AI scam calls: What you need to know

May 24, 2023

Learn more about how scammers have been using AI voice technology to make scam calls and how you can protect yourself.

A woman receiving an AI voice scam call

Recently, there have been many stories in the news about people who have become victims of an AI voice scam - scams using artificial intelligence to mimic voices. Typically, this involves a person getting a phone call from someone who they believe to be a loved one asking for money. While the voice on the other line sounds exactly like the loved one they claim to be, it’s actually a scammer using AI voice technology.

These types of scam calls are relatively new, so there is not much data out there about how often it actually happens. However, there is plenty of information about how this technology works and how scammers are using it. Understanding how AI scam calls work can help you prevent yourself from becoming a victim.

What you need to know about AI scam calls.

The Federal Trade Commission recently issued a consumer alert regarding AI voice call scams after multiple instances of these scams popped up. The alert urged people to be vigilant about these types of scam calls and report them to the FTC if they do happen.

The scam tends to go like this…
  • A person answers a phone call from an unknown number.
  • The person on the other line claims to be a loved one of the call recipient. And they sound just like the person they claim to be.
  • The caller then explains that they are in trouble and need money. They give the recipient instructions on how to send it, typically as gift cards or cryptocurrency.
  • The recipient believes that this is their loved one and wants to help them, so they send the money.
  • They quickly learn that this was a scam when they talk to the actual loved one they thought was on the phone.
There are different variations of this scam. One Arizona mother got a call from a kidnapper who demanded a ransom for her daughter. When she heard who she thought was her daughter crying and begging for help in the background, she was sure that the scenario was real.

Another parent got a phone call from a person who claimed to be her son’s lawyer. Her son had gotten himself in trouble and needed money to pay the lawyer to defend him in court. The lawyer even put “the son” on the phone to say his thanks for their financial help.

In the event of an AI voice cloning scam, it’s challenging to track down the person behind it. The victims often have very little information other than what was said on the call and how they sent the money. And these scammers can call from any phone in the world, making it harder to track down a specific location.

While victims of these scams can and should report them to their local police department, many departments do not have the staff or expertise to investigate consumer fraud like this successfully. Even when they do, they are working with very little information and may need help to successfully find out the identity of the caller.

How does AI voice cloning work?

AI voice-generating software works by analyzing what makes a person’s voice unique. This can be age, gender, accent, and even regional quirks. Then, the software searches a database of voices to find similar ones and predict speech patterns.

This technology can re-create the pitch, timbre, and tone of a person’s voice. The scammer can then type whatever they want to say into the software, and it then comes out as audio of that specific person’s voice. In most cases, the AI voice is indistinguishable from the voice of the actual person.

The scammer only needs to provide this technology with a short audio sample. This can be taken from any online video or audio, such as YouTube videos, TikToks, Instagram videos, podcasts, and even phone calls. In the past, you would need several longer samples to use this tech. But today, you only need 30 seconds to a minute of audio to clone a voice.

Voice cloning software is often inexpensive and even sometimes free to use. It’s also fairly easy to use as it only requires the person to provide a short audio clip and then type in what they want the voice to say. With this in mind, we will likely start seeing more of these types of scams in the future.

How to protect yourself from AI voice scams

No matter how close you are to your loved one, it can often be very difficult to determine whether the voice on the other line is actually the person they say they are or if it’s voice AI. (In fact, many recent stories about these types of scams involve parents and their children.)

However, there are some ways to protect yourself and your family from becoming a victim of an AI phone call scam. Here are a few things you can do to decrease the chances of falling into this trap:

1. Be vigilant.

Now that you know these types of phone scams are becoming more prevalent, you can be more vigilant about what types of information you give over the phone. Be aware that the person on the phone may not be who they say they are, even if it sounds just like the person they claim to be.

Do your best to verify the identity of the person on the phone before you send them any money. (There are some tips for doing that below.)

2. Look for signs of a scam.

There are similarities between many of these AI voice cloning scams that can alert you to the fact it may be a scam. For example, if the person requests money in the form of a gift card or cryptocurrency, this is a tell-tale sign that it may be a scam. Gift cards and crypto are difficult to trace, so this is often the scammer’s payment method of choice.

Similarly, if the person is calling from an unfamiliar area code or international number, this could also be an indication that it is a scam. However, it’s also possible to manipulate what shows up on the caller ID, so don’t assume that the call is legitimate just because it comes from a familiar area code either.

3. Call your loved one back.

If you ever get a call from a loved one asking for money, put the call on hold and call the loved one yourself on their known phone number. If your loved one picks up on the other line, you’ll instantly know that the other call was a scam.

If you’re unable to reach your loved one on their phone, call a friend or family member they might be in touch with. Then, you can verify that your loved one is okay before assuming they are the ones on the phone asking for money.

4. Create a safe word or phrase.

One way to confirm the identity of the person you’re talking to is to create a safe word that your family can use if they are ever in trouble. This can be any common word, like apple, candle, or chartreuse, but the more obscure it is, the better. It should not be a piece of information that someone might be able to easily find out, like a birthday, a pet's name, a school, and so on. 

You can also develop pass phrases. Similar to creating strong passwords for online accounts, a good passphrase is easy to remember and difficult to guess. This should not be a well-known saying, common phrase, or a line from a song, poem, or movie. A strong passphrase should be somewhat nonsensical or random. For example, "The moon in June comes out at noon," is simple to remember, but random enough to be next to impossible to guess. 

Agree ahead of time with your family on which word or phrase to use to confirm their identity on the phone. When you get a call from someone who claims to be a loved one in trouble, you can then ask for the safe word or phrase to confirm it’s really them on the other line.

5. Ask personal questions.

Another way you can confirm that the person on the phone is who they say they are is to ask questions. Choose personal questions that a scammer would not know the answer to.

Avoid questions where the answers can be commonly found online or easily guessed, like “Where were you born?” or “Where do you work?” Instead, ask something more personal that pertains to a specific event, such as “What did you say to your mom every night before bed when you were little?”

You can also ask trick questions, such as "Where did you and Rachel go for your honeymoon?" Assuming the person in question isn't married to someone named Rachel (or isn't married at all), any answer apart from "What are you talking about, who is Rachel?" will be a sure sign of a scam. 

6. Combine safety measures. 

Even if you have a great safeword or ask very personal questions, it's best to try and use all available methods of identification rather than just one. Scammers can be clever, and may be able to guess safewords and answers to questions, or may have taken the time to look through social media for clues to possible questions before attempting the scam. However, the chances of them succeeding at several of these measures is substantially lower. 

A phone receiving an AI voice scam call

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by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Strategist at Germania Insurance.

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