Financial columnist shares how she was scammed out of $50,000 by fake CIA agent

Charlotte Cowles, the financial-advice columnist for New York Magazine's The Cut, shared her enthralling story about being scammed out of $50,000 by a man posing as a CIA agent.

Here are the first three paragraphs:

On a Tuesday evening this past October, I put $50,000 in cash in a shoe box, taped it shut as instructed, and carried it to the sidewalk in front of my apartment, my phone clasped to my ear. "Don't let anyone hurt me," I told the man on the line, feeling pathetic.

"You won't be hurt," he answered. "Just keep doing exactly as I say."

Three minutes later, a white Mercedes SUV pulled up to the curb. "The back window will open," said the man on the phone. "Do not look at the driver or talk to him. Put the box through the window, say 'thank you,' and go back inside."

With a lead like this, how can you not keep reading?

Cowles is an intelligent person. How did she fall for this scam? It turns out that being intelligent has nothing to do with your propensity for being conned. In 2016, I interviewed Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time. In her research, she learned that everyone is vulnerable to the con artist's game, even other con artists, and there isn't much we can do to protect ourselves from getting conned.

After Cowles was robbed of her $50,000, she interviewed a number of experts about what had happened to her. They all agreed with Konnikova's conclusion:

It was my brother, the lawyer, who pointed out that what I had experienced sounded a lot like a coerced confession. "I read enough transcripts of bad interrogations in law school to understand that anyone can be convinced that they have a very narrow set of terrible options," he said. When I posed this theory to Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies coerced confessions, he agreed. "If someone is trying to get you to be compliant, they do it incrementally, in a series of small steps that take you farther and farther from what you know to be true," he said. "It's not about breaking the will. They were altering the sense of reality." And when you haven't done anything wrong, the risk of cooperating feels minimal, he added. An innocent person thinks everything will get sorted out. It also mattered that I was kept on the phone for so long. People start to break down cognitively after a few hours of interrogation. "At that point, they're not thinking straight. They feel the need to put an end to the situation at all costs," Kassin said.