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Virtual Kidnapping: AI Tools Are Enabling IRL Extortion Scams

With AI and publicly available data, cybercriminals have the resources they need to fake a real-life kidnapping and make you believe it.

4 Min Read
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If your spouse or your child called you on the phone, screaming and crying, telling you they've been kidnapped, how likely would you be to meet it with calm, measured skepticism?

At this year's Black Hat Europe, two researchers from Trend Micro will be discussing the real, emerging new trend of "virtual kidnapping," perhaps artificial intelligence's most terrifying malicious application yet.

In a typical virtual kidnapping, attackers combine cyber compromise, intel gathered from social media or the Dark Web, and AI voice cloning software to realistically convince targets that their loved ones are missing. The result can feel near indistinguishable from the real thing, which is why more attackers are leveraging advanced AI technology to try it out.

"Looking at underground chats with potential virtual kidnappers, it used to be that I would see maybe a dozen [posts about it] at any given time," claims Craig Gibson, principle threat defense architect with Trend Micro Research. "Now it's more like 150 at any given time."

How Virtual Kidnapping Works

Criminals begin a virtual kidnapping by identifying the victims — the one being "kidnapped" and, even more so, the relative who'll be contacted for negotiations.

If a perpetrator doesn't already have targets in mind, Gibson posits, some social media or Dark Web data harvesting might help identify prime candidates. Just as one would for an advertising campaign, "if you already have vast bodies of data that have previously been hacked," Gibson says, "you can then populate software like those which do advertising analytics to define the best target for a particular kind of attack."

Social media intel would also help with determining when to conduct an attack and filling in details to make it more realistic.

This, presumably, is how Jennifer DeStefano's hackers did it.

On an afternoon in April, Arizona-based DeStefano received a call from an unknown number. "Mom, I messed up!" her older daughter cried from the other end of the line.

As reported by CNN, the 15-year-old was up north, training for a ski race. DeStefano worried she'd been injured, but what followed was far scarier:

"Listen here," her captor interjected. "I have your daughter. You call the police, you call anybody, I’m gonna pop her something so full of drugs. I’m gonna have my way with her then drop her off in Mexico, and you’re never going to see her again." He demanded a million-dollar ransom, paid in cash.

Unknown to DeStefano, her daughter's voice — crying "Help me, help me!" in the background of the call — was pre-recorded using an AI voice emulator. It was so realistic that even after her son was able to get her actual daughter on the phone, she said, "at first I didn't believe she was safe, because her voice was so real to me."

Kidnappers Will Only Get Better

DeStefano's false captors managed to identify her as wealthy, determine when she would be at her most vulnerable, and gather voice data to feed back through a phone call, probably from halfway across the world, using only the data otherwise available on the Internet.

And as convincing as they were in this case, there are plenty more areas in which virtual kidnappers can improve, using even just the technologies available to them today.

An attacker might preempt a virtual kidnapping, for example, with a classic SIM swap. Had DeStefano's attackers blacked out her daughter's phone, they might have gotten their ransom before she became wise to their scheme.

Emerging AI, in particular, can help with the planning and execution of such a story. "By using ChatGPT, an attacker can fuse large datasets of potential victims with not only voice and video information but also other signal data such as geolocation via Application Processing Interface (API) connectivity," Trend Micro's researchers wrote in a June blog post.

Theoretically, ChatGPT can also be used in collaboration with text-to-speech and automation software to generate near-real-time responses from an AI-generated victim. Such a system has already been demonstrated, for a better cause, by Jolly Roger Telephone, which uses a Rube Goldberg-like collection of AI and non-AI software to facilitate calls with telemarketers using only automated bots.

In such a world as we live in now, even understanding the language spoken by one's victims isn't a requirement. "With ChatGPT and translation functions," Gibson reminds us, "you suddenly have this leap forward in which people who don't speak English — or don't speak it well enough to be able to negotiate — suddenly can. They can manage all of these cultural and language gaps using pure technology regardless of where they're actually from."

Can Virtual Kidnappings Actually Be Stopped?

There's a good reason why criminals would choose virtual kidnapping over more traditional cyber extortion.

"Traditional security architecture you could imagine being like a circle, and everything inside that circle is governed by traditional security products. Everything outside it is the human world. Virtual kidnapping attacks the human world where there are no security products, sure, and therefore the chance of getting caught are far less," Gibson laments.

In the end, there are few real technical solutions to a virtual kidnapping, besides perhaps blocking unknown phone numbers, or trying to confuse an AI voice generator by speaking in a second language.

"So as vendors get better and better at securing that circle," Gibson concludes, "it starts to push [cybercriminals] out of the circle, into this other attack region."

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About the Author(s)

Nate Nelson, Contributing Writer

Nate Nelson is a freelance writer based in New York City. Formerly a reporter at Threatpost, he contributes to a number of cybersecurity blogs and podcasts. He writes "Malicious Life" -- an award-winning Top 20 tech podcast on Apple and Spotify -- and hosts every other episode, featuring interviews with leading voices in security. He also co-hosts "The Industrial Security Podcast," the most popular show in its field.

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