Criminals Use AI for New Twist on Old Scam

Why your parents are vulnerable — and what to do about it

“Grandma, it’s me. I’m scared. I’m on Spring Break in Mexico and I need help. There’s a lawyer here who can help, but if I can’t get him money right away, I’m going to jail. I really screwed up. Please don’t tell my mother.”

Suddenly, another voice. It’s the lawyer. “Your granddaughter is in terrible trouble. You need to wire money immediately.” Someone screams. Was that your granddaughter?

The so-called grandparent scam isn’t new. Neither is its cousin, the fake kidnapping scam. But there’s a new twist: Now criminals are using artificial intelligence to clone voices and make these cruel scams even more believable.

All the scammer needs, says the FTC “is a short audio clip of your family member’s voice — which he could get from content posted online — and a voice-cloning program. When the scammer calls you, he’ll sound just like your loved one.”

“Anybody Can Be Spoofed”

The AI technology is inexpensive and easily accessible. And the fake doesn’t have to be perfect to be real enough to work. Because you’re not listening for nuance. You’re in full panic mode. You’re disoriented. The only thing you know is that your grandchild is in trouble and the clock is ticking.

Just ask Jennifer DeStefano, whose 15-year-old daughter was the target of a virtual kidnapping.

“Anybody can be spoofed” ​Rachel Tobac of Social Proof Security told Sixty Minutes​:

“…they can impersonate that person enough just by changing the pitch and the modulation of their voice that I believe that’s my nephew and I need to really wire that money.”

“The voice sounded just like Brie’s, the inflection, everything,” she told CNN…. “A mother knows her child… You can hear your child cry across the building, and you know it’s yours…. That’s what threw me off. It was the voice, matching with the crying.”

Why Your Parents Are Vulnerable

How vulnerable are your aging parents to these kind of family emergency scams? More than you or they might think.

One reason is the bounty of personal data that scammers can harvest online. The post-pandemic travel boom is also a factor. Scammers scour the internet looking for international travelers posting on social media, says the FBI.

Another reason: Changes in the brain that affect financial decision making. We’re not talking about Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia. These changes are part of the normal cognitive aging process.

“It’s the earliest area of cognitive functioning to be affected,” says Marti DeLiema, Ph.D., a gerontologist and assistant professor of social work at University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work. “This is reasoning, this is planning, this is executive functioning….

“It’s really those complex decisions that are affected, the ones that require you to weigh a lot of different types of evidence that might be affected by emotional arousal, and a lot of the tactics that scammers use to get us in these states where we can’t make the best decisions for ourselves.”

The problem, says DeLiema, whose research focuses on fraud and scams, is that these changes are subtle and easily overlooked, which make your parents that much more susceptible to scams.

“It’s really hard for friends and family members, or even the person themselves, to understand and recognize that it’s happening… individuals who are experiencing these declines are still able to drive, do all the grocery shopping, their meal planning.”

Finally, your parents may be embarrassed to admit they’ve been conned, which makes it hard for you to intervene and help. And they’re not alone. Older adults are less likely to report fraud, and when they do, the amount is greater than any other group, particularly for those 80 and older. In 2021, the FTC placed the loss at more than $1 billion — a number the agency states represents “only a fraction of older adults harmed by fraud.”

What You Can Do

Don’t post information about upcoming travel dates and locations on social media, warns the FBI. It gives the scammers a window to target your family.

Talk about scams with your parents. Use your own experience or a news story as a conversation starter. “Explaining specific scams…can greatly reduce the chances that someone will fall for them,” says Marti DeLiema. “If you know about the scam first, you’re 80% less likely to respond.”

Listen for alarm bells. “If you were to receive a phone call, a text message, an email, and it’s asking for something sensitive, urgent, or with fear, that’s when the alarm bells have to go off in your head.” says Rachel Tobac.

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Stay Aware

It’s Not (Just) the Heat

No one drinks enough water. Not consistently, anyway. But as you age, dehydration can wreak havoc. (Hello? Kidney stones? Anyone?)

And in older adults, dehydration is common and dangerous, especially during an illness or hot weather. It can cause confusion, weakness, dizziness, and falls. In severe cases, it can lead to kidney damage.

So this summer, keep these warning signs and prevention tips in mind. Even if your parent insists they are drinking enough water. (Because they’re probably not.)

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ER Visit Essentials

It doesn’t matter whether its noon or midnight. Any visit to the emergency room is controlled chaos. And when you have aging parents, you’re bound to take that trip. So make sure you’re ready.

Ideally, you’ll want to put together a Hospital Emergency Kit with all the essential info your parent needs. At the very least, bring your parent’s health insurance info, a list of all their medications and health conditions, and a contact list for all your parent’s doctors. And remember to bring any meds, snacks, and water you need to take care of yourself.

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Take Care

Who Ya Gonna Call?

At some point, everyone who is helping an aging parent has the same realization: You are in control of much less than you thought. And this is so much harder than you expected.

What can help: Expert advice from the Caregiver Help Desk — a confidential service staffed by real people who understand how you feel, what you’re dealing with, and can give you guidance about next steps. And yah, it’s free.

Whether you’ve got questions about a specific challenge or just need to talk, support is available by phone, email, and live chat, Monday through Friday, from 8a.m. to 7p.m. Eastern.

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