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Cyber Criminals Are Exploiting AI to Create Personalized Extortion Scams

A technology expert explains how the rise of artificial intelligence has given cybercriminals new tools to extort money from unsuspecting victims online by fabricating horrific real-life scenarios.

Cybercriminals are using elaborate hoaxes to trick naive Internet users into paying them thousands of dollars. After 17-year-old Kai Zhuang was persuaded to isolate himself by anonymous scammers, he was forcibly removed from a Utah hillside. When his captors realized he was alone, they demanded money from his Chinese parents to bring him back. People all over the globe are falling victim to a string of scams, of which the rouse is just one part.

Although virtual kidnapping scams have been around for over 20 years, a new and increasingly weird variation on the old plan has taken advantage of victims all over the United States in recent years.

Recently, on December 28, the Chinese family of 17-year-old exchange student Kai Zhuang reported him missing after receiving threatening messages claiming he had been abducted.

17-year-old Chinese foreign exchange student Kai Zhuang missing in Utah

His Utah host family had reported seeing him earlier that day but still, his family paid a ransom of $80,000 to Chinese bank accounts nevertheless. Following what police described as a heinous “cyber-kidnapping” scheme, he was located in Brigham City Canyon.

They extorted $80,000 from the teen’s parents in China by making them believe he was abducted, and the teen was told that his family back home was in danger.

Dr. Chris Pierson, who founded and currently serves as CEO of cyber security firm BlackCloak, has spoken about how AI is making cases like Zhuang’s “an interesting escalation in terms of the current common scams” and how these types of cases are becoming easier to facilitate.

After 17-year-old Kai Zhuang was persuaded to isolate himself by anonymous scammers, he was discovered from a Utah hillside. After his abductors make sure he is alone, they demand money from his Chinese parents to bring him back; the police eventually find him.

Authorities say the exchange student camped out along the Wasatch Front after vanishing from his Riverdale home. In addition to his experience representing famous people and wealthy businesspeople, Pierson has served as president of the Arizona chapter of the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ InfraGard program and as a member of the Department of Homeland Security’s Privacy Committee and Cybersecurity Subcommittee.

Cyber Security Subcommittee

Cyber kidnappers, according to Pierson, who discussed the Utah case and the practice generally, prey on victims from other countries to extort as much money as possible. Because they share a time gap with their biological family, he said, international students studying abroad make up the “ideal demographic” for the crime.

Zhuang’s parents couldn’t get in touch during the period of his suspected abduction as they were back in China.

According to Pierson, perpetrators take language limitations into account because victims are less able to notice distinctions and are more easily “preyed upon.”

According to Dr. Chris Pierson, CEO and founder of the cyber security business BlackCloak—which caters to prominent individuals—Zhuang’s case is “an interesting escalation in terms of the current common scams.”

Criminals will fabricate shocking tales to frighten their victims into giving them money; this is all part of their plan to steal as much as possible. The CEO says the typical cash profit is less than $10,000. However, with the convenience of online banking and wire transfers, thieves may now get away with much more.

First of all, they are accustomed to sending big sums of money overseas so that it won’t raise any suspicions, Pierson assured. He brought up the fact that American banks and other organizations would have been suspicious if this had been done at home.

Additionally, it will be done electronically. According to Pierson, people who can afford to send their children on exchange programs, international exchange trips, and everything else might be more likely to be able to pay.

He thought Zhuang and his family were among the people who were “at risk” from the strategic cyberattack. As for the crime itself, kidnappers are experts at keeping their victims in the dark by instructing them to conceal all evidence, utilize multiple phones for contact, and not inform a soul. Police claimed to have discovered multiple phones inside Zhuang’s tent when they discovered him “cold and scared” in the distant mountains.

Although Jennifer DeStefano’s daughter Brie, then 15 years old, was on a ski trip with her father, con artists briefly fooled her into thinking that the kid had been taken. At a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jennifer DeStefano detailed an abduction hoax in which con artists employed artificial intelligence to mimic her daughter’s voice.

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Along with using different, untraceable gadgets, victims may be encouraged to switch off their present personal ones, according to Pierson.  According to Riverdale Police Chief Casey Warren, the teen’s family and host family were fully cooperative with the authorities throughout the whole period that the teen was missing and believed to have been abducted.

The agency also disclosed that his Chinese relatives have joined him in the United States. Warren stated that the 17-year-old’s plans for his future education are uncertain, as he may return to China or remain in the United States.

While waiting for her young daughter at dance rehearsal in January 2023, Jennifer DeStefano, a mother from Arizona, received an anonymous call. After picking up the phone, she overheard her 15-year-old daughter Brianna telling her mom that she “messed up.” Brianna screamed in terror. After the false alarm, Brie’s friends wasted no time in confirming her whereabouts.

When DeStafano heard a male voice, she freaked out and tried to make sense of what was said. The man said to her, “Listen here. 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,”

A ransom demand of $1,000,000 was subsequently delivered to the distraught mother, who contacted the authorities and her daughter Brianna via phone. Little did she expect that her child would be completely oblivious to her mother’s words and act normally. “The voice sounded just like Brie’s, the inflection, everything,’” she told CNN. 

CNN International - Wikipedia

The culprits of the crime against DeStafano and her family pretended to abduct her daughter using artificial intelligence software.

According to Pierson, this will make the crime easier for culprits and frightening for victims. “The real stuff is AI,” he declared. “People are using it. Cybercriminals have actually started using it by just doing a normal ruse.”

Voice prints, according to the cyber security expert, are everywhere on social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, and it’s easy to capture people’s voices to use elsewhere.

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According to Pierson, who runs a computer security agency, he has seen that scammers utilize AI to steal the voices of his renowned clients from interviews and movies. According to him, being on high alert whenever you’re contacted is the best defense against the ever-present cyber scams. He said it becomes easier to defend against and much harder to carry out once those patterns are spotted.

Pierson acknowledged that online abduction is ’a harder hoax to disseminate’ than traditional kidnapping methods since it is difficult to coerce two participants into complying with demands. According to Pierson, cybercriminals will constantly modify their tactics based on varied needs, barriers, and impediments.

Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff at AI Surge is a dedicated team of experts led by Paul Robins, boasting a combined experience of over 7 years in Computer Science, AI, emerging technologies, and online publishing. Our commitment is to bring you authoritative insights into the forefront of artificial intelligence.


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