Add this to the list of terrifying things we now have to worry about as technology continues to progress…
A mother in Arizona dealt with the shock of her life earlier this month after a man called her claiming he’d kidnapped her 15-year-old daughter and wanted $1 million in ransom money.
Jennifer DeStefano (pictured above) was at a dance class with another one of her daughters when she received a phone call from an unknown number. Her teenage daughter Briana had been on a ski trip with her father, so the only reason Jennifer even answered the phone at all was because she was worried something might have happened to the girl.
But when she picked up, she wasn’t prepared for what she heard. Jennifer spoke to NBC 15 Arizona this week about the call, which turned out to be one of the most horrific experiences of her life:
“My daughter’s voice was crying and sobbing, saying, ‘mom.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, what happened?’ She’s like, ‘mom, these bad men have me. Help me, help me.’”
While Jennifer was scrambling trying to figure out what was going on, a man’s voice came on the phone.
As she recalled to the news outlet, he immediately began making demands and telling the mom terrible things would happen to Briana if she didn’t comply:
“This man gets on the phone and he’s like, ‘listen here. I’ve got your daughter. This is how it’s going to go down. You call the police, you call anybody, I’m going to pop her so full of drugs. I’m going to have my way with her and I’m going to drop her off in Mexico.’ And at that moment, I just started shaking. In the background, she’s going, ‘help me, Mom. Please help me. Help me,’ and bawling.”
Then, the man demanded Jennifer pay $1 million for the safe return of her daughter. When the mom told the man she didn’t have that kind of money, he lowered his ask to $50,000. She did her best to keep him on the phone and talking while another mom at the studio called the police — and a third mom called Jennifer’s husband.
In just a couple minutes, that third phone call confirmed that Briana was safe and sound. As Jennifer recalled, the concerned parents were able to confirm the teenager was just fine and not part of any kidnapping:
“She was upstairs in her room going, ‘what? What’s going on?’ Then I get angry, obviously, with these guys. This is not something you play around with.”
So how did the kidnapping scam work so well at first?? Well, Briana’s voice on the phone was just like her tone and inflection in real life. As Jennifer explained to the news outlet, the sounds matched up perfectly:
“It was completely her voice. It was her inflection. It was the way she would have cried. I never doubted for one second it was her. That’s the freaky part that really got me to my core.”
Cops think artificial intelligence software put together a composite of the teenager’s voice and was used to make it sound like she was being held captive even when she wasn’t.
Even Briana is now worried about what that technology may mean going forward. The stressed teen explained how she’s now concerned that the people who put out this voice scam may have been tracking her family for a while:
“I started to wonder, like, if these people were asking to track my mom and pick her up, they could have obviously been putting some information together to try and track me or some of my siblings to actually make this a reality. So it definitely scared me.”
Seriously. And we’re just supposed to be at the mercy of unregulated technology like this?! And here’s the craziest part of this AI revolution: it only takes THREE SECONDS of audio for artificial intelligence to map out your voice. Have you ever talked for three seconds in a social media video?! We sure have…
The news outlet spoke with Arizona State University computer science professor Subbarao Kambhampati about voice cloning and AI technology as part of their feature, and he explained:
“You can no longer trust your ears. And with the three seconds, it can come close to how exactly you sound. Most of the voice cloning actually captures the inflection as well as the emotion.”
For Kambhampati, there are major concerns in how AI like this is being used now in the infancy of its deployment:
“It’s a new toy, and I think there could be good uses, but certainly there can be pretty worrisome uses too.”
As for what us regular folks can do, experts are advising people to lock down their social media pages and don’t answer phone calls from unknown numbers. Dan Mayo, a special agent for the FBI‘s Phoenix field office, showed NBC 15 Arizona some of the bureau’s technology deployed to fight voice cloning (pictured above).
He also counseled the outlet on what people can do to prevent things like this from happening to them:
“You’ve got to keep that stuff locked down. The problem is, if you have it public, you’re allowing yourself to be scammed by people like this, because they’re going to be looking for public profiles that have as much information as possible on you, and when they get a hold of that, they’re going to dig into you.”
You can watch NBC 15 Arizona‘s full feature on this terrifying voice cloning phenomenon HERE.
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[Image via NBC 15 Arizona]