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Expert: Scams more convincing with artificial intelligence

Aug 4, 2023, 5:04 PM | Updated: 5:36 pm

SANPETE COUNTY, Utah — It came in as a call from a loved one who was in desperate need of help.

In the moment, David Allan said it even sounded like his grandson, who claimed he had been in a car crash that injured a pregnant woman.

A supposed public defender then got on the line and informed Allan that his grandson was in the Utah County Jail in Spanish Fork and he needed $5,000 to help bail him out of there.

“Because of my deep love for him, my logic turned off,” admitted Allan, a life-long physicist who helped to develop atomic clocks in the U.S. with his research that became known as the Allan Variance.

Allan told KSL TV he soon found himself doing whatever he could to help his grandson, including driving more than an hour-and-a-half from home to Park City and then back to Provo to find the right ATM to assist him.

“It wasn’t until 7:00 that night that I finally realized it was a scam,” Allan said. “There were several signs over the course of the day that I should have recognized from just pure logic that something was wrong.”

Calls like those can be convincing enough, but cybersecurity experts say the scammers have recently started kicking up the realism a notch through artificial intelligence.

“They’re copying and cloning people’s voices,” said Richard Hickman, owner of Secured Success. “So you look at your phone, you see, ‘oh, my daughter’s calling,’ and then there’s this scary guy on the end that says that ‘I just kidnapped your daughter’ and you’re like, ‘well how do I really know, put her on the phone.’ So then they play a voice of your daughter’s voice that says something like, ‘please do what they’re saying, I’m scared.’”

Hickman said the ploy often proves convincing, tricking victims into doing whatever the scammers instruct.

“In that type of scenario, it’s probably good enough to fool most people,” Hickman said.

Scammers, he said, are generally able to clone voices through several online programs readily available for a small monthly subscription.

“You can go to someone’s social media, pull down all the videos of them talking, and then feed your model to be able to have it trained to talk like that person,” Hickman said.

Hickman recently sat down with KSL TV reporter Andrew Adams to show how it worked, using several samples of Adams’ voice recorded for his news stories.

While the program did not provide an exact match, the voice could be modified to project urgency and it was close enough Adams acknowledged it might fool someone under the right circumstances.

“(I) couldn’t say it wasn’t me,” Adams said during a conversation with Hickman. “If I said, ‘please, do what they say, I’m scared,’ it kind of sounds like it, right?”

Hickman said the voice-generating programs have a practical application for enterprises like audio books and the voice only becomes more accurate the more samples that are uploaded.

“Providing more than 5 minutes of audio in total brings literal improvement,” Hickman said.

Hickman said there are multiple steps families can take to protect themselves and their loved ones, advice he shared directly with Allan recently.

Primarily, he urged families to have a safe word or phrase that is only shared with each other in person and never posted or talked about anywhere else.

“If they don’t use that key phrase with me over the phone, I can’t trust that it’s them,” Hickman said.

Allan said his family was already in the process of coming up with a safe word or password.

Hickman also urged people if they receive a call like Allan did to immediately hang up and directly call the loved one’s known phone number.

Additionally, Hickman said he recommends people set their social media accounts to private to reduce the potential that scammers can find and use voice samples.

Allan said he has generally never been one to be tricked in the moment.

“I get phone calls all the time from people,” Allan explained. “I don’t know who they are? Click. I’m done.”

He doesn’t know whether artificial intelligence was employed in his case, but as someone who has been familiar with the concept of AI since helping to develop optimization programs for clocks, he said he was worried about the potential for misuse in scams like these and that added motivation to share his story.

He said he is much more cautious now and urged others to be the same way.

“My goal is to help others as much as we can,” Allan said.

Allan has been familiar with the concept of artificial intelligence for decades since helping to develop optimization programs for clocks.

“AI is taking over the world.,” he said.

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Expert: Scams more convincing with artificial intelligence