sister-in-law. He knew their names and where they lived. I told him they had nothing to do with this. In fact, I was now sure I wanted to consult a lawyer.

“If you talk to an attorney, I cannot help you anymore,” Michael said sternly. “You will be considered noncooperative. Your home will be raided, and your assets will be seized. You may be arrested. It’s your choice.” This seemed ludicrous. I pictured officers tramping in, taking my laptop, going through our bookshelves, questioning our neighbors, scaring my son. It was a nonstarter.

“Can I just come to your office and sort this out in person?” I said. “It’s getting late, and I need to take my son trick-or-treating soon.”

“My office is in Langley,” he said. “We don’t have enough time. We need to act immediately. I’m going to talk you through the process. It’s going to sound crazy, but we must follow protocol if we’re going to catch the people behind this.”

He explained that the CIA would need to freeze all the assets in my name, including my actual bank accounts. In the eyes of the law, there was no difference between the “real” and the fraudulent ones, he said. They would also deactivate my compromised Social Security number and get me a new one. Then, by monitoring any activity under my old Social Security number and accounts, they would catch the criminals who were using my identity and I would get my life back. But until then, I would need to use only cash for my day-to-day expenses.

It was far-fetched. Ridiculous. But also not completely out of the realm of possibility. “Do I have any other options?” I asked.

“Unfortunately, no,” he said. “You must follow my directions very carefully. We do not have much time.”

He asked me how much cash I thought I would need to support myself for a year if necessary. My assets could be frozen for up to two years if the investigation dragged on, he added. There could be a trial; I might need to testify. These things take time. “I don’t know, $50,000?” I said. I wondered how I would receive paychecks without a bank account. Would I have to take time off from work? I did some mental calculations of how much my husband could float us and for how long.

“Okay,” he said. “You need to go to the bank and get that cash out now. You cannot tell them what it is for. In one of my last cases, the identity thief was someone who worked at the bank.”

Michael told me to keep the phone on speaker so we would remain in contact. “It’s important that I monitor where this money goes from now on. Remember, all of your assets are part of this investigation,” he said. Then he told me that one of his colleagues would meet me at my apartment at 5 p.m. to guide me through the next steps.

“You can’t send a complete stranger to my home,” I said, my voice rising. “My 2-year-old son will be here.”

“Let me worry about that,” he said. “It’s my job. But if you don’t cooperate, I cannot keep you safe. It is your choice.”
 
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