That’s Not Your Scared Kid on the Phone. It’s a Scammer Using Voice Cloning
You get a phone call late at night and hear a panicked voice on the other end of the line. It’s a relative — maybe a grandson or a daughter. They say they’re in deep trouble. Maybe they got into an accident and injured someone, and they’re going to jail. It’s a crisis! They need you to send money right away!
Hold up. Are you sure it’s really your grandson or your daughter? Because it could be a scammer using artificial intelligence and voice cloning technology to imitate your relative. All they need is a short audio clip of your relative’s voice, which they can probably get from social media.
This kind of scam is becoming more common because voice cloning technology is becoming cheaper and more widely available, according to the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission.
“You can clone someone’s voice with 30 seconds or a minute of audio that you’ve gotten off Instagram,” said Steve Weisman, a law professor at Bentley University in Massachusetts who’s an expert in scams and cybersecurity. “With the kind of technology that is readily accessible today, this is not something that’s very expensive or very difficult to attain.”
It happened to an Arizona woman named Jennifer DeStefano in April 2023. She got a call from what sounded like her 15-year-old daughter, Briana, who was on a ski trip, crying and saying she was being held by kidnappers demanding ransom money. DeStefano said the voice sounded exactly like her daughter — but it turned out it wasn’t.
“The voice sounded just like Brie’s, the inflection, everything,” DeStefano told CNN. Luckily, before she could hand over any ransom money, she found out her daughter was fine and hadn’t been kidnapped after all.
An Updated Version of the Grandparent Scam
DeStefano’s case was a variation of what’s sometimes called the “grandparent scam,” in which a fraudster posing as a grandchild calls a grandparent asking them to send money to bail them out of trouble. In this case the scammer was posing as DeStefano’s daughter.
Voice cloning technology is a game-changer for impostor scams like this one. The problem is getting so bad that AARP recently warned its members about the increasing number of these scams.
“The only thing the scammer needs is a short audio clip of your family member’s voice, which could easily be accessed through content posted online,” said David Janssen, an analyst with the cybersecurity firm VPNOverview. “As this type of cybercrime is on the rise, it is important for people to be extra vigilant.”
The Signs of a Scam
The young and the old are susceptible to such scams, Weisman added. Sniffing out these tricks is becoming harder now because the thieves have access to better technology.
“With AI now, you can have a scammer in Russia, North Korea or Brazil sending emails with perfect grammar,” Weisman said. “It’s not going to sound stilted.”
Scammers will often ask you to pay or send money in ways that make it hard to get your money back, according to the FTC. If the caller asks you to wire money, send cryptocurrency, or buy gift cards and give them the card numbers and PINs, those are signs of a scam.
Fraudsters also try to trick you into sending money right away instead of waiting to figure out what’s really going on.
“So many scams try to get people to act immediately in some kind of emergency,” Weisman said. “You need to slow down. If it’s a legal matter, you call the police. If it’s a health matter, call the hospital. Or call the person back on a phone number you know is accurate.”
How You Can Protect Yourself
How can you guard against AI-powered scams? We collected the following tips from the FBI, the FTC, AARP and VPNOverview:
- Anyone asking you to pay them with a gift card is a scammer, according to the FTC.
- Don’t talk about upcoming trips on social media. It gives scammers a window to target your family.
- Don’t trust your caller ID. Scammers can “spoof” phone numbers to make it look like you’re getting a call from a certain number — like your bank, for example. If you get a call claiming to be from a business but it sounds fishy, hang up and call them back directly.
- If you encounter a scam, report it to local police and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
“AI is going to be a problem — we’re already seeing it. The number of phishing attacks in the world went up 50% in 2022, and a lot of that is being attributed to the availability of AI,” Weisman said.
“One of my mottos here is, things aren’t as bad as you think. They’re far worse.”
Mike Brassfield (mi[email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.