A mother in Arizona is warning others of a potential scam after her daughter’s voice was cloned in an attempt to scare her into paying a $1 million ransom.
Jennifer DeStefano’s 15-year-old daughter Briana was on a ski vacation when she got a call from an unknown number. When DeStefano answered, she heard her daughter’s voice crying and saying “Mom, help me, help me”.
A man then got on the phone and informed DeStefano that he had kidnapped Briana and that she must pay $1 million or he would “pop her full of drugs, have his way with her, and drop her off in Mexico.” He later lowered the ransom demand to $50,000.
DeStefano was convinced that it was her daughter on the phone and not an artificial intelligence (AI) platform. She was shaking with fear and heard her daughter in the background saying “Help me, Mom. Please help me. Help me.”
Fortunately, one of the mothers at the dance studio DeStefano was at called the police and another got her husband on the phone. They were able to confirm that Briana was safe in less than five minutes.
The founder of Waye, a company that educates youth on technology, said that it is easier than most think to clone someone’s voice using recordings they have made online.
“It was completely her voice. It was her inflection. It was the way she would have cried,” said DeStefano. “I never doubted for one second it was her. That’s the freaky part that really got me to my core.”
“Most people in the modern age have some form of an online identity and have probably spoken in some way, in some aspect that’s been recorded, especially if you’re under the age of 25,” said Sinéad Bovell.
“So this becomes very, very challenging as we move into a future where we do have these AI generators or synthetic audio when it comes to verification and validation,” he continued.
Experts advise social media users to have private pages and watch out for unknown numbers in an effort to prevent similar scams. Dan Mayo, assistant special agent for FBI’s Phoenix office, said, “Just think of the movies. Slow it down. Slow the person down. Ask a bunch of questions. If they have someone of interest to you, you’re going to know a lot of details about them that this scam artist isn’t going to know. You start asking questions about who it is and different details of their background that are not publicly available, you’re going to find out real quick that it’s a scam artist.”
DeStefano warns that this situation should serve as a wake-up call for parents to be vigilant in monitoring their children’s online activity. “This is not something you play around with,” DeStefano said. “It’s a real thing and it’s scary. We have to pay attention and we have to protect our children.”