You are not too clever to be scammed. Put your smugness away.


Sometimes, we have to be reminded that con artists — especially with the help of advanced technology — thrive because they win people’s trust.

It’s right in the name. “Con” stands for confidence.

Con artists also lean into folks’ fear factor. The more panicked the target, the better odds of success.

Last week, a personal finance writer at New York Magazine bravely revealed she had been conned out of $50,000 — money she handed over to swindlers in a shoe box.

Charlotte Cowles shared how scammers pretending to be from Amazon, the Federal Trade Commission and the Central Intelligence Agency frightened her so badly that all her usual skepticism was overruled. She was convinced she and her family were in “imminent danger.”

What everyone can learn from the woman who lost $50,000 to a scam

Since Cowles’s revelation, media outlets have been pointing out where the con could have been detected had she remained calm. Then she might have questioned the request for cash, or the probability that it really was the CIA, FTC and Amazon calling. And, no, the government won’t ask you to pay money to avoid being arrested. Don’t forget that telephone numbers can be spoofed to make you believe the call is legitimate.

Natural-born skeptics might shake their heads at what they view as the gullibility of scam victims. You may consider yourself scam-proof.

But the sophistication of today’s schemes can snare even the most cynical among us.

Consumers reported losing more than $10 billion to fraud in 2023, a 14 percent increase over the previous year, according to FTC data. It was a milestone benchmark, the agency said.

The FTC said some of the largest losses in 2023 were due to investment scams — more than $4.6 billion. Impostor scams, such as the type that snared Cowles, saw losses of nearly $2.7 billion.

It’s worth noting that the numbers only reflect people who reported being scammed.

Are you smarter than a scammer? Play this game.

I had to stifle my own self-righteousness after reading Cowles’s viral confession. Until it reminded me of how I was once conned 23 years ago.

At the time, it was an ATM scheme targeting women working out at recreational facilities in Virginia and Maryland. Here’s what happened.

I made the mistake of leaving my purse in the car. I thought I had safely and secretly tucked it away, but the crook had been watching when I hid it in the back seat.

Shortly after my aerobics class started, the crook called the community center pretending to be a bank manager.

“Is your purse missing?” he asked.

I asked him to wait while I checked my car. Sure enough, a window was broken and my purse was gone.

The fake bank manager said he caught the man who had snatched my purse. The thief had allegedly confessed, which was how the caller knew where to find me.

Mad at myself and sobbing, the impostor said I should take a few minutes to calm down. He was professional, reassuring and compassionate.

He said he would immediately cancel my bank card. He said that I shouldn’t worry, that this happens all the time and the bank would reimburse me if any money had been stolen from my account.

He said he was happy for me because now I wouldn’t have to replace my credit cards and driver’s license.

Then he told an incredible tale.

He described how he noticed broken glass in my purse as the guy tried to use my ATM card. He said he chased him down and held him until the police arrived.

He had, by this point, earned my trust. That’s when the real purpose of the theft emerged.

A former White House scientist was scammed out of $655,000. Then came the IRS.

The crook said he wanted me to verify the contents of my purse and some financial information. He asked how much money I had in my wallet so he could check whether any cash was missing. Finally, he asked for the personal identification number, or PIN, for my debit card. He needed it, he said, so he could cancel the number and issue another code.

This man had methodically chipped away at my normal wariness with his warmth.

He ended up withdrawing $500 from my bank account. He would have gotten more if not for two things. I had a daily limit set for my debit card and the police officer who responded to the 911 call had me call the bank — the real number — and my checking and savings accounts were immediately closed.

I got my money back, thank goodness, but I spent a lot of time afterward berating myself for failing to spot what in retrospect were red flags. If only I had kept my cool.

Yet, I wasn’t prepared for how that criminal would use my hysteria to quash my common sense.

Congress saddled scam victims with taxes. A new bill would change that.

Smart people can be conned. Reality TV producer Andy Cohen fell for an impostor scam earlier this year.

You might read or hear about scams, shake your head, and declare you would never fall for such schemes. Consider that even if you’ve escaped being victimized, there is probably someone in your family, workplace, or religious community who will be or has been scammed.

If you want more personal finance advice that’s timeless, order your copy of Michelle Singletary’s Money Milestones.

After I first shared my story in 2001, some readers called me a fool. Cowles has received similar criticism.

We silence victims by shaming them. We need more people willing to come forward to help combat this epidemic of financial crimes. But they won’t talk about how they fell for the fraud if we are judgmental. Every story serves as a caution for others.

So put your smugness away, because the swindles are becoming more elaborate, and you may find you’re not too clever to be conned.



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