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FBI warns of voice cloning technology being used in scam calls

To create a convincing clip, scammers only need a sample of your voice.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — There's a saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But you can certainly make an old scam new again with a few technology tricks.

The FBI is warning about a version of the "grandparents scam" that involves advanced voice cloning technology.

How the scams work

A typical grandparents scam, according to the AARP, will begin by the caller telling the victim that there has been an accident and that they’re in jail, the hospital or stuck in a foreign country and are in need of help. 

The caller adds enough details about how and where the emergency happened to make the story seem plausible. The distraught caller will make the person think, "does sort of sound like my grandson or granddaughter."

Oftentimes the caller will tell the victim that another person — usually a lawyer, doctor or police officer — will explain everything. 

Now those claims seem even more convincing and are expanding beyond the typical elder victims, with scammers using cloned voice clips acting as a close friend or family member.

“The only thing you're going to hear is something as fast as, ‘Dad, I need help.’  It's not going to be a full conversation,” Supervisor Special Agent Andres Hernandez with the FBI explained to CrimeTracker 10’s Angela An. “All you need is a few seconds for somebody to say, ‘Dad I'm in trouble, I need help, I've been kidnapped.’ Super simple and then the criminal gets on the phone and does what he does.”

The scam caller will ask the victim to send or wire money immediately. 

John Bridges, a father from Pearland Texas, said he received a frantic phone call one night in March from what he thought was his daughter.

"I've had an accident, daddy. Help me," the voice on the line said.

After hearing what he believed to be his daughter's plea, a man got on the phone and said, "I've got your daughter. She's in my car."

"It was terrifying," Bridges said.

The scam is making the rounds mostly in border states with Mexico such as Texas and California, but Agent Hernandez says he has no doubt the scam is in Ohio where the drug pipeline runs north.

How to protect yourself from voice scam calls 

Your digital footprint and what you post on social media can make you an easy target.

To create a convincing clip, scammers only need a sample of your voice — from an Instagram story, a Facebook video.

“They’re getting a little bit more creative and they're doing a little bit of research,” Hernandez said of the scammers. “They’re going to social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook and they start getting internal information, intimate information of families that they could use against them when they do make these extortion videos.”

Hernandez recommends adjusting your privacy settings on those social media sites and limiting your followings to close friends.

What to do if you get the call

The FBI recommends immediately checking in with your friend or family member on a second phone.

Hernandez said one thing you should not do is turn on your video because scammers would have you “virtually kidnapped," leaving you unable to hang up or use another phone.

Authorities say you should immediately report the call. Most don't according to the FBI, making it difficult for the agency to track how prevalent the scams are.

In recent years, the Federal Trade Commission started holding workshops about voice cloning technology.  They say the best way to protect yourself is similar to steps to avoid the so-called “grandparent scam.”

Ron Allan, a voice actor and owner of Big Voice Productions in Gahanna for more than 30 years, told Angela An it's only a matter of time before voice cloning technology becomes so sophisticated, not even the trained ear can pick up the differences.

“They're very, very close to picking up on the emotion, the inflections in a voice,” says Allan.  “I think it's going to be within the next couple of years, if not sooner.”

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