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Mom warns of AI scam after receiving call claiming child was kidnapped

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Posted at 1:50 PM, Apr 18, 2023

It was a normal day in January when Jennifer DeStefano got a horrifying call from an unknown number.

"I hear my daughter's voice and she's crying and saying, like, 'Mom, mom, I messed up.'" DeStefano said.

The 15-year-old was out of town practicing for a ski race, so DeStefano said she immediately thought her daughter was injured on the mountain. 

However, seconds later, Defano said a man got on the line and told her that he had her daughter.

At the time of the call, DeStefano had just arrived at a dance studio where her other daughter was wrapping up practice.

"I started screaming for help," she said.

One of the moms called 911 while DeStefano kept the man on the line. While her other daughter appeared frozen, not knowing what was going on, another mom got the girl's phone and tried to contact DeStefano's husband, who was on the ski trip with their daughter.

"At that point, 911 had started to tip us off that there's an AI (artificial intelligence) scam going on where they can get a small soundbite of someone's voice and they can replicate it completely," DeStefano said.

While DeStefano was still unsure whether this was a legitimate threat or a scam, the man demanded $1 million. She said she requested to speak with her daughter, who she thought she could still hear in the background, but the man denied her. 

DeStefano told the man she couldn't get him $1 million. He then told her he would take $50,000, but he wouldn't accept a wire transfer. 

DeStefano said he was going to pick her up in a white van so she could give him the cash. If she didn't agree to his demands, DeStefano said, the man told her he was going to kill her and her daughter.

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As she became concerned about her own physical safety, one of the other moms at the dance studio was able to get DeStefano's husband on the phone. He told her that their daughter was safe. 

"I couldn't believe it because her voice was so real on the phone," DeStefano said.

The daughter called DeStefano to tell her she was safe.

"And that's when I got angry at these guys and called them out for it, and they kept vehemently denying that it was a scam and [said] that they really had her and I hung up on them," DeStefano said.

The entire call lasted under four minutes. 

DeStefano alerted the police department in Scottsdale, Arizona, but she said officials told her little could be done because no money was ever transferred. 

Despite this being a scam, the fear was very real for DeStefano and her family. She said her younger daughter, who was in the dance studio and witnessed the call, is more traumatized than her older daughter. DeStefano noted an instance when her younger daughter didn't want to get out of their car on a recent trip because she was scared of a group of bikers at a gas station.

"It was the middle of the day, it was noon, and she was just petrified," she said.

To this day, DeStefano doesn't know how the scammers could have gotten a snippet of her daughter's voice for the scam. She says her daughter's social media accounts, which are private, only feature pictures. 

In any event, DeStefano is using this incident as a learning lesson. The family now has a code word they can refer to if there is ever any question about who is on the other line of a call. Her advice to others who may find themselves in a similar situation is to find other people to help while keeping the caller on the line.

"If I didn't have those other moms around me, and I tried to do this solo, I would not have come to the same conclusion in such a short period of time," she said.