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Think scam calls are bad now? Experts warn growing use of AI will make problem worse

TORONTO — Generative artificial intelligence is expected to drastically change the way phone scammers target potential victims, including the potential for them to tailor their attacks toward specific recipients.
People take photos of an AI robot at the All In artificial intelligence conference, Wednesday, September 27, 2023 in Montreal. A company that specializes in protecting phone users from spam says it expects generative artificial intelligence to drastically change the way call recipients are targeted, including the potential for scammers to tailor their attacks to specific people.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

TORONTO — Generative artificial intelligence is expected to drastically change the way phone scammers target potential victims, including the potential for them to tailor their attacks toward specific recipients.

That was the upshot of a keynote presentation Wednesday by representatives of Seattle-based Hiya, a company that specializes in detecting spam phone calls, at the final day of the Canadian Telecom Summit in Toronto.

Jonathan Nelson, director of product management for Hiya, said Canadian telecommunications companies and their customers should be wary of a likely influx in calls that use AI to fool the recipient.

"This is a problem that continues to grow. We have not yet cracked it," said Nelson.

"The big development is now generative AI. We should expect a pretty drastic shift in the scam ecosystem and the way scam calls are created within the next couple of years. It's going to be incredibly fast."

Nelson said scammers have an "incredible arsenal of tools at their disposal."

Possible uses of AI in phone scams include speech augmentation to remove a scammer's accent, automation to replace the role of a human scammer with that of a faster robot and technology that can frequently alter spam call scripts, making them less recognizable to the recipient.

Nelson also warned of voice cloning technology being paired with automation to mimic a human, making them sound identical to a specific person that the call recipient knows.

"What's particularly scary about that is it opens this door for tailored attacks," he said.

"It's quite simple. They just do their research in advance. If they're doing the audio impersonation, they just collect audio samples — those are readily available now on social media — and clone the voice and then spoof the phone call."

Cases of reported fraud in Canada appear to be on the rise. There were more than 32,000 reports of fraud to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre as of June 30 this year, along with $283.5 million lost to fraud in that time, according to the national police service.

The anti-fraud centre expects that figure to exceed $600 million by the end of 2023, which would top the $531 million in reported fraud-related losses last year and 2021's total of $380 million. The service estimates that only 30 to 50 per cent of actual fraud cases are reported to it per year.

Meanwhile, Hiya's research shows the average Canadian received up to four or five spam calls per month last quarter, almost double the per capita rate in the U.S.

Patrick Boudreau, head of identity management and fraud for TransUnion Canada, said there's also been an uptick in fraud targeting the telecom sector.

A study by the company found there was a 340 per cent increase in suspected digital fraud attempts involving the telecom industry from 2019 to 2022, Boudreau said during a separate presentation at the conference on Wednesday.

He said most Canadians would be familiar with attempts by scammers to access their personal information by posing as their bank or telecom provider, however "fraud also works on the inverse." Boudreau said scammers have also been phoning telecom companies' call centres posing as their customer.

In those cases, a common strategy involves providing incorrect personal details, prompting the customer service agent to correct the scammer by stating the actual information they have on file.

"If you make 10, 15, 20 calls per day, you're going to get an agent that just thinks it's low risk," he said. "'I'm going to give this piece of information because the customer asked for it. That's the customer — they're calling me.'" 

Boudreau said this highlights the need for telecom providers to maintain strong protections in order to prevent customers' confidential information from being stolen.

"Unfortunately, fraudsters never go away," he said.

"They're like water, they just go to the path of least resistance."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2023.

Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press