San Antonians fall prey to scheme involving artificial intelligence, ‘voice cloning’

Scheme starts with familiar voice on phone, asking for money

SAN ANTONIO – The ugly side of artificial intelligence appears to have hit hard among some San Antonians, causing them to lose thousands of dollars in an elaborate scheme.

For all the victims, the trouble started with a phone call from someone who they thought they recognized.

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“A voice said, ‘Grandpa.’ And I said, ‘TK?,’ because the voice was the voice of my grandson,” said one local man, who shared his story, but wanted to conceal his identity.

The man says the person on the phone, who he believed was his grandson, told him he had been involved in a car crash that injured a pregnant woman.

“So he’s got my attention right away. And he said, ‘I’m in jail,’” said the man.

He said he was given a phone number for what he thought was an attorney who could help his grandson.

That person then convinced the grandfather to go to his credit union and withdraw a large amount of money to be used for bail.

Luckily, though, he says a bank teller warned him just in time that it could be a scheme.

The man said he was able to contact his grandson and found out he, in fact, was OK.

He immediately canceled plans to wire any money to the people on the phone.

“It’s so convincing,” he said, talking about the ruse. “I mean, there was nothing in the voice to tell me that it’s not (my grandson).”

“Most people think, ‘Well that can’t happen to me.’ But believe me, believe me. It’s all about emotion,” the man said.

Mohammad Rana, a local business owner, says one of his employees recently was fooled too, but in an even more costly way.

“All the money, almost $3,000 exactly,” he said.

Rana says the employee cleaned out the cash register at one of his convenience stores and was about to empty the safe, all because of a phone conversation with someone who she thought was him.

The caller convinced the worker to wire the money from the register to an anonymous bit coin account, he says.

What is even worse, Rana says, is that as president of the Association of Convenience Store Retailers, he has heard similar stories from several other local business owners.

It appears in all the cases artificial intelligence, or AI, and specifically something called “voice cloning,” was at play.

“They’re pretty believable,” said Jason Witty, the chief security officer for USAA.

Witty says while the scheme has not affected any of his bank’s customers, he is very familiar with how it works.

He says criminals capture samples of people’s voices from videos that they post online, such as on social media.

Then with the help of AI, they can create a whole conversation in that other person’s voice, he says.

“You’re typing in what you want that voiceprint to say,” Witty said.

Right now, he says, some of the voices may have a telltale robotic sound to them.

However, he fears that will quickly change, making it more difficult for potential victims to detect this kind of fraud.

“The technologies that are underpinning this are actually getting a lot better and they’re getting a lot more accessible to the public,” he said.

One way Witty recommends that people protect themselves is to create some sort of family password or code.

That way, if someone calls using a relative’s voice, they can ask for the password first to identify if the plea for help is legitimate.

Since criminals seem to find their voice-cloning content online, Witty says it also might be a good idea for people to limit what they post there.

Rana believes another big step toward preventing loss is raising awareness.

“Somebody needs to step up and educate people,” he said. “Don’t be a victim of these things.”

About the Authors:

Katrina Webber joined KSAT 12 in December 2009. She reports for Good Morning San Antonio. Katrina was born and raised in Queens, NY, but after living in Gulf Coast states for the past decade, she feels right at home in Texas. It's not unusual to find her singing karaoke or leading a song with her church choir when she's not on-air.

Azian Bermea is a photojournalist at KSAT.