FTC Warns of 'Terrifying' Phone Scam Driven by AI

Agency says voice cloning can make caller sound like a loved one begging for money
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 23, 2023 9:02 AM CDT
That 'Familiar' Voice on the Other End Might Not Be
Who's really on the other end?   (Getty Images/fizkes)

Many of us have heard of the old hoax in which victims receive phone calls from "police" or a "doctor" (actually scammers) saying that a loved one is in trouble and needs money sent stat. Now, in what NPR says "sounds like a plot from a science fiction story," a new twist on that tried-and-true scheme. The Federal Trade Commission issued an alert to consumers on Monday that explains how scammers are now using artificial intelligence to clone people's voices, then calling their relatives or friends with that recording to try to swindle them.

"All [the scammer] 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," notes the FTC, which has been studying this problem for some time. "When the scammer calls you, he'll sound just like your loved one." And nefarious players don't need to have expensive equipment—there are cheap online tools that will do the trick—or find lengthy TED Talks online to grab those original audio clips. "Now ... if you have a Facebook page ... or if you've recorded a TikTok and your voice is in there for 30 seconds, people can clone your voice," UC Berkeley digital forensics professor Hany Farid told the Washington Post earlier this month, calling the prospect "terrifying."

FTC officials say that in 2022, so-called imposter scams perpetrated over the phone accounted for more than $11 million in losses. And there's often no recourse in retrieving the lost cash once it's been stolen. "There's no insurance. There's no getting it back. It’s gone," Benjamin Perkin says of the more than $15,000 his elderly parents lost after getting a call from a "lawyer" claiming he was in jail and needed money. The FTC advises that if you ever get a call from a supposed loved one in which they ask for money—especially if they're requesting gift cards or crypto, or for you to wire the funds—hang up and call them back directly to make sure it's them.

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That's the case even if the call appears to be coming from a loved one's number, as it could be spoofed. In terms of remedying the issue overall, it could prove challenging. The Post notes that, in addition to the growing sophistication of the technology, it's hard to trace such calls back, and "federal regulators, law enforcement, and the courts are ill-equipped" to deal with them. "It's sort of the perfect storm ... [with] all the ingredients you need to create chaos," says UC Berkeley's Farid. Click here to report a suspected scam with the FTC. (More cloning stories.)

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