artificial intelligence

AI Scam Calls: How to Protect Yourself, How to Detect

You answer a random call from a family member, and they breathlessly explain how there’s been a horrible car accident. They need you to send money right now, or they’ll go to jail. You can hear the desperation in their voice as they plead for an immediate cash transfer. While it sure sounds like them, and the call came from their number, you feel like something’s off. So, you decide to hang up and call them right back. When your family member picks up your call, they say there hasn’t been a car crash, and that they have no idea what you’re talking about.

Congratulations, you just successfully avoided an artificial intelligence scam call.

As generative AI tools get more capable, it is becoming easier and cheaper for scammers to create fake—but convincing—audio of people’s voices. These AI voice clones are trained on existing audio clips of human speech, and can be adjusted to imitate almost anyone. The latest models can even speak in numerous languages. OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT, recently announced a new text-to-speech model that could further improve voice cloning and make it more widely accessible.

Of course, bad actors are using these AI cloning tools to trick victims into thinking they are speaking to a loved one over the phone, even though they’re talking to a computer. While the threat of AI-powered scams can be frightening, you can stay safe by keeping these expert tips in mind the next time you receive an urgent, unexpected call.

Remember That AI Audio Is Hard to Detect

It’s not just OpenAI; many tech startups are working on replicating near perfect-sounding human speech, and the recent progress is rapid. “If it was a few months ago we would have given you tips on what to look for, like pregnant pauses or showing some kind of latency,” says Ben Colman, cofounder and CEO of Reality Defender. Like many aspects of generative AI over the last year, AI audio is now a more convincing imitation of the real thing. Any safety strategies that rely on you audibly detecting weird quirks over the phone are outdated.

Hang Up and Call Back

Security experts warn that it’s quite easy for scammers to make it appear as if the call is coming from a legitimate phone number. “A lot of times scammers will spoof the number that they’re calling you from, make it look like it’s calling you from that government agency or the bank,” says Michael Jabbara, a global head of fraud services at Visa. “You have to be proactive.” Whether it’s from your bank or from a loved one, any time you receive a call asking for money or personal information, go ahead and ask to call them back. Look up the number online or in your contacts, and initiate a follow-up conversation. You can also try sending them a message through a different, verified line of communication like video chat or email.

Create a Secret Safe Word

A popular security tip multiple sources suggested was to craft a safe word to ask for over the phone that only family members know about. “You can even prenegotiate with your loved ones a word or a phrase that they could use in order to prove who they really are, if in a duress situation,” says Steve Grobman, a chief technology officer at McAfee. While calling back or verifying through another means of communication is best, a safe word can be especially helpful for young ones or elderly relatives who may be difficult to contact otherwise.

Or Just Ask What They Had for Dinner

What if you don’t have a safe word decided on and are trying to suss out whether a distressing call is real? Pause for a second and ask a personal question. “It could even be as simple as asking a question that only a loved one would know the answer to,” says Grobman. “It could be, ‘Hey, I want to make sure this is really you. Can you remind me what we had for dinner last night?’” Make sure the question is specific enough that a scammer couldn’t answer correctly with an educated guess.

Understand Any Voice Can Be Mimicked

Deepfake audio clones aren’t just reserved for celebrities and politicians, like the calls in New Hampshire that used AI tools to sound like Joe Biden and discourage people from going to the polls. “One misunderstanding is: ‘It cannot happen to me. No one can clone my voice,’” says Rahul Sood, a chief product officer at PinDrop, a security company that discovered the likely origins of the AI Biden audio. “What people don’t realize is that with as little as 5 to 10 seconds of your voice, on a TikTok you might have created or a YouTube video from your professional life, that content can be easily used to create your clone.” Using AI tools, the outgoing voicemail message on your smartphone might even be enough to replicate your voice.

Don’t Give In to Emotional Appeals

Whether it’s a pig butchering scam or an AI phone call, experienced scammers are able to build your trust in them, create a sense of urgency, and find your weak points. “Be wary of any engagement where you’re experiencing a heightened sense of emotion, because the best scammers aren’t necessarily the most adept technical hackers,” says Jabbara. “But they have a really good understanding of human behavior.” If you take a moment to reflect on a situation and refrain from acting on impulse, that could be the moment you avoid getting scammed.

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