Phone scams in the age of AI: More targeted, dangerous – NewsNation Now

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(NewsNation) — Artificial intelligence is transforming the way companies do business, but it’s also giving scammers new ways to trick consumers.

Last year, Americans lost a record $10 billion to fraudsters even as a popular fraud method — scam robocalls — fell by almost 40%, according to call-blocking company YouMail.

“We have fewer calls that are much more targeted and much more effective,” said YouMail CEO Alex Quilici. “AI is just going to make that worse.”

New AI technology has led to voice cloning, which allows scammers to impersonate celebrities, elected officials and even your close friends. Those re-creations have been used to extort family members by fooling them into thinking their loved ones are in danger.

Even a clip as brief as your voicemail greeting could be used against you.

“It’s easy to go call a bank loan officer, get their voice, and then call people and say there’s a problem with the loan,” Quilici said. “People have to become aware, ‘hey, my voice can’t be out there.’”

Frustrating phone scams turn scary

Phone scams can range from moderately annoying to downright terrifying.

In July, a Georgia mother was sent into a panic after receiving a call that her daughter had been kidnapped, according to a local news report. On the line, she heard what sounded like her daughter’s voice and a man demanding $50,000. In reality, it was an AI-generated voice clone.

“It just sounded so much like her. It was 100% believable,” Debbie Shelton Moore told WXIA-TV. “Enough to almost give me a heart attack from sheer panic.”

Something similar happened to a couple in Brooklyn. They received a call that their loved ones were being held at gunpoint, the New Yorker reported. Convinced that the threat was real after hearing familiar voices, they sent hundreds of dollars via Venmo. It was a scam.

Last year, Americans lost nearly $2.7 billion to imposter scams specifically.

Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support at AARP, said consumers should be particularly skeptical of requests for money via prepaid gift cards or peer-to-peer apps like Venmo, Cash App or Zelle. If something feels off, hang up.

“(Scammers) are going to use scare tactics and urgency to get you to act accordingly,” she said. “Take a breath and take a pause.”

AI voice cloning tech has also raised election tampering concerns after voters in New Hampshire received recorded messages mimicking President Joe Biden and urging them not to vote.

What is the FCC doing about it?

In February, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that unwanted robocalls generated by AI are outlawed under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which restricts junk calls that use artificial or prerecorded voice messages.

The agency said the decision — which clarified the existing law — gives state attorneys general new tools “to go after bad actors,” specifically regarding voice cloning scams.

“What the FCC did was very important, it pointed to what has long been the law and said, this covers calls made by artificial intelligence,” said Margot Saunders, senior counsel with the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC).

Under the TCPA, the FCC can fine robocallers and block calls from telephone companies that carry illegal robocalls.

Some federal crackdown efforts have been successful in recent years. In 2023, the FCC issued a record-breaking $300 million fine for auto warranty scam robocalls, the largest illegal robocall operation the agency had ever investigated. As a result, illegal auto warranty robocalls dropped by 99%, according to the agency.

A separate FCC push to limit traffic on a voice service provider helped clamp down on student loan robocalls.

The federal agency has also adopted new rules to prevent illegal overseas robocalls from entering American phone networks. It’s one of the hardest problems to tackle because so much of the activity happens outside the U.S.

“Sometimes other countries aren’t super incented to go stop it,” said Quilici. “What’s in it for them? It’s not their citizens who are being scammed. It’s somebody else.”

What else can be done?

Saunders credited the agency for its recent efforts but thinks more needs to be done to hold telephone providers accountable.

A 2022 report from the NCLC found that scam robocalls often translate into revenue for telephone companies and many providers continued transmitting fraudulent calls even after being told not to.

“There’s money being made and that makes it hard to stop,” Saunders said.

Federal lawmakers are pushing to codify AI robocall rules into law.

Earlier this year, House lawmakers introduced the bipartisan QUIET Act, which would require robocallers to disclose when AI is used and increase penalties for those who use the tech to impersonate individuals.

AI could also be part of the solution. Microsoft is testing a new service that analyzes conversations in real time and alerts users if a call seems suspicious.

NewsNation asked the FCC whether any further action is being considered, but the agency did not respond.

How to protect yourself

There are steps consumers can take to protect themselves.

First, add your mobile and landline numbers to the National Do Not Call Registry. You can do that by visiting or calling 1-888-382-1222 from the number you want to register.

Cell phones also have tools to filter out spam calls. iPhone users can turn on the “Silence Unknown Callers” feature in their settings to ensure calls from unknown numbers are silenced and sent directly to voicemail. Apps like YouMail and Robokiller are another way to block scam calls.

YouMail also has a voicemail feature that allows users to set up an automated greeting so their voice can’t be cloned.

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