A $50k CIA Imposter Scam Went Viral. Here's How To Keep Yourself Safe.

After a personal finance expert fell victim to scammers posing as the CIA, the Federal Trade Commission shared advice for keeping yourself safe.

A woman, only her hands and legs showing, opens her empty wallet.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Imposter scams are on the rise as a recent report shows and they are fooling more of us.

A recent example of that is Charlotte Cowles, a financial-advice columnist, who was scammed out of $50,000 by people posing as government officials. She shared her experience in a February 15 report for New York Magazine's The Cut.

The intricate scam started with a call from an "Amazon employee" reporting fraudulent activity on her account and ended with an "investigator" alleging to be working with the CIA. After reciting her Social Security information as well as information about her family, the imposter managed to get Cowles to hand over $50,000 in a shoebox to a person who came directly to her home to retrieve it.

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The piece, which has since gone viral, is a chilling reminder of not only the lengths scammers will go to, but the reality that this type of scam is easier to fall for than you might want to believe. People lost $10 billion to scams last year, up 14% from 2022, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Imposter scams accounted for $2.7 billion of the loss.

Following The Cut article's publication, FTC Chair Lina Khan appeared to respond to it on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. 

"Being the victim of a scam can be devastating," she wrote in a thread. "A reminder that nobody from @FTC will ever give you a badge number, ask you to confirm your Social Security number, ask how much money you have in your bank account, transfer you to a CIA agent, or send you texts out of the blue."

It's becoming an easier game for fraudulent actors to rip people off, she said, thanks to improvements in artificial intelligence (AI). On February 15, the FTC proposed new protections to help protect people from and recover money lost to impersonator scams, including people posing as government agencies or officials. The agency said it is taking action amid surging complaints regarding impersonation fraud and the harms caused to consumers as well as impersonated individuals.

"As scammers find new ways to defraud consumers, including through AI-generated deepfakes, this proposal will help the agency deter fraud and secure redress for harmed consumers," the agency said.

Keep yourself safe from financial scams

The FTC offers a number of resources if you suspect you've been a victim of any kind of scam. These include reporting the incident to the FTC as well as keeping yourself updated on common scams and identity theft tactics.

It's easy to feel isolated in these types of situations, but the fact is they are only becoming more common and more sophisticated, as the FTC pointed out.

In addition to imposter scams, the FTC report shows that other scams on the rise include those related to online shopping; prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries; investments; and business and job opportunities.

In addition, QR code scams are becoming increasingly common as are text message scams, including from people posing as delivery workers or even your friends and family.

The FTC offers a number of resources if you suspect you've been a victim of any kind of scam. These include reporting the incident to the FTC as well as keeping yourself updated on common scams and identity theft tactics.

In her article for The Cut, Cowles mentioned one habit she has that is helpful for keeping an eye out for scams: regularly monitoring your accounts and credit score to catch any anomalies, points out Kiplinger senior digital editor Alexandra Svokos. That nothing seemed out of the usual would be a clue the call she got was not real. 

"And as a general rule, you should pause and take a breath if anyone calls, texts or emails you asking for money or personal information, like a Social Security number or to confirm a bank account number," suggests Svokos. Take the extra step to try confirming they actually are who they say they are, she says, such as by hanging up and directly calling the number of the institution or friend they claim to be. 

"Cases like Cowles' aren't unusual, as the FTC numbers show," Svokos says, "but just because it could happen to anyone — even personal finance experts — we shouldn't let down our guard. Her story is a shocking reminder of how far scammers will go to trick you."


Jamie Feldman

Jamie Feldman is a journalist, essayist and content creator. After building a byline as a lifestyle editor for HuffPost, her articles and editorials have since appeared in Cosmopolitan, Betches, Nylon, Bustle, Parade, and Well+Good. Her journey out of credit card debt, which she chronicles on TikTok, has amassed a loyal social media following. Her story has been featured in Fortune, Business Insider and on The Today Show, NBC Nightly News, CBS News, and NPR. She is currently producing a podcast on the same topic and living in Brooklyn, New York.