AI: Helping Criminals to Scam


It seems like bad actors are finding more and more ways to scam people out of their money, and their security, and artificial intelligence (AI) has become another weapon in their arsenal.

“You get a call. There’s a panicked voice on the line. It’s your grandson. He says he’s in deep trouble – he wrecked the car and landed in jail. But you can help by sending money. You take a deep breath and think. You’ve heard about grandparent scams. But darn – it sounds just like him. How could it be a scam? Voice cloning, that’s how,” warns a consumer alert from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

This type of scam has been around long before the prevalence of AI; however, the ability of AI to create a voice that sounds like a person’s loved one who is in danger brings an added level of believability to the scam.

Sgt. John Gilbert, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept. – Crescenta Valley Station, said his family member was a victim of this type of scam.

“[My grandfather] was a skeptical person,” he said. But a few years ago he received a phone call. The person on the other end of the call said he – Gilbert, his grandson – was in Mexico and in jail. He needed money immediately.

Gilbert was a deputy at the time and was not in Mexico; his grandfather knew this and was skeptical but yet this call gave him pause. He considered every possibility and, ultimately, didn’t buy into the scam. But, Gilbert said, this experience affected him long after he received the call. He continued to question whether he did the right thing while still worrying, in the back of his mind, that his grandson was in danger.

This vulnerability is what criminals are counting on … that moment of doubt that turns into fear that a loved one is in danger. Today, this scam is super-charged when a voice on the phone sounds like a family member who is supposedly in trouble.

Criminals use voice recognition software to create a copy of someone’s voice by recording him/her speaking. Getting that recording is as easy as making a phone call.

AI has captured and recreated the singing voices of well-known artists, for example, or of public figures who have a wealth of recordings that are accessible to duplicate; however, scammers can get people’s voices even if they never gave a recorded speech. It does this by calling victims and secretly recording their voices.

Many people have received calls when it appears the no one is on the other line, yet they continue to say “Hello” or ask, “Who is this?” People can also receive a call from what appears to be a wrong number; many will politely tell the person they reached a wrong number. Sometimes these conversations last a few seconds but other times they last minutes as people try to explain to callers that they reached a wrong number and “No, we don’t know anyone by that name.” It could be a scammer on the other end recording the victim’s voice and using AI to replicate that voice for future use.

Anyone who has seen a law enforcement film or television show may think this technology has been around since the days of “Perry Mason” – someone records someone else then edits the recording to create any type of message. AI, though, has brought that technology forward. All that is needed are statements from a person and AI can create a voice that is difficult to discern from the real human voice.

Those who answer a phone call from an unknown number should let the caller speak first. Whoever is on the other end of the line could be recording snippets of the prospective victims’ voices — and later using those to impersonate them in a very convincing manner, according to the FTC.

The scenario is similar to what Sgt. Gilbert’s family member experienced. The victim receives a call; a panicked voice is on the other end. Loved ones say they are in trouble and need help. Scenarios may include that the loved one is in jail, has been in a car accident or is in the hospital – whatever the story, the bottom line is money is always needed. And this is when the scammer works to maintain a heightened level of fear. It is meant to disarm victims, to panic them so that when they are told to send money by gift card or Green Dot transfer, victims do it because they are nervous for the safety of their loved ones. It is a performance by the criminal made easier through the aid of AI.

Scams usually come in waves and it is important for people to be vigilant. There may be an increase in IRS scams or of people claiming they are part of a non-profit organization trying to raise funds or from a utility company. There is a scam when victims receive calls concerning unpaid bills and the caller demands payment. Sometimes caller ID appears on the phone as “Unknown” or from another number that is not recognized; however, there are now ways for victims to receive calls from what appears as a known caller ID.

“One we see across the nation is when someone calls and [says] they represent a law enforcement agency,” Gilbert said. He added the call from “the law enforcement agency” could be from a variety of agencies including the district attorney’s office. He has even heard of criminals stating they represent the U.S. Border Patrol.

“They call you and say there is a warrant out for your arrest,” he said. “They try to scare you if you don’t pay what they say you owe.” 

However, it is advised not to trust the voice on the phone. Instead, call the person who supposedly made contact to verify the story. Use a phone number that is known as theirs – don’t call the number given by the caller. If loved ones cannot be reached, try to get in touch with them through another family member or via their friends.

“The scammers usually direct the victim to go to a [store] to get a Green Dot card or some type of [gift] card and transfer or send money,” Gilbert said.

There are other ways for scammers to get their victims to send money that will be nearly impossible to track; however, the best way that consumers can protect themselves is to stay calm and trust their instincts. Don’t let the scammers push someone to action. Take the time to double-check whatever is being said. Whatever agency scammers state they are calling from, find that number independently and call them, whether the IRS, a utilities company or law enforcement agency. And check on loved ones; call their number directly if a call is received stating they are in trouble.

“Call or message the family member or friend who [supposedly] contacted you. Call them at a phone number that you know is right, not the one someone just used to contact you. Check if they’re really in trouble. Call someone else in your family or circle of friends – even if the caller said to keep it a secret. Do that especially if you can’t reach the friend or family member who’s supposed to be in trouble. A trusted person can help you figure out whether the story is true,” according to FTC.

And don’t engage after answering a phone call from a number that is not recognized. Wait for the person on the other line to speak first. When someone gets a call from a trusted phone number but something doesn’t seem right, hang up and call that number back. Normally scammers cannot intercept that call and it will go directly to the trusted person.

People who think they may have been victims of fraud can contact or call their local law enforcement agency to report any losses.