It is a sign of the times, I’m afraid, that normal people like you and me need to seriously think about creating a password system for talking to our loved ones on the phone.

This sounds ridiculous, I know: “Hi, Dad! Before we go further, what’s this week’s password?”

But it’s not as paranoid as it seems.

The arrival of digital voice replication combined with startlingly effective “artificial intelligence” programs has supercharged scams of all types, to the point that it’s becoming impossible to know who you’re actually talking to. I’m afraid we all need to become much more suspicious about not-in-person interactions of every kind. 

“We haven’t received any complaints where we have verified that the technology has been used, but we are monitoring the situation. It’s definitely something we are all talking about,” said Brian Townsend II, senior assistant New Hampshire attorney general, part of the office’s Elder Abuse and Exploitation Unit. “When I speak to older adults and warn of potential scams, and recently we have been bringing this up.”

Two areas of real concern for individuals, he said, are “grandparent scams” and romance scams.

The former involves a call to an older person supposedly from a younger relative, often a grandchild, who claims to be in trouble and needs money fast, usually because they are in jail and must post bail. This has long been a telephone scam – my father almost fell for it once – but it is now more effective.

Digital voice replication can copy the sound of anybody’s speech based just on snippets of their voice gathered from TikTok or Facebook or some online video. Then programs like ChatGPT can create human-like conversation for that voice on the fly, responding realistically to your questions. No longer do the scammers have to try to imitate a voice; the computer does it.

It sounds futuristic but due to recent breakthroughs it can be done with easily obtained software. It doesn’t require a sophisticated computer hacker. 

That’s also the case with romance scams, in which the scammer woos you online or over the phone and needs money to do something before you can be united, such as fly home from Europe after they were discharged from the Army. 

“If you’ve had a relationship with a person in the past and a scammer gets hold of a voice replication of that individual, they could reach out and restart that romance, and reel that person in,” said Townsend. 

Video versions are maturing quickly, as well. It’s not unrealistic to think that soon you could have a FaceTime or Zoom conversation that you’d swear is with your grandchild but would be computer generated, controlled by a scam artist far away. We think we can’t be fooled, but we can.

It’s not just old folks and the lovelorn who need to be wary, however. Businesses are also vulnerable since money often changes hands based on phone calls from trusted sources like your boss or a regular customer.

“I can forseee a circumstance where you could have businesses, any sort of business, and a scammer sees a little ad on Facebook (that has) a video and uses that to replicate the voice. Then they find the client list and reach out and pretend to be that individual and get a payment sent,” said Townsend. “Businesses have to be on incredibly high alert.”

To an extent, this isn’t surprising. It has long been a computer truism that new digital technologies are adopted most quickly for pornography and crime. 

I’m not sure about porn but there are already heart-rending stories online from people who sent money to save a child in peril after talking to them on the phone, only to realize they had been cheated of thousands of dollars. There have almost certainly been successful artificial-intelligence-fueled business scams as well, although those don’t get publicized.

All this means that the usual warnings about not being fooled are more important than ever. Don’t send money via suspicious methods like wire funds or gift cards – no legitimate source ever wants to be paid by gift cards – or give out personal details like Social Security numbers. If you’re at all dubious, call back on a number you’re sure of rather than the number that the call is coming from.

This time of year, tax scams are common, with scammers pretending to be police who will arrest you for unpaid taxes unless you send money immediately, or scammers saying you’ve got a tax refund waiting and can collect it if you pay a small fee. Needless to say, don’t do either of those things.

Finally, there’s that password idea.

“People who have kids who are away, young adults who will call for money .. I don’t think it hurts to provide a very simple password that the scammers couldn’t replicate for any time the person needs money – so you know it’s legitimate. It can be simple, like ‘apple’,” said Townsend. 

It seems a shame to be so suspicious, but then again, that’s what comes with new technology: “Like everything, it has its dark side.”

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