US mother received call from kidnapped daughter only to find out it was an AI scam

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Published Jun 15, 2023 at 01:18 PM

Reading time: 3 minutes

Imagine receiving a phone call that turns your world upside down, a call that convinces you that your loved one has been kidnapped. This is exactly what happened to Jennifer DeStefano, a mother of two from Arizona who recently shared her terrifying ordeal during a US Senate judiciary committee hearing. In a world where technology reigns supreme, DeStefano’s story is a stark reminder of the chilling possibilities we could all face if artificial intelligence falls into the wrong hands.

As reported by The Guardian, it was just another Friday evening for DeStefano when an unknown number flashed on her phone screen. On the other end, she heard the voice of her 15-year-old daughter, Briana, trembling and in tears. DeStefano’s heart raced as she listened, fully convinced that her daughter was in distress. But this is where things get concerning, it wasn’t her daughter at all, it was an AI-generated voice that mimicked Briana’s perfectly. The recording sounded so authentic that DeStefano didn’t for once question that it could be fake.

Briana was on a ski trip at the time and so DeStefano assumed that perhaps she’d been injured and needed her mum to alert someone to go and help her. But then she heard another voice through the phone. A man’s voice then interrupted the call and ordered Briana to lie down and put her head back. Panic surged through DeStefano’s veins as she demanded answers, only to be met with a chilling revelation. Her daughter’s cry for help turned into a heart-wrenching plea, as the voice on the other end declared that kidnappers had her held captive.

All the mother of two could hear was what sounded to be her daughter crying: “Mom these bad men have me. Help me! Help me!”

While speaking at the recent Senate hearing, DeStefano described how the voice of her daughter abruptly disappeared, replaced by the menacing tone of a man on the line. He uttered the bone-chilling threat: “Listen here, I have your daughter. You tell anyone, you call the cops, I am going to pump her stomach so full of drugs.”

He continued to state that if Briana’s mother didn’t do as he said, he would “have his way” with her daughter and abandon her in Mexico, ensuring that the two would never be reunited again.

During this distressing phone call, DeStefano happened to be at her other daughter Aubrey’s dance rehearsal. Swiftly thinking on her feet, she muted the call and let out a piercing scream for help. The cry caught the attention of nearby parents, who immediately dialed 911, summoning the authorities to her aid.

With time slipping away, DeStefano was thrust into a nerve-wracking negotiation with the fraudulent kidnappers. Their initial demand was an exorbitant ransom of $1 million, an amount beyond DeStefano’s means. Sensing her desperation, she conveyed the impossibility of meeting such a staggering sum. The kidnappers eventually relented, reducing the ransom to $50,000.

Throughout the ordeal, DeStefano’s strength and resilience shone through, as she skillfully navigated the treacherous waters of negotiations, all while desperately trying to ensure her daughter’s safety.

Not soon after this, a fellow parent who’d gone over to see if they could help informed DeStefano about the police’s awareness regarding AI scams. The mother decided to call her husband and fell to the floor in a flood of relief after speaking to Briana directly and confirming that everyone was safe and accounted for.

However, DeStefano’s journey didn’t end there. When she tried to file a police report, her traumatic experience was dismissed as a mere “prank call.” This shocking revelation speaks volumes about the urgent need for action against AI-driven crimes. In a survey conducted by computer security software company McAfee, a staggering 70 percent of people admitted their lack of confidence in distinguishing between a cloned voice and the real thing. With just three seconds of audio, anyone’s voice can be replicated.

During the recent committee hearing, DeStefano urged lawmakers to take immediate action to protect others from falling victim to these heinous scams. Left unchecked and unregulated, AI technology can manipulate our understanding of truth and erode our confidence in what is real.

DeStefano stated: “If left uncontrolled, unregulated, and we are left unprotected without consequence, it will rewrite our understanding and perception of what is and what is not truth. It will erode our sense of ‘familiar’ as it corrodes our confidence in what is real and what is not.”

DeStefano’s inspiring testimony serves as an important reminder that even the most incredible technological advancements can be twisted for nefarious intentions. However, by actively seeking knowledge, remaining watchful, and advocating for change, we have the ability to shape a future where AI is effectively regulated and utilised for positive purposes. In doing so, we can ensure that our unwavering trust in what is real remains unshaken.

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