AI Scams Are Targeting Grandma (And You Too)

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Need to Know from SafeWise
  • 7 in 10 people couldn't tell the difference between an AI voice clone and a real person.
  • Scammers use voice samples to create voice clones.
  • 1 in 4 people know someone targeted by an AI scam (or were targeted themselves).
  • If you suspect a scam, report it to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov

It’s the middle of the night. Your grandma picks up the phone and hears your voice on the other end, crying. You say you’re in jail and need money wired to you for bail.

Across town, your mom answers the phone to hear you frantically saying you were in a car accident and need money for a bus ride home.

Meanwhile, you’re safely tucked into bed, oblivious to any of this.

That’s the beauty of the latest scam targeting seniors. Scammers can pretend to be anyone using a method of artificial intelligence (AI) scamming called voice cloning.

If you’re on the young side, don’t think an AI scam won’t happen to you. According to a survey by McAfee, 70% of the people they talked to couldn’t tell the difference between an AI voice clone and a real person. Here’s how it works and how to protect yourself.

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How AI voice cloning works

Thanks to some slick AI tools, scammers can use apps like Murf or LOVO (and dozens of others) to clone your voice and make it say whatever in as little as three seconds. When someone pretends to be someone else using AI technology, that’s called a deepfake.

How do the scammers know what you sound like? Typically, scammers take a sample of your voice from the videos you post on social media and feed it into the program.

How the AI voice cloning scam works

Once they have your voice, scammers can easily find out who your loved ones are through your social media profiles or from sites offering public record information. Phone numbers are easy to find online, too, through data broker sites.

Once they have your voice and your parents or grandparents' information, the rest is easy. They’ll make a call using your voice and claim you’re in trouble and need money. They’ll ask for the money to be wired, put on reloadable debit cards or sent as a gift card or cryptocurrency. These are hard to trace. Perfect for the scammer who doesn’t want to get caught.

Some typical tricks voice cloners use include:

  • A fake car accident: “Mom, I was in an accident! I’m hurt! Please send me money to get a cab ride to the hospital!”
  • Fake robbery: “Grandma, I just got mugged, and I don’t have any money to get home!”
  • Need help while traveling abroad: “Dad, I’ve used up all my money, and now I can’t fly back. Please send me some money for a plane ticket. I have nowhere to stay.”
  • Lost phone or wallet: “Grandpa, I lost my wallet and I’m stuck without a ride. Can you wire me some money?”

Some scammers will even go so far as to try to ransom loved ones. One mother, Jennifer DeStefano, testified in front of the U.S. Senate about a scammer calling her, pretending to be her 15-year-old daughter. In the call, her “daughter” said she was kidnapped. The scammer then pretended to take the phone and demand a ransom.

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Mother recounts falling victim to AI kidnapping scam

Jennifer DeStefano, who recently fell victim to a deepfake kidnapping extortion scheme, engages in a conversation with CNN's Erica Hill regarding the perpetrators who exploited her daughter's voice, demanding $1 million in ransom. DeStefano addressed Congress, highlighting the perils of artificial intelligence, and called upon legislators to enact regulations on this technology.

How common is voice cloning?

Apparently, this scam is pretty widespread. The survey by McAfee found that one in four people knew someone targeted by an AI scam or were targeted themselves. Many surveyed said they lost between $500 and $15,000 to voice cloners.

How do you protect yourself and loved ones from voice cloning?

Scammers love using emotion and urgency to trick people. That’s because when you’re emotional and pressed for time, you don’t think as rationally as you normally would. Voice cloning uses both tactics. Your loved one needs money, and they need it now because they are in a dire situation. Who wouldn’t want to help?

If you think you’re getting a scam call, your first step is to take a second. Ask questions that would be hard for a scammer to answer. If you get the feeling something’s not right, hang up and call your loved one directly. Don’t dial the number they supposedly called you from. If your loved one doesn't answer, see if family or friends know where they are and can confirm they’re okay.

Another way to protect you, your family and your friends is to decide on a codeword. Then, if one of you gets a disturbing call, you can ask for the codeword to prove their identity.

Once, you’ve calmed down, make sure to report the scam to the FTC att ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

For more ways to protect yourself and your loved ones, read our guide on Online Scams to Watch For in 2023.

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Alina Bradford
Written by
Alina Bradford
Alina is a safety and security expert that has contributed her insights to CNET, CBS, Digital Trends, MTV, Top Ten Reviews, and many others. Her goal is to make safety and security gadgets less mystifying one article at a time. In the early 2000s, Alina worked as a volunteer firefighter, earning her first responder certification and paving the way to her current career. Her activities aren’t nearly as dangerous today. Her hobbies include fixing up her 100-year-old house, doing artsy stuff, and going to the lake with her family.

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