Deepfakes are increasingly being used in romance scams to trick victims into believing they are talking to a real person in order to steal large sums of money, a charity has warned.
Lisa Mills, relationship fraud expert at the charity Victim Support, said fraudsters have taken advantage of the latest deepfake technology to create video clips of themselves “manipulating victims into believing that they’re real people”.
One victim had £350,000 stolen by a fraudster who she believed she was in a legitimate two-year relationship with after they used deepfake technology during video calls.
The scammer, who met the victim on a dating website, had even proposed using a photo which had been digitally altered showing a man holding a sign that read: “Will you marry me?”.
The victim, in their fifties, withdrew their pension pot early and even resorted to selling personal possessions after the fraudster convinced them they were being held hostage and tortured by loan sharks.
“Aside from the financial aspect, the victims go through a lot of emotional stress because they feel like their boyfriend or girlfriend is in danger,” said Ms Mills.
She warned people that technology is getting “more sophisticated”, with deepfakes set to become a “dangerous tactic in the fraudsters’ toolkit”.
Deepfakes – also known as “synthetic media” – are videos, images or audio files that use a form of artificial intelligence (AI) to digitally manipulate existing content, for example by replacing images of faces with someone else’s likeness, to create fake events.
As AI algorithms become increasingly sophisticated, it has become more difficult to distinguish fake content from reality.
A fake image of Pope Francis wearing a white puffer jacket and a bejewelled crucifix – generated by AI program Midjourney – went viral over the weekend racking up millions of views, with many people thinking it was a real photograph.
Days before, Eliot Higgins, founder of investigative journalism group Bellingcat, used Midjourney to generate images of former US president Donald Trump being arrested. While he made clear the images were falsified, the images spread without attribution meaning many people mistakenly thought they were real.
“Images like the one of Pope Francis this weekend just go to show how sophisticated and believable deepfakes are becoming,” Ms Mills from Victim Support told i.
“It’s extremely worrying to think about the opportunities this deep fake technology presents for fraudsters, especially when it comes to romance fraud.”
She added that fraudsters are “incredibly skilled” at what they do and they are constantly “taking advantage of the latest advances in technology”.
Ms Mills described cases where fraudsters have used deepfake technology to create fake video clips of themselves talking to convince their victims they are real people.
She said: “These videos will typically be fairly short and the fraudster will often say that they are having technical issues with their phone or their connection. They will claim that they can’t hear the person they’re speaking to, meaning that they can talk but they can’t respond to what the other person is saying.
“They might also pretend that they’re in a compromising situation, like an army setting, or a hospital, which means that they can’t talk for long.”
The most recent crime survey said found that last year there were an estimated 9.1 million offences, of which 3.7 million were fraud. This means fraud made up 41 per cent of offences last year.
However, just one to two per cent of police resources go towards combating fraud, according to statistics cited by the House of Lords and the Commons Justice Committee.
Ms Mills said that her service in Sussex has seen zero cases go to court over the past six years. She called for more resources to be poured into preventing fraud and helping the victims.
“The figures don’t equate and victims of fraud feel a cut adrift,” she told i, arguing that there needs to be a “collaborative effort” in preventing fraud, with dating platforms strengthening their controls and doing more checks on users, and banks flagging up suspicious activity.
She said everyone can be susceptible to fraud, with a fairly even split between men and women across all ages meaning it is impossible to paint a picture of a “typical victim”.
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