View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Comment
29 February 2024

Who gets scammed?

A viral personal essay argues that anyone can fall victim to scams. What can be learned from it?

By Sarah Manavis

We have become hyper-aware of online scams since the pandemic – when there was a sharp spike in victims – and the other rapidly increasing number of ways we can be fooled out of our money. We are constantly warned about the crafty mechanisms that scammers use to appear legitimate – from the ability to call from a number that looks like your bank, to technology that can create websites that appear identical to government ones. And the variety of sophisticated methods: romance scams, pension scams, scammers posing as friends and family. This has led to a glut of harrowing stories from people who have been tricked out of their savings, some over the space of several weeks, or even many months.

None, however, have been quite as dramatic as one outlined in a personal essay for the Cut this month, headlined “The day I put $50,000 in a shoe box and handed it to a stranger”, written by the financial-advice columnist Charlotte Cowles, describing her experience of having more than half of her life savings stolen through a scam. Hers is a twisty story about an Amazon customer service representative who seemingly transferred her to the Federal Trade Commission after claiming someone was using her personal details for nefarious activities, before patching her through to the CIA. Cowles – who has written about money for more than a decade in titles such as the New York Times, New York Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar – says she believed that the CIA was going to freeze all of her accounts to then open a new, uncompromised bank account in her name with whatever she had in savings to last her a year (the time they told her it would take to catch the identity thieves). This led her to withdraw $50,000 of her $80,000 and hand it over in a shoebox to an agent on the street. She says all of this happened in the space of a single afternoon.

The article aimed to illustrate a point that has been urgently and repeatedly made by financial experts over the past few years: that, as scams have become more sophisticated, everyone – everyone – should act with caution. No one should assume they could never fall for one – in fact, this is precisely how you become a victim.

Cowles’ story went viral and received a polarised response, with some condemning her as a gullible fool while others jumped to her defence to echo these expert arguments, saying this was further evidence that anyone can become a scam victim. As the conversation unfolded, a strange cognitive dissonance emerged. Those who insisted that the story proves that just about anyone can be scammed simultaneously showed evident discomfort in Cowles’ status as a victim. “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,” Cowles said herself. “What they mean is that I’m not senile, or hysterical, or a rube… Scam victims tend to be single, lonely and economically insecure with low financial literacy.” She emphasises that she is far from the stereotype of the classic scam victim.

Is this really the case? While it may well be true that anyone can fall for a scam, this one appears to be tailored to someone precisely like Cowles: a wealthy, white woman who places her trust in the state, with $80,000 just sitting in her savings account. Even Cowles’ own context for who gets scammed shows an extreme skew in what a scam victim might look like. In the piece, Cowles speaks to friends with stories of their own. “One friend’s dad, a criminal defence attorney, had been scammed out of $1.2m. Another person I know, a real estate developer, was duped into wiring $450,000 to someone posing as one of his contractors. Someone else knew a Wall Street executive who had been conned into draining her 401(k) by some guy she met at a bar.” This might tell us a lot about the super-rich, but not much else.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

Cowles has undergone an awful, traumatic and very specific personal experience – one that is not easy to extrapolate lessons from. It tells us almost nothing about how ordinary people fall for scams or which scamming methods are most effective. It is messy and reserved for those of a higher socio-economic status, not those left desperate and vulnerable by social structures that work against them. In that sense, this is not the kind of scam “ordinary” people could fall for.

The personal essay as a genre relies on zeitgeisty, embarrassing stories, printed more for their pure entertainment value than as a cautionary tale or public service. They tell us that in the specific we will find the universal. There’s nothing wrong with taking Cowles’ horrifying experience as a morbidly fascinating story, but it isn’t one where a universal moral can be applied. If we care about scam victims and destigmatising their experiences in order to educate the masses about how to spot the warning signs, there are very different stories that need to be told.

[See also: How Vice lost the future]

Content from our partners
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health
How can we deliver better rail journeys for customers?

Topics in this article : ,
Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU