Scammers using AI for phone fraud

This picture shows screens displaying the logos of OpenAI and ChatGPT.

This picture shows screens displaying the logos of OpenAI and ChatGPT. Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images/TNS

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 10-22-2023 3:00 PM

Artificial intelligence is changing the phone scam game. But, experts say, the rules are the same.

“I think we would always be wary when we pick up the phone when we don’t know who is calling,” said Anita Wilson, director of the Consumer Protection Unit at the Northwestern district attorney’s office. “We always recommend that people screen their calls. If you’re not expecting a call or if it doesn’t match any of your contacts ... just wait for the person to leave a message.”

Artificial intelligence, or AI, has added a new depth of complexity to combating phone fraud. Whereas it used to be automated messages or random voices on the other line, technology has enabled scammers to manipulate or clone the words of a loved one to try to cheat an unsuspecting person out of information or more.

“They’re recording your voice,” said Scott Minckler, the police chief in Leverett. “Limit your answer to whoever you are talking to if you don’t recognize them.”

Minckler said two AI phone scams have been reported to his department in the past month. One of these attempts was reported by a Wendell woman who asked that her name not be published for safety reasons. Leverett is contracted to provide Wendell’s policing services.

Per the Wendell woman’s retelling, she answered a call from a number she didn’t recognize on Oct. 4 at around 11 a.m. She immediately heard sirens in the background, followed by her daughter’s voice saying she had broken her nose in a car accident in Westfield and was under arrest for being distracted by her cellphone. The voice of a police officer then came on the line and told the woman her daughter was being taken to an “infirmary” to be treated for injuries. The officer reportedly told the woman to expect a call from a public defender’s office to pay a retainer. He then said he would give the phone back to the woman’s daughter, but the call cut out.

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The woman recounted that she and her son called the Westfield Police Department and were told there was no reported accident. They called other police departments before getting ahold of the daughter’s fiancé, who had not heard anything. An hour went by before the woman’s daughter, having seen several missed calls, called back and said she was fine, having been at a gardening job. It was at that point the family realized the call was a scam.

The woman, who reported the incident to the Leverett Police Department, said the scariest aspect was that the voice was clearly that of her daughter, who was in a legitimate accident a handful of years ago.

Minckler said scams like this to illegally obtain money are becoming more elaborate and are likely to increase in frequency as technology advances. He stressed that no one should ever release personal information over the phone and people should keep their answers as brief as possible when speaking to someone they don’t know. Minckler said most companies would never ask for the type of information scammers inquire about.

People should call their local police department if they experience any fraudulent calls. Minckler said authorities will help in any way they can with the resources they have.

Wilson suggests people screen their calls, or at least hang up immediately if a phone conversation becomes suspicious. Even short answers can reveal enough information for scammers to open a line of credit in a victim’s name or commit some other malicious activity.

“If anything seems off ... just disconnect as soon as you can,” Wilson said.

Lt. Todd Dodge of the Greenfield Police Department advises against answering calls from phone numbers not in your contact list.

“I’m at the point now where I don’t answer an unknown number,” he said.

Dodge added that he lets most calls go to voicemail so he can research the phone number, and calls back if the number is legitimate. He added, however, that scammers can use apps to disguise their calls as coming from different numbers.

“It’s just about getting people’s information,” he said, adding that it can be sold to other scammers.

He said the elderly appear to be particularly vulnerable to AI scams, which often use fear tactics to make them believe a young family member is in trouble and in need of immediate cash. Criminals can manipulate recorded audio from specific YouTube channels or social media profiles to sound like their target’s loved one.

Dodge mentioned that area codes 473, 809 and 900 are ones to be particularly cautious about.

The Federal Trade Commission posted a warning to its website in March to advise consumers on how to avoid getting scammed.

“Don’t trust the voice. Call the person who supposedly contacted you and verify the story,” the post reads. “Use a phone number you know is theirs. If you can’t reach your loved one, try to get in touch with them through another family member or their friends.”

Requests for money, cryptocurrency, gift cards and credit card information are signs of a scam.

You can report a scam to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov

Reach Domenic Poli at dpoli@recorder.com or413-930-4120.