Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pa.'s Dauphin County warns residents of artificial intelligence phone scams

Two people hold and use iPhones.
Jeff Chiu

If a family member calls you out of the blue to ask for money – watch out. It could be a scam.

That’s according to Dauphin County officials, who warned residents this week about a new breed of phone scams that use voice clones generated by artificial intelligence. These callers will often try to trick people into thinking their loved ones are in trouble and need money.

District Attorney Fran Chardo said in a statement that “he has heard several reports of scams in which the voice on the phone closely mimics a relative of the call’s recipient.” The perpetrators of these scams could be collecting audio data from social media or voice messages.

“Unfortunately, it often feels like we’re playing Whac-A-Mole with new technology being used to scam people out of sometimes tens of thousands of dollars,” Chardo said.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, which issued a consumer alert on phone AI scams in March, all the scammer needs is a short audio clip of a family member’s voice posted on social media and a voice cloning program.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

Dauphin County officials pointed to a recent case involving Janis Creason, a former county treasurer.

Creason recounted the experience in a post on her Facebook page. She answered a call from an unknown number and was met by the sound of her daughter sobbing.

“Mom, I broke my nose,” the voice on the line said. “I was in an accident and broke my nose.” The impersonator said she was in a car crash “somewhere near Phoenixville,” which, to Creason, made sense because her daughter was in Philadelphia at a conference. Her “daughter” then handed the call over to a man claiming to be a policeman aware of all the details of the crash.

Creason eventually realized it was a scam out of gut instinct and because she received a text from her real daughter: “”Why are you calling me? I’m in a conference. I can’t talk.”

Creason believes the impersonator recreated a car accident scenario that happened in her real life. It was not until the third call that the scammer began to ask for money, though “it was not a direct ask,” Creason said.

“Whether it was sheer coincidence that it sounded exactly like my daughter, albeit in great distress, I will never know. But it was amazingly believable. So much so that I am having difficulty getting the conversation out of my mind and wrapping my arms around the fact that it was never real,” Creason wrote in her post.

Officials in Dauphin County advise residents to limit the amount of information they post on their social media and to create a “safe word” shared only with relatives and close friends. In the event of an emergency call, the safe word would reveal whether the person calling is an impersonator. That code word should not be used in the proximity of phones, tablets, laptops and other devices, the county’s press advisory states.

George Hartwick, Dauphin County Commissioner, said the county is trying to create awareness about AI scams, especially among older adults who could be more vulnerable. The county has a contract with Widener Law School for a program that provides free legal representation to people who lost money to scams.

“Sometimes these sophisticated scams are targeted from other countries, and the ability to track down those individuals who are ultimately responsible can tend to be very difficult,” Hartwick said.

People targeted by such scams should report incidents to the state attorney general’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, the county district attorney and local law enforcement, so they can target their investigations.

Cases of such scams have proliferated in other states, but are not prevalent in Pennsylvania – not yet, at least, according to Brett Hambright, a spokesperson for the state attorney general’s office.

Hambright said the office has had no first-hand reports of AI scams, but has been tracking the trend regionally and does anticipate that “it is only a matter of time until these start popping up in the Commonwealth.”

“We advise everyone to be aware of this trending scam — and never send money through wire transfer or apps, until you have personally verified the recipient by calling them or meeting them face-to-face, “ Hambright said.