Californian widow was scammed for at least $ 287,000 by an unidentified foreign con artist who seduced her online by using a “deepfake” video to impersonate the superintendent of the US Naval Academy , according to federal prosecutors.
Deepfakes, created using artificial intelligence to make it look like someone is doing or saying something they are not doing, have been labeled a threat to national security. Researchers have long feared that technology could distort democracy, making it impossible for people to distinguish between fact and fiction. But this is the first time they’ve seen a deepfake used specifically to perpetuate a romance scam, an expert said.
In the fall of 2019, about six months after her husband’s death, a Santa Monica woman identified in court records only as “MM” joined an online dating site. She soon met a purported US Navy admiral named Sean Buck, who said he was stationed on an aircraft carrier in the Middle East. They developed a relationship over the following months via emails and video chats on Skype, during which Buck – who for some reason also called himself “Scott” – was still dressed in his military uniform.
In fact, MM had also been in contact with another suitor from the same site. This man, an American who called himself Robert Ankeny, claimed to be building a hospital in Turkey. However, Ankeny explained, his funds were mistakenly blocked by the bank. MM wired him $ 20,000 to get construction started.
Ankeny quickly responded with bad news: he had been arrested following a construction accident and was now stuck in a Turkish prison. Frightened for his safety, MM asked Buck if there was anything he could do to help him. Of course, Buck reassured her, explaining that he would use his military connections to resolve the situation. A few days later, Buck told MM he could blow up Ankeny – but it wouldn’t be cheap. Buck ordered MM to liquidate his accounts and transfer the money to a New York lawyer who would send the money to Turkey for Ankeny’s release.
According to the FBI, romance con artists can be found on “most” dating sites. They appear genuine and caring and quickly build the victim’s trust. Although the scammer always plans to meet in person, he never does. And finally, they ask for money. Having developed an attachment to the other person by then, the target is often eager to help them out of what they think is a bad situation.
MM sent at least seven payments to Buck, for a total of $ 287,928.
But “Robert Ankeny” was not the real Ankeny, a Pennsylvania resident who knew nothing about what was going on. And “Adm. Sean Buck ”was not actually Admiral Sean Buck – who in real life is the superintendent of the US Naval Academy.
“While MM thought she was communicating with [Buck] via the live Skype chat, what she was seeing were in fact manipulated clips of the pre-existing publicly available video of the actual Admiral Buck, not the live video chats that MM thought they were, ”according to a complaint from forfeiture filed by US prosecutors. This technique is often associated with a practice known as ‘deep fake videos’, where preexisting video footage is altered to make the subject appear to be saying or doing things different from what was captured in the footage. original video. “
It is getting easier and easier to create a compelling deepfake, which can now be done with open source software on a mainstream computer.
When MM’s son informed her that it looked like she had been cheated, MM attempted to recall the wire transfers. Fortunately, the banks were able to seize some, but not all, of the funds lost by MM.
Buck did not respond to a request for comment. The California Central District Attorney’s Office, which is handling the case, declined to provide further details.
Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center and investigator for a former Southern California prosecutor, said she had never seen a case like this before.
“The adage ‘I’ll believe it when I see it with my own eyes’ doesn’t really apply in today’s world,” Velasquez told the Daily Beast. “And it will take a tectonic shift for people to agree to put this on hold and say, ‘Even if I see these footage, and even if I see this video, I’m going to continue to be skeptical. “
It is essential that anyone using an online dating site verifies who they are talking to is actually who they say they are. It can be as simple as performing a reverse image search on their profile picture. If this is an archive photo that anyone can pull from the internet, keep asking questions.
Most important, said Velasquez, “only pay people you know.”
The suspects who defrauded MM are still at large.
“I understand that when your heart is involved, it’s really, really hard,” she said. “Because they’re building a relationship with you, and you think you actually have that relationship, but what if a love interest asks you for money and you’ve never met face to face?” Go away.
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