How scammers likely used artificial intelligence to con Newfoundland seniors out of $200K

Police in St. John's are warning the public about a sophisticated phone scam in which callers pose as the children or grandchildren of senior citizens. At least eight seniors fell victim to it in a three-day period.  (Shutterstock - image credit)
Police in St. John's are warning the public about a sophisticated phone scam in which callers pose as the children or grandchildren of senior citizens. At least eight seniors fell victim to it in a three-day period. (Shutterstock - image credit)

As soon as she picked up the phone, Jane knew there was something wrong. Her grandson was on the other end, saying he'd been in a car accident and had been arrested. He sounded panicked.

The police found drugs in the car. Someone was seriously injured. He used his one phone call to contact the one person he knew would help him without judgment.

Jane — not her real name — was stunned, but promised to help without telling his parents. The phone was handed over to a police officer, who gave her instructions on how to post bail. Her unconditional love for her grandson cost her $58,350 by the end of the next day.

"I really believed it was him," she said.

Mark Cumby/CBC
Mark Cumby/CBC

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary says at least eight senior citizens lost a combined $200,000 to similar scams over a three-day period between Feb. 28 and March 2. Police say one man, 23-year-old Charles Gillen, came to St. John's from Toronto to collect the money in person.

Gillen was arrested on the tarmac at St. John's International Airport on the evening of March 2. He was on a flight leaving the province.

If the goal was to get in and get out, the man police say is responsible almost got away.

"That's about as close as you get," said Const. James Cadigan. "That's the goal of these sophisticated operations. It's large sum of money, short period of time."

CBC News has spoken to four of the eight victims listed in court documents but isn't naming them due to privacy and security concerns.

Each of them said their grandchild had called and said they were in an accident. They said drugs were found in the car, and they needed money to either pay for bail or legal fees. In all four cases, the imposter knew some personal details about the actual grandchildren — like where they live and work, and the names of other family members.

All four believed it was their grandchild's voice on the phone.

"I swear on my mom's grave," said one man we're calling John. "It was so convincing. I know my granddaughter's voice, and it was her."

The imposter put him over to a man who said he was a lawyer, and needed money for a retainer and a fine. The next day, a man came to John's home and collected an envelope of cash. John lost $24,200.

Cadigan said the RNC has recovered some money, but they say they suspect Gillen was able to mail out packages of money before attempting to leave the province.

How AI is changing phone scams

Mark Cumby/CBC
Mark Cumby/CBC

There have been reports of similar scams happening across Canada, with police believing a criminal network is responsible for targeting seniors from coast to coast.

But how is it possible for them to replicate actual voices? Turns out it's quite easy, cheap and effective, according to Memorial University associate professor and computer security expert Jonathan Anderson.

"You can clone someone's voice, and given the ability to do that, it's not at all surprising that somebody would do that for nefarious purposes," Anderson said. "It's going to be more effective, especially while people get used to the fact that deepfake voices are a thing, and they are easily obtainable and easily accessible."

With a $1 subscription to an online platform, and a 60-second sample of audio, Anderson used artificial intelligence to clone the voice of St. John's Morning Show host Krissy Holmes. Typing text into the box, he was able to get the voice to read a whimsical story about raining codfish in downtown St. John's. The voice took on an entirely different tenor when he had it read a script about being in an accident and needing money for medical bills.

"You could hear that the entire tone is completely different," Anderson said. "This one is a lot more serious and sombre sounding throughout the entire text."

Anderson checked a box when he signed up saying he wouldn't do anything illegal. Is that enough to keep others from using it for nefarious reasons?

"That's not really providing a lot of protection, but on the other hand, there are limits to how much you can judge the intent of what someone is doing," he said. "It's a little bit like Adobe produces Photoshop, and Photoshop can be used for a whole variety of purposes. And some are purposes we would be happy about, and some are purposes we would not be happy about."

Anything for love

Gillen remains in custody after a bail hearing on Wednesday. He's facing 30 charges of fraud, extortion and conspiracy to commit an offence.

Police in Newfoundland and Labrador have formed a case management team and are working with teams in other provinces to figure out the full extent of the scam. Similar cases have been reported across the country, with police in Windsor, Ont., arresting a 19-year-old and a 22-year-old for very similar offences the day before Gillen's arrest in St. John's.

Anderson has a tip for anyone who might fall victim for the scam: "Always try to put yourself back in the driver's seat," he said. If they say they're calling from a police station, ask which one so you can hang up and call back.

John said he realized that lesson when it was too late. He called his granddaughter's cellphone, and she picked up. She was in school, not in a holding cell.

He's devastated, but said in the moment he wasn't thinking clearly.

"She was in trouble and she needed my help," he said. "She said, 'Poppy, please don't tell Mom and Dad.' I would do anything to keep her name clean."

Jane also said the scam pulled at her heartstrings and emotion clouded her judgment.

"You'd do anything for your grandchildren," she said. "And they took advantage of that."

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