Scammers now using AI to improve their family emergency schemes

Photo (c) Metamorworks - Getty Images

Who will protect you in these situations? Not too many, unfortunately.

“Hey, Grandma, it’s Sean and I’m in a real pickle…”

Imagine getting a call like that. Your grandson calls, says he’s in deep trouble because he wrecked his car and the cops threw him in jail.

“All I need is for you to send some bail money so I can get out and get this whole mess taken care of.”

You sigh and, then, a lightbulb goes off. You’ve heard about grandparent scams so this must be one, but the caller really did sound like Sean.

Welcome to voice cloning.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says that when artificial intelligence invaded our world, it also brought new tools for scammers to use such as voice cloning.

“A scammer could use AI to clone the voice of your loved one. All he needs is a short audio clip of your family member's voice — which he could get from content posted online — and a voice-cloning program. When the scammer calls you, he’ll sound just like your loved one,”  is how Alvaro Puig, an FTC Consumer Education Specialist explained it.

Separating truth from fiction and protecting your money

How can you tell if a family member is in trouble or if it’s a scammer using a cloned voice? For one thing, don’t trust the voice.

Puig says the first thing you should do is call the real person who supposedly contacted you and verify their story. But don’t use a phone number the “supposed” caller gave you, but one you’re absolutely sure is theirs. And if you can’t reach them, try to get in touch with them through another family member or their friends.

Money for bail or to pay for towing a car after an accident is not uncommon, but if it’s a scammer, they’ll likely ask you to pay or send money in ways that make it hard to get your money back. Gift cards, cryptocurrency, and wire transfers are examples.

If you use any of those methods, you might as well kiss your money goodbye. And if you're thinking that a wire transfer from one bank to another would be protected by the FDIC, the answer is an emphatic “no.” So, how about something like PayPal?

“If you buy something using PayPal and the transaction turns out to be bogus, PayPal will often return your money. Unfortunately, this only happens if certain conditions are met. Otherwise, paying with PayPal is similar to handing over cash,” says Elliot Nesbo of MakingUseOf.

What to do

Nesbo suggests in situations where you think you’re the victim of a scam, the first thing you should do is see if your PayPal payment is still pending. If it is, then luck is probably on your side and you can obtain a refund automatically by clicking "Cancel payment."

And Venmo? Sorry, pal. Unfortunately, Venmo doesn’t offer you any type of fraud protection if these transactions go wrong — and scammers know it, says consumer identity theft company Aura. 

"In these Venmo scams, fraudsters post in-demand products on platforms like Facebook Marketplace. When you reach out, they’ll insist that you use Venmo to make the purchase so they won’t have to pay a fee. But once you send them the money, the 'seller' disappears along with the product that you thought you’d purchased," Aura says.

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