Modern Scams: A Personal Encounter

Modern Scams: A Personal Encounter

| May 07, 2024

During an otherwise ordinary morning commute, my phone rang from an unknown number. I ignored the call, but when it rang again, I felt a prickle of unease and answered. The voice on the other end claimed to be from the local sheriff's office and informed me of an arrest warrant in my name due to failing to appear for jury duty. My first instinct screamed scam, but the caller was persistent, reciting my address and instructing me to compare signatures at the Sheriff’s office. Additional persuasion tactics included using actual department officers’ names, and a transfer to his superior. The conversation escalated to demands for a bail payment to avoid arrest. When I said I would just call the sheriff’s office directly to verify, they stepped up the fear tactics by threatening immediate arrest by attaining my location with GPS.

This experience was a stark reminder of the sophisticated tactics scammers use. It's a scenario that's becoming all too common, as reflected in the billions (yes, billions) lost annually to these criminal endeavors. The FTC reports $10 billion in consumer losses in 2023, of which, $4.6 billion involved investment scams.1  See the 2023 infographic here:  The FBI reported $12.5B from or cybercrime.2  And according to AARP, Identity Theft Fraud represented a whopping $43 billion in losses last year.3

I’m too smart for that, right?

I recently read an article in which Charlotte Cowles, a financial advice columnist for New York magazine, was the victim of an elaborate and expensive con. She endured a harrowing ordeal that began with a call from what seemed to be a customer service representative of a trusted retailer. This escalated to interactions with supposed FTC officials and a fake CIA investigator, culminating in her handing over $50,000 cash to a stranger—a decision driven by panic and fear, meticulously instilled by skilled fraudsters. Read her story here:

Recognizing the Red Flags

Both scams used several classic tactics to evade logic and play on emotions.

  • Urgency and Threats: Claiming that an immediate payment was necessary to avoid arrest.
  • Layering Legitimacy: Attempting to confirm my address and using actual deputy names added legitimacy to their claims. For Charlotte, each transfer to a new "official" added authenticity.
  • Isolation (blocking the exits): Insisting I stay on the line to prevent me from verifying their claims independently.
  • Psychological Manipulation: Expertly playing on fear to cloud judgment and spur irrational actions.

Steps to Protect Yourself

Step 1: Trust Your Instincts

If a call or request feels suspicious, it probably is. Allow yourself to question and assess the situation critically, regardless of the perceived authority of the person on the other end. When the narrative being spun feels too dramatic, it's a signal to pause and reassess. Scammers exploit fear and urgency—emotions that cloud rational judgment and precipitate hasty decisions.

Step 2: Disconnect and Verify

Do not hesitate to end the conversation. If something doesn’t feel right, hang up. Call a publicly available number, that you know is legitimate (from their website, your statement, or app, not just a google search); and not a number provided by the caller (no matter how much they protest).

Step 3: Consult with Trusted Individuals

Discuss any suspicious interaction with someone you trust. Perpetrators often try to isolate their targets to prevent them from seeking advice. Whether it's a friend, family member, or a professional, external validation can provide clarity and reassurance, potentially averting disaster.

Step 4: Report and Utilize Resources

If in doubt, utilize resources like AARP’s free fraud helpline to validate the situation. These resources are invaluable for confirming the authenticity of suspicious claims.

Responding to a Scam: Immediate Actions

Step 1: Report attempt to authorities

Reporting helps in tracking scam patterns and contributes to a larger effort in combating these frauds. Always report potential scams to authorities such as the FTC:

Step 2: Inform Your Financial Institutions

Early intervention can help mitigate financial losses and prevent further unauthorized activities. Additionally, monitor your credit report and consider a credit freeze to prevent further exploitation of your personal information.

Step 3: Seek Emotional and Financial Guidance

Acknowledge the profound emotional toll scams take. Engage with support networks like AARP’s Online Victim Support Program, which offers guidance and support to recover from the financial and emotional distress.

Shift Blame to Where It Belongs

It’s crucial to remember that if you fall prey to a con, the fault lies with the criminal, not the victim. Scammers are adept at psychological manipulation and exploit professional tactics to deceive. They target everyone, irrespective of their intelligence or experience.

 Encourage open discussions without judgment. Sharing experiences can empower others to recognize and avoid similar traps. Recognizing that anyone can be targeted helps remove the stigma and embarrassment often associated with being scammed.


My morning encounter and the elaborate ordeal faced by Charlotte Cowles serve as potent reminders of this ongoing threat, for which awareness and education are our best defenses. The goal is not just to protect your money but also your peace of mind. It’s always better to err on the side of caution. Should you ever find yourself unsure about a financial interaction, please reach out.