Trail Financial Planning, LLC is a fee-only financial planning and investment management firm located in Bellingham, WA

Scams will get even better

Scams will get even better

There is a story of a scam in the news right now, written by a financial journalist, Charlotte Cowles.  She recounts how she fell for a scam in which she withdrew $50,000 in cash from her bank, put it into a shoebox, then handed that shoebox through the backdoor of an unmarked car, to a complete stranger, right in front of her apartment with her spouse and 2-year old son inside.  It is a shocking story, almost unbelievable, except that I have seen similar stories play out here in Bellingham to people I know and care about.  I have been told by good people at our credit union and in our police department that such scams happen not infrequently to regular people in our community. 

It is a common belief that victims of scams are typically older, more vulnerable persons.  But, according to a recent report from the Federal Trade Commission, younger adults (those under 60) are actually 34 percent more likely to report losing money to fraud compared to those over 60.  See endnotes for the link. 

I share the story for two reasons:  

  1. I want myself and my community to be financially resilient.  I don’t want the scammers to win.  Most importantly, I don’t want people I care about to experience the trauma of being financially abused.  By building up our mental defenses we can protect ourselves against getting scammed AND support others if they are being groomed for a scam.  Knowledge and awareness are two of the defenses we can build.
  2. I want to make a wider comment on how brave Charlotte Cowles is to publish this story.  We are humans, we make mistakes.  There is so much shame and guilt surrounding an experience like this.  There is so much judgment and criticism in the comments section of the posts I read.  I think it takes tremendous courage for her to share it.  I applaud her.

Her story

I would encourage you to read her story directly.  It is about a 10-minute read.  Here is the link:

My Thoughts

First of all, what a horribly invasive experience.  She was groomed by the scammer.  Then, the scammer took $50,000 from her family’s emergency fund, a fund she had spent years accumulating.   She was the victim of financial abuse.  It might be tempting to think that such scams do not occur, or that her story sounds so ludicrous that she made it up.  Maybe, but I personally know smart people who have fallen victim to scams that were eerily similar to her story.  I believe her.

I think there are a few key “red flags” to be aware of if you find yourself in a similar predicament, or if you notice this happening to someone.  

  • The scammer insists on secrecy:  “Do not tell anyone what is going on.”  In order for the scam to work, the scammer must hijack a person’s trust away from those who they should trust.  Divide and conquer is an age-old tactic.
  • The scammer raises the pressure by making it time-sensitive:  “You must act quickly.”  “We don’t have much time.”  Haste and time pressure are common tactics used by used car salespeople and scammers alike to short-circuit the rational brain into the irrational or impulsive.
  • Hijack a person’s normal trust network: “...if you don’t cooperate I cannot keep you safe.  It is your choice.”  The scammers create a “bubble of trust” between themselves and the victim.  The victim is led to believe that they can only trust anyone inside of their bubble.
  • Handing over money through any sort of anonymous system:  cash, gift cards, paying with cryptocurrency, etc.  I cannot imagine any legitimate organization or endeavor that would force you to use an anonymous payment method.

One of the other important elements is that the scammer knows personal things about the victim.  The personal details add an element of plausibility that gets the victim to open the door to the scammer.  Once through the door, the scammer begins to establish the bubble of false trust, walling the victim off from their sources of true trust. 

There are many other details we could pick out from this story that the author points out as obvious signs of a scam (in retrospect, at least).  However, any such armchair quarterbacking is foolhardy.  The lesson here is that this scam DID happen to a reasonable, smart, financially savvy person.  If it worked on her, it could work on any of us. Knowing some of the signs may help you avoid being a victim, or support someone who is being victimized.  

Bravery and Courage

My first thought when I read this story was how courageous she was, and is, to share this story publicly.  My hunch is that she is receiving all sorts of judgmental criticism.  In her piece, she talks about the aftermath of this episode – the shame, the guilt, and people’s reactions to her story.  A line from her story that struck me about this point,

“I imagined other people’s reactions.  She’s always been a little careless.  She seems unhinged.  I considered keeping the whole thing a secret.  I worried it would harm my professional reputation.  I still do.”  

To cope, she cried, went to therapy, and reached out to other victims for comfort.  Another financial professional, who also had a personal experience of scamming, empathized with her saying that the reactions of others were patronizing.  I think we should have the opposite reaction.  We should applaud Ms. Cowles bravery to share her experience.  We should celebrate her courage to be vulnerable.  We should not blame and judge the victim.

Shame and judgment are weapons of the scammers and, more generally, all oppressors and bullies.  They force the victims to blame themselves.  While overt comments are painful, it is the language that comes from our own community that often cuts deeper.  Our own language can sometimes reinforce victim blaming.  For example, notice the difference between “She fell for a scam,” rather than “A scammer took advantage of her.”  Or more subtly, “It was an obvious scam” rather than “It was an insidious scam.”  Words like “fell for” or “obvious” are like little daggers of shame and blame.  They add emotional pain to the original wound.  It’s all a part of the strategy of victim blaming and is a well-worn path by oppressors. 

In contrast, Charlotte Cowles is fighting back by telling her story.  She is shedding light on the secrets, bringing her experience into our view.  It is an  act of vulnerability and courage that we should applaud.  

My takeaway

Scammers are clever.  With AI tools, their weapons will become even more sharp and directed.  They will be able to impersonate people, they will easily create fake digital evidence, they will know all sorts of personal things about us.  They will become better at spinning believable stories.  However, we have defenses and protections.  If your intuition goes off that something “doesn’t feel right,” just pause, slow it down.  Reach out to someone you trust and ask for their thoughts.  Be vulnerable.  Lean on those who you know would have your back – those people with whom you have real trust – accumulated from thousands of experiences over time.  If someone shares a story with you that is shameful or vulnerable, or comes to you with an inquiry, collect their story without shame or blame.  Respect their vulnerability.  Doing so builds our trust in one another and weaves the fabric of a strong, resilient community.  

End Notes

[1] link to FTC Report:  “Who experiences scams?  A story for all ages.”  The study addresses questions like who actually reports fraud, how bad the fraud is, how frauds are initiated.

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John Chesbrough

John is a financial planner and investment manager. He, along with his business partner Elizabeth Snyder, founded, a fee-only, independent financial advisory firm called Trail Financial Planning (Trail FP) in Bellingham, WA. John and Liz enjoy working with people who care for others and their community – parents, firefighters, therapists, doctors, nurses, and teachers. They work with people by appointment. To learn more, or to schedule some time with John or Liz directly, please visit