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Voice cloning could make the grandparent scam more dangerous

Law enforcement warns that A.I. can easily recreate an actual person’s voice

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Photo (c) Andranik Hakobyan - Getty Images
Thanks to technology, you can’t always believe what you hear. That friend or family member you think you’re talking to may actually be a scammer.

In a warning to consumers, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody said voice cloning technology now makes it possible to make near-perfect reproductions of a real person’s voice. She notes that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned consumers that this technology has already been used to extort money.

Moody is worried that voice cloning can be used to make the “grandparent scam” even more effective. In that scheme, a scammer calls an older person and uses a muffled voice to say something like “Grandpa, I need help.” 

In some cases, the older victims jump to the conclusion that the caller is an actual grandchild, who then says they need money wired to a certain location. The FTC says it has become one of the most widespread scams targeting senior citizens.

Can’t trust what you hear

Moody says the new voice cloning technology has the potential to make this scam even more dangerous. 

“Imagine receiving a call. The voice on the other end of the phone is familiar and is begging for help,” Moody said. “Sadly, today, you may not always be able to trust what you hear.”

All someone employing voice cloning technology needs is about five seconds of a recording of someone’s voice. With it, they can create a conversation using the person’s voice.

The scammers could then use the clone to call victims and pretend to be the target’s family member or friend asking for money in an emergency. These criminals could also use the technology to extort businesses by imitating a vendor who asks for payment. 

In 2019, criminals used this new technology to impersonate a corporate CEO and order the payment of $243,000. An executive of an energy company in the U.K. thought he was speaking to his boss and complied with the request.

Protections

Moody says the technology means consumers will have to be even more careful when they get calls asking for help or instructing them to make large payments.

“This is one of the scariest scams I have heard about since becoming attorney general and I want to make sure consumers are aware of the ways technology can be used to exploit their good intentions,” she said.

To protect yourself, you need to show a little skepticism. While the scammer may be able to reproduce an actual person’s voice, they can’t reproduce their knowledge. Ask questions only the actual person would know.

If you have the actual person’s contact information in your phone, hang up and call them back. For businesses, Moody says precautions may need to involve an upgrade of security protocols that require more than one person to improve payments.

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