With the explosion in user-friendly artificial intelligence software such as ChatGPT and countless other innovative applications, we’ve entered an age of accessibility so expansive it has been compared to the advent of the internet. But like the internet and its anarchic inception, the collective imagination is struggling to keep up with how these AI tools will impact daily life, and how to evade those who utilize them for malicious purposes.
Using AI, criminals can be craftier, more convincing, and nearly impossible to detect — even for the otherwise tech-savvy. Phone scams aren’t just for the elderly anymore. With voice cloning software, just a three-second recording is needed to seamlessly mimic a real person’s voice, and scammers are already exploiting it.
In March, the Federal Trade Commission warned of AI being used in what they call “family emergency schemes,” where a family member may call in trouble and ask for money. Even more unsettling are the “virtual kidnapping schemes,” which are nothing new, according to the FBI, but are infinitely more effective and traumatizing with the addition of voice cloning.
One Arizona mother recently experienced this novel variety of horror when her 15-year-old daughter’s voice sobbed over a phone call from an unknown number, begging her for help. “The voice sounded just like Brie’s (her daughter), the inflection, everything,” she told CNN. Then a man’s voice demanded ransom. Fortunately, the scam was swiftly exposed when the real daughter called, but the terror felt by the mother was also real.
If something similar happens to you, stay calm. Don’t trust the voice.
“Call the person who supposedly contacted you and verify the story. Use a phone number you know is theirs. If you can’t reach your loved one, try to get in touch with them through another family member or their friends,” the FTC advises. “If you spot a scam, report it to the FTC.”
So what are some other ways criminals are using AI, and how can we protect ourselves?
George Usi, CEO of Sacramento-based cybersecurity compliance company Omnistruct, is well versed in the security risks posed by AI and the burgeoning field of “artificial ethics.” He serves on the board for SecureTheVillage, a nonprofit that supports communities in achieving cybersecurity and data privacy. He is also a chairman of the CaliforniaIPv6 Task Force, which is a collaborative effort to upgrade the internet to the next generation of numbering systems.
At Omnistruct “one of the things that is on the tip of our spear right now is some of the concerns about the security of any kind of AI-based model and how the risks increase dramatically when … learning models aren’t properly developed to be accountable,” Usi says. Hackers using AI-based learning models to breach networks and steal data is not new, but the growing accessibility of AI-driven applications will change the game when it comes to online scammers targeting individuals.
“Hackers that are out there are now going to sound a lot less like the Nigerian prince that we so frequently hear about in the cliche of cybersecurity hacks. They’re going to be more sophisticated.”George Usi, CEO, Omnistruct
“Hackers that are out there are now going to sound a lot less like the Nigerian prince that we so frequently hear about in the cliche of cybersecurity hacks. They’re going to be more sophisticated,” Usi says. “Because we live in an internet-delivered world, often what we see in terms of content is real to us. … That’s a very challenging part of the fear, that we will often see something online and take it for face value.”
As with many online scams, Usi thinks the senior community will be most impacted. “It was a hard pill to swallow for me when my own mother and her sister had folks trying to attack them, and it looked fairly authentic,” he says. “They weren’t necessarily AI, but if they were, how much more could they have taken?”
Usi offers his advice for other vulnerable internet users, which is all of us.
Have a tech-savvy person help you safely navigate the internet.
“There’s a lot of young talent out there,” Usi says. “Even your teenager might know how to better secure you than you do. These younger generations have never known a world without an internet connection. I’m not one of those.”
There are also organizations like SecureTheVillage that provide resources in achieving communitywide cybersecurity. In the Sacramento area, there’s CyberProud, a workforce development initiative that facilitates cyber talent training.
Monitor your credit by setting up fraud alerts.
Experian, Equifax and TransUnion all offer fraud alert services to help protect your credit from identity thieves and scammers.
“Some might argue that you want to freeze your credit if you know you’re not making any investments in the near future, to make sure that someone can’t, you know, abscond with your wealth,” Usi says. “But I don’t know that I would put that on my list as one of the top things to do. Credit monitoring is probably a much better option for most.”
Keep an eye on your kids.
Though helpful to grandparents, young people’s tech-savviness could potentially land them in trouble, Usi says. Detection software is already being used to sniff out students using chatbots to write academic papers, which can reap serious consequences.
But even more concerning is the potential misuse of AI in targeting children online — a place already teeming with dating scams and sexual predators.
“It’s really, really difficult to, you know, hover over them in their online worlds, especially the tweens and the teenagers,” Usi says. “But you know it’s in their best interest to keep them safe, because artificial intelligence can definitely fool somebody, including a teenager.”
Pressure legislators to put artificial ethics on the agenda.
“I think in the end, what we’ll see is more regulatory and statutory requirements,” Usi says. “There’s so many irons in the fire, so to speak, that it’s going to be very difficult to regulate it quickly. So there’s going to be a period of chaos, and people are probably concerned as they know that, generally speaking, regulations are passed often because of what happened already. And if we have an incident that happens that’s so serious, it might be too late to regulate it because it may be a catastrophic consequence.”
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George Usi founded Rancho Cordova-based Omnistruct in 2019, selling cybersecurity compliance programs to businesses. We spoke with Usi about his mission to educate businesses so they can manage their risk when a cybersecurity breach occurs.
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