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Cyber Bytes: The “Hello, Can You Hear Me?” Scam

Fraudsters superpowered with artificial intelligence (AI) are quickly becoming a reason to be skeptical of nearly everything, including wrong numbers and telemarketers.

In a new phone scam, fraudsters steal a sample recording of your voice and use it to fake your identity. The scam goes like this: You get a voice call, usually from a number listed as “name unavailable.” When you pick up, the person on the other end says, “Hello? Hello, can you hear me?” like they have a bad connection. This keeps you talking and responding long enough to get a decent sample of your voice, word variances and inflections. They have the sample they need in a few seconds, and you’re none the wiser. You just think it was an annoying telemarketer.

But the fraudsters use your speech sample to train their AI to mimic your voice pattern. AI doesn’t need much sampling to clone your speech.

Scammers can use your cloned voice to stage a fake emergency to extort money from friends and family. Or they can authenticate your identity to financial institutions. Most AI clones sound very human-like on the phone. They can be trained to speak with emotions such as embarrassment or fear and use speech fillers like “uh” or “um.” They can even sound breathless or anxious. Meanwhile, the scammer only needs to type the conversation using text-to-speech AI.

The next time you get a “Hello, can you hear me?” call, don’t respond. Instead, hang up. Stay silent. Don’t engage, not even to say, “Who is this?” or “Stop calling me.” Just hang up.

Why you shouldn’t respond to a robocall or AI

When you respond, it notifies the robocaller that the number is active. When a number is active, it can be sold to telemarketers for a higher price, leading to more unwanted calls. The scammer might record your “Yes” response to voice-authorize charges to an account. Or they might use it as proof of your opt-in for the call in the first place.

Or the con might go even further by engaging you to get a voice sample so they can clone your voice. Whether a fraudster will use a sample of your voice to trick others into thinking it’s you depends on their long-range con.

If you’re the target of a cloned voice that’s calling you

Instead of cloning your voice, scammers might call you using the cloned voice of someone you know. It could be a family member, friend or coworker. They usually say they’re in trouble or need something done fast or outside the usual protocols. Don’t trust the voice, even if it sounds like the person.

You’re more likely to act fast if a call sounds like your CEO asking for an immediate wire transfer or your child begging for help. Take a minute to breathe. Get out of the headspace of panic. Verify the story. Call the person at the phone number you know is theirs. Try a different family member or a mutual friend if you can’t reach them directly.

If you’re the target of a voice-cloning scam, the conversation will quickly turn to money. The big tipoff is that scammers ask you to pay for something, authorize something or send money in ways that make it hard to trace. For example, it’s probably a scam if they ask you to pay by wire transfer, cryptocurrency or gift card.

If you’ve been the target of a voice cloning scam, report it to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The government is working on protections

The FTC’s Voice Clone Challenge has sourced the public to help detect AI-generated voice clonings. The agency is working on algorithms to detect whether voice patterns are human or synthetic.

The Federal Communications Commission has announced the unanimous adoption of a Declaratory Ruling that recognizes calls made with AI-generated voices as “artificial” under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). This means the current consumer protections the TCPA extends to the public include AI-generated voices.

“Hello” texts

It’s worth noting that text scams are also an issue. Even though they don’t involve your voice, they do involve bad actors sending innocent-looking texts to engage you. They often start with a text that indicates familiarity, like “Hello. How’s it going?” with an image attached. 

The image is usually wholesome, such as an interesting event or someone with their dog. They want you to click without thinking. The image may contain embedded malware, allowing them to track your online activity or device. If you get one of these, block the text and delete it from your device.

And don’t engage with the scammer to taunt them. This verifies your phone number is active. You might accidentally give information about yourself that allows them to build out a profile.

Actions you can take

Trust your gut and stay calm. Bad actors want to wrap you in hysteria, so you’ll act without thinking. In addition to staying calm, you can try these tips to ward off scams before they hit your phone:

Even though bad actors are always prowling for new schemes, you aren’t powerless. Stay cybersafe out there!