How to stop a kidnapping scam with one word

Artificial intelligence is allowing scammers to clone your loved one’s voice. It could make a fake kidnapping call sound real.

SAN ANTONIO — In a new twist on kidnapping scams, would-be criminals are now calling people saying they have taken their loved ones hostage and demanding a ransom for their release.

Avoiding falling victim, however, is no longer just a matter of not falling for a lie. These scams are more believable thanks to artificial intelligence that can easily clone voices of those you might know.

“In the past, if you tried to use AI to clone a voice or reproduce a voice for a kidnapping call, it was pretty obviously robotic, monotone, not much expression,” said Walt Manning, CEO of the Techno Crime Institute and an AI expert. “Those days are gone. Now, AI is very easy to use, very simple to use… to reproduce the voice and to make it say anything you want.”

Scammers often source voice clips through videos posted on social media. And they don’t need much sound to make a voice clone.

“Very little, actually,” Manning said. “Thirty seconds to a minute, and depending on the size of the sample you give them, that will increase the accuracy and the believability.”

Social media can also provide scammers clues to increase the believability that they have your loved one.

“We all share so much information now on social media about ourselves, our family members, and then what they share on social media also provides enough information about them that it’s easy for a kidnapper to describe what they look like, to know what their interests are, to know where they go to school or where they work,” Manning said. “That adds to the credibility of a fake kidnapping call.”

How convincing it is?

I tested the technology on my friends and family to see if they would fall for an AI Niccole. 

Using sound from our Zoom call, Manning cloned my voice. I kept the stakes low and decided to ask the people who know me best – my dad, a friend from high school and my husband – to text me a photo. 

I then called each of them from an unknown number, just like a scammer would.

Here is what AI Niccole said when she left a voice message:

Scammers are starting to use AI technology to trick people into thinking a loved one is calling. We gave the tech a try.

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The results varied.

My dad called the unknown number back for more clarification. Here is the message he left: “This is Dad. I got in from working in the yard. I did get your message. Something about you want a picture and you’re at work. Is that correct? Give me a call now that I’m inside. Let’s find out here specifically what you want. OK, love. Bye.”

He later asked if I had a cold.

My friend texted me my sophomore school picture from high school to my actual phone number. She later told me it sounded like I had a bad connection when I left the voicemail.

My husband wanted to know why I was leaving “weird messages from a suspicious number” when I got home from work that day.

Only one of three of my closest loved ones confirmed I was actually the caller, which proves how easy it is for a voice clone to trick someone into giving out information—including in a kidnapping scam seeking large amounts of money. 

Your best defense

Scammers will ask you to send the ransom in a way that it cannot be refunded including wire transfers, gift cards, cryptocurrency, cash, or peer-to-peer apps like Zelle, Venmo or Cash App.

Local banks like Randolph Brooks Federal Credit Union (RBFCU) have trained staff to detect these scams and stop them.

“Some fast acting by some of our employees where they were able to mitigate and prevent a recent attempt for an extortion scam,” said Alexander Aguillen, RBFCU’s assistant vice president of enterprise fraud management. “Once you fall victim to one of these scams and the funds are sent out, whatever the amount, chances are that you’re going to retrieve them is very slim.”

There is an easy way to tell if it is really your loved one on the line, and it involves remembering just one word.

“The best defense here is basically very simplistic,” said Michael Skiba, known as Dr. Fraud. “Be proactive and talk to your family members about a code word, just a simple code word that can be used and shared.”

Other clues a kidnapping call may be a scam include:

  • The call comes from an outside area code or blocked number.
  • Calls do not come from the kidnapped victim’s phone number.
  • Scammers will try to prevent you from calling or locating the “kidnapped” victim by threatening to hurt them.

Other ways to identify if your loved one is really in trouble:

  • Ask questions that only your loved ones would know the answer to confirm it is them.
  • Text, call or message on social media your loved one to find out their location.

Report kidnapping scams to local law enforcement and the Federal Trade Commission.


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