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Home / News / Tech / State attorney general: AI scams widespread, harder to spot

State attorney general: AI scams widespread, harder to spot

by Staff
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California Attorney General Rob Bonta on Friday warned Californians against scams that use artificial intelligence or “deepfakes” to impersonate government officials, distressed family members or other trusted figures.

Emerging technology such as AI and deepfake video or voice manipulation enables scammers to more easily create sophisticated impersonations and as a result make more convincing requests for money or personal information, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

“Scammers can use information available on the internet, including images and audio from social media, to convince people that the voice on the other end of the call is someone they can trust,” according to the AG’s announcement.

Criminals can duplicate an individual’s voice with AI technology that uses audio clips from social media accounts and can refer to personal information about the fraud victim obtained on the internet, officials said. These factors make the scam appear credible.

“Scammers are often quite literally in our pockets, just a phone call, social media message, or text away,” Bonta said in a statement. “AI and other novel and evolving technologies can make scams harder to spot. Knowing what to look for is an important way to keep consumers safe against these tactics. I urge Californians to take practical steps to guard against being victimized by scammers, including talking to friends and family who may be unaware of these dangers.”

One recent scam targets parents by sending AI voice impersonations of their child begging for help, according to the AG’s Office.

“Recent reports have included parents receiving a phone call using the cloned voice of their child claiming to have been badly injured in a car accident or in need of money to pay bail,” officials said. “Grandparents are often the target of scams claiming that their grandchild is in trouble and in need of money. In 2023, the FBI received victim complaints regarding grandparent scams that resulted in nearly $1.9 million in losses.” 

Scammers often target consumers’ mobile phones. In 2023, robocalls and robotexts resulted in more than $1.2 billion in reported losses nationwide, officials reported. Scammers’ smartphone targeting also gives them access to potential victims’ email, social media and the internet presence. 

“These phone-based scams are designed to steal money, identities, or passwords, or urgently demand payment through cash or gift cards,” according to Bonta’s office. “Scams can result in significant financial losses, ruined credit scores, and impacted security clearance for service members and others.”

While younger adults reported losing money to fraud more often in 2023 than older adults, older adults who lose money tend to lose larger amounts, state officials said. In 2022, American adults 60 and over lost $1.6 billion to scams, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission reported.

Imposter scams were the most commonly reported fraud in 2023, according to the FTC.

“These imposter scams often involve a bad actor pretending to be a bank’s fraud department, the government, a well-known business, a technical support expert, or a distressed relative, such as a kidnapped child,” state officials said. “Other common phone-based scams include calls related to medical needs and prescriptions, debt reduction, utilities, bank fraud warnings, warranties, or IRS notices.”

AI-generated scams can also spread political misinformation. In January residents of New Hampshire received robocalls that allegedly used AI to impersonate the president and discourage voters from participating in the New Hampshire primary, state officials pointed out.

Bonta’s office suggested these measures of protection from phone-based scams:

  • Develop family code words: Develop simple ways of verifying if a family member truly is in trouble before responding to phone calls for financial help or sharing personal information. Talk with family about designating “safe words” or asking a question that only that person would know the answer to. When creating a question, be mindful that scammers might have access to information from social media and other online sources.
  • Minimize personal audio/video content on social media accounts: Consider removing personal phone numbers and audio and video clips from your and your children’s social media profiles. AI scammers can use these clips to create clone voices and videos of loved ones.
  • Check privacy settings: Strengthen privacy settings on social media so that strangers don’t know facts about your life and your current whereabouts, including whether you or a family member is out of town.
  • Don’t answer the phone: Let phone calls from unfamiliar numbers go to voicemail. They often are illegal robocalls.
  • Don’t trust caller ID: Phone numbers can be “spoofed” to look like a familiar number from friends, family, a school district, or a government agency. Don’t assume the caller ID is accurate and be wary if anything seems different about the caller or if they ask for financial or personal information.
  • Hang up the phone: If you suspect a scam call, immediately hang up. Don’t automatically trust automated messages: often pressing “1” to indicate you don’t want to receive future calls just notifies bad actors that they should continue calling this active phone number.
  • Take advantage of call-blocking technology: Many cellular providers offer enhanced call-blocking technology that can assist in preventing robocalls from reaching you.
  • Don’t click on suspicious links: Scammers will try to get you to click on links that are sent to you in texts, emails, or social media. Text messaging is particularly dangerous because you might hurriedly click on a link and begin entering a password, not realizing that the link is phony, and your password is being recorded.
  • Go directly to websites: Go directly to the website of a company you are familiar with rather than clicking on a link that has been sent to you. Some fraudulent links are made to look very similar to the actual website address. You should never click on links that are texted to you – for example, by what seems like a bank. Instead, go to the bank’s website on your own internet browser.
  • Use strong passwords: Protect yourself by using different, unique passwords for each of your online accounts. Make sure that the passwords you use are at least eight characters, including a mix of letters, numbers, and symbols. Consider using a password manager to provide suggestions and store strong passwords.
  • Protect your Social Security number (SSN) and other sensitive information: Keep your Social Security card at home in a safe place instead of carrying it around in your wallet. Only provide your SSN when absolutely necessary, such as on tax forms or employment records. If a business asks you for your SSN, see if there is another number that can be used instead.
  • Beware of government impersonations and other common scams: Some scammers are sophisticated. They may offer to provide “documentation” or “evidence,” or use the name of a real government official or agency to make you think that their calls are legitimate. If a government agency calls you and asks for financial or personal information, hang up and go to the agency’s official website (which should be a .gov website) and call them directly. Government officials will not threaten you with arrest or legal action in exchange for immediate payment. They will not promise to increase your benefits or resolve an issue in exchange for a fee or transfer of funds to a protected account. And they will not ask for payment in the form of gift cards, prepaid debit cards, wire transfer, internet currency, or by mailing cash.

Bonta noted a recent crackdown on robocalls, including AI-generated robocalls and robotexts.

He asked the FCC in January to address AI-generated robocalls, and the agency has since declared the voice-cloning technology commonly used robocall scams illegal under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. In February, Bonta and 51 other attorneys general sent warning letter to Life Corp., which allegedly sent New Hampshire residents robocalls during the state’s primary election that allegedly used AI to impersonate President Joe Biden and discourage voters from participating in the primary. 

In May 2023, Bonta and 48 other attorneys general sued Avid Telecom for allegedly made billions of unlawful robocalls that included scams involving the Social Security Administration, Medicare and employment, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

In January 2022 as part of a bipartisan multistate coalition, Bonta called on the FCC to halt “the flood of illegal foreign-based robocalls that “spoof” U.S. phone numbers.” In August 2022, the attorney general announced the bipartisan nationwide Anti-Robocall Litigation Task Force “to investigate and take legal action against the telecommunications companies responsible for bringing a majority of foreign robocalls into the U.S.”

For more information and resources on phone-based scams, visit oag.ca.gov/consumers

Updated June 3, 2024, 9:53 a.m.

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