How to see through this terrifying scam

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Phone fraud is taking a terrifying turn as fraudsters can use AI to cause serious emotional and financial damage to victims

virtual kidnapping scam

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. You receive a call from an unknown number and on the other end of the line you hear your child calling for help. Then their ‘kidnapper’ comes on the line and demands a ransom, otherwise you will never see your son or daughter again. Unfortunately this is so not an imagined scenario from a Hollywood movie.

Instead, it’s a terrifying example of the lengths that scammers can now go to to extort money from their victims, using new technology for nefarious purposes. It also shows the quality of AI voice cloning technology, which is now convincing enough to fool even close family members. Fortunately, the more people who know about these schemes and what to look out for, the less likely telephone fraudsters will make money.

How virtual kidnapping works

There are several key stages in a typical virtual kidnapping scam. Broadly speaking, these are as follows:

  • The scammers research potential victims who they can call and try to extort money. This phase could also be optimized using AI tools (more on this later).
  • The scammers identify a “kidnapping victim” – most likely the child of the person they identified in Phase 1. They can do this by searching their social media or other public information.
  • The group then comes up with an imaginary scenario and makes it as distressing as possible for the person they are calling. The more afraid you are, the less likely you are to make rational decisions. As with any good social engineering attempt, the scammers want to rush the victim’s decision-making for this reason.
  • The fraudsters could then do some more open source research to calculate when the best time to call is. They can search social media or other sources to find out. The idea is to contact you at a time when your loved one is elsewhere, ideally on holiday, such as the daughter of Jennifer DeStefano.
  • The scammers then create the audio deepfakes and make calls. Using readily available software, the scammers will create audio using the victim’s ‘voice’ and use it to convince you that they have kidnapped a family member. They can use other information from social media to make the scam sound more convincing, for example by mentioning details about the “kidnapping” that a stranger might not know.
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If you fall for the scam, you will most likely be asked to pay in an untraceable method, such as with cryptocurrency.

Boosting virtual kidnapping

There are variations on this theme. Most worrying is the potential of ChatGPT and other AI tools to boost virtual kidnapping by making it easier for fraudsters to find ideal victims. Advertisers and marketers have for years uses propensity modeling techniques to get the right messages to the right people at the right time.

Genative AI (GenAI) could help scammers do the same, by searching for individuals most likely to pay if exposed to a virtual kidnapping scam. They can also search for people within a specific geographic area, with public social media profiles, and from a specific socio-economic background.

A second option would be to use a SIM swapping attack on the ‘kidnapped’ to hijack their phone number prior to the scam. This would add an unnerving legitimacy to the kidnapping phone call. While DeStefano was ultimately able to determine that her daughter was safe and therefore hanged her blackmailers, this would be much more difficult if the victim’s relative is unreachable.

What the future holds for voice cloning

Unfortunately, voice cloning technology is already worryingly convincing, as our recent experiment also proves. And it is becoming increasingly accessible to scammers. A intelligence report warned in May about legitimate text-to-speech tools that could be abused, and about growing interest in the cybercrime underground in voice cloning-as-a-service (VCaaS). If the latter proves successful, it could democratize the ability to launch such attacks across the cybercrime economy, especially if used in conjunction with GenAI tools.

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In fact, next to disinformationdeepfake technology is also being used for business email compromise (as tested by our own Jake Moore) and sextortion. We are just at the beginning of a long journey.

How to stay safe

The good news is that a little knowledge can go a long way in spreading the threat of deepfakes in general and virtual kidnappings in particular. There are things you can do today to reduce the chance of being selected as a victim and ending up in a scam call if that does happen.

Consider these high-level tips:

  • Don’t share personal information too much on social media. This is absolutely crucial. Avoid posting details such as addresses and phone numbers. If possible, don’t even share photos or video/audio recordings of your family, especially details about your loved ones’ vacation plans.
  • Keep your social media profiles private to reduce the chance of threat actors finding you online.
  • Be wary of phishing messages which may be designed to trick you into handing over sensitive personal information or social media account logins.
  • Have children and immediate family members download geolocation trackers such as Find My iPhone.
  • If you get a call, keep the ‘kidnappers’ talking. At the same time, try to call the alleged kidnapper from another line or get someone nearby.
  • Keep calm, don’t share personal information, and if possible, have them answer a question that only the kidnapper knows, and ask them to speak to them.
  • Notify the local police as soon as possible.

Virtual kidnapping is just the beginning. But stay informed about the latest scams and you stand a good chance of nipping attacks in the bud before they cause serious emotional distress.

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