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Local woman falls prey to sophisticated AI scam on Valentine's Day

In a distressing incident on Feb. 14, a local woman, Valerie Thruelsen, became the latest victim of a sophisticated scam operation, leveraging artificial intelligence to exploit the trust and financial resources of unsuspecting individuals.

The scam unfolded over the course of the day, five hours to be exact. It involved a series of phone calls that manipulated her into believing her granddaughter was in legal and medical jeopardy following a car accident, which was said to have been her fault.

Thruelsen said, “I got a telephone call which sounded exactly like my granddaughter’s voice. She was sobbing and told me she’d been in a collision and was at the jail. She had been texting while driving and the other lady was in the emergency room at the hospital. She was pregnant and in danger of losing her baby. The fraudulent voice put me in touch with a ‘“public defender/private attorney’ who was trying to help her.

“He explained everything to me, including the fact that my granddaughter broke her nose and that the other woman was 6 months pregnant. According to the man, my granddaughter wasn’t wearing her seat belt and the impact forced her into the windshield. She broke her nose. The other woman broke her collarbone and it was touch and go with the baby. He said since it was my granddaughter’s first offense, he could get her out of jail with community service, but she needed to contact a family member to get bail money.”

Scammers can use cloned voices they pull from social media videos, public contact, or public speaking. Thruelsen’s fraudulent call came early in the morning, when she was greeted by a voice indistinguishable from her granddaughter's, claiming to have been involved in a serious collision and subsequently jailed. The scammer, masquerading as a public defender, then detailed the fabricated incident, including injuries to both the impersonated granddaughter and another party, a pregnant woman, allegedly involved in the accident.

She was coerced into providing bail money, followed by additional funds under the guise of covering the pregnant woman's medical expenses (who had lost her baby) to prevent further legal action against her granddaughter. In a calculated move to collect the money, the scammer arranged for couriers to visit the victim's home, further legitimizing the elaborate deception.

Thruelsen was convinced the female voice was her granddaughter, but she wasn't sure of the male voice, so she took the precaution to look up the name and reputation of the person represented on the phone as the attorney. However, the scammer was using the legitimate name of another person, so she believed it was legitimate.

As the situation escalated, Thruelsen was instructed to travel to a police station in San Diego, under the pretense of picking up her granddaughter. However, she called her granddaughter’s phone, thinking she was out of jail, and upon contacting her real granddaughter, Thruelsen discovered the entire scenario was a hoax. The realization came too late, as the scam had already cost her $17,000 and more alarmingly, compromised the safety of her home, as the scammers had her home address.

Thruelsen says efforts to seek assistance from law enforcement were met with frustration. After talking to her son, who is a retired, decorated police officer in Sacramento, she tried to get a Sheriff to go to her home and do a safety check, but upon reporting the incident to the San Diego Police Department, she encountered bureaucratic hurdles and a lack of urgency in addressing the scam. The suggestion to contact the FBI, while well-intentioned, wasn’t fruitful either, leaving her feeling neglected and vulnerable.

The sheriff's department in Fallbrook did agree to dispatch someone to her home before she got hom, she said, but “no one was there when I got home and I wasn't called until an hour after I got home.”

The aftermath of the scam not only highlights the evolving tactics used by criminals leveraging artificial intelligence but also underscores the challenges victims face in seeking justice and support from law enforcement agencies that are overwhelmed with the growing number of cases daily.

This incident serves as a stark reminder of the need for heightened awareness and vigilance in an age where technology can be both a tool for innovation and a weapon for exploitation.

Thruelsen was willing to share her experience to warn others so that they would be more aware and prepared to deal with a similar situation if it happens to them.

The AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) reports that what Thruelsen experienced is a textbook “Multistage Grandparent Scam.”

In an AARP article “6 Top Scams to Watch Out for in 2024”

“Criminals are getting more sophisticated and supercharging old scams with new technology,”

They describe Thruelsen’s case exactly.

“It’s a new more sophisticated version of the old grandparent scam in which crooks called and pretended to be a grandchild who had been arrested and needed bail money to get out of a nonexistent legal jam. In the past, grandparent scammers were often small-timers who would plead for a few hundred dollars. Now they are AI voice clones asking for thousands of dollars.

“After posing as grandchildren who’ve been jailed after a car accident, they’ll provide a case number and instruct the target to call their defense attorney or the local prosecutor.”

“When Grandpa calls up, they say, ‘Oh, do you have the case number?’” It’s actually a subtle psychological trick to see whether the grandparent is compliant and will follow their instructions to send thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.”

As in Thruelsen’s case, the scammers had a third and fourth conspirator pose as couriers and go to her home to pick up the money in person. This scam is described by Steve Baker, a former Federal Trade Commission official who now publishes the Baker Fraud Report newsletter.

AARP writes, “How to stay safe: If you get a call from an unfamiliar number from a family member claiming to be in trouble, don’t panic. Instead, after you’ve finished talking – and certainly before sending money – the Federal Communications Commission recommends that you call or text the person at his or her usual number and check to see whether the family member is actually in trouble. If they don’t answer, contact other family members or friends if you have any concern that the emergency could be real. Scammers plead with you to keep the situation a secret precisely so you won’t try to confirm it.”

 

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