‘20 minutes of hell’: Pierce County family describes harrowing AI scam call

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — A terrifying AI scam is hitting Pierce County. Criminals are using new technology to plagiarize the voice of your family members – pretending they’re in serious trouble – all to steal your money.

Criminals are able to use artificial intelligence to clone voices pulled from online videos to make scam calls.

A South Sound family shares what they went through when they got a call from someone they thought was their daughter, saying she had been in a car crash.

It’s a phone call that the mom describes as “20 minutes of hell.”

Heidi and Robert asked to keep their last names private to help protect their identity, but they do want to warn others. Heidi got the call on Monday around noon and answered it on speaker.

“As soon as the call came in, I heard our daughter on the phone. It was unmistakably her,” Robert said.

Their 16-year-old daughter was saying she had gotten into a crash at Walmart.

“She had just been in a car accident and was crying and blubbering and needed me to come help her. She kept saying, Mom, Mom please come help me. And she says here talk to this guy, and gave the phone to a man who I assumed she had been in a car accident with,” Heidi said.

But she says that the man started issuing threats.

“He said I’m going to tell you right now I’m not a police officer, I have your daughter, and if you ever want to see her safe again, you will do what I tell you,” Heidi recalled. “You do not hang up. If you do, I will hurt your daughter,” she said.

Robert was listening in and guessed she’d most likely be at the South Hill Walmart and jumped into action to save his daughter. He got in the car and raced towards her.

“It was four-way hazards, horn blaring and I’m waving oncoming traffic out of my way. I was going down the sidewalk at 60 miles per hour. It was insane! But caution to the wind right? What else do you do when you hear unmistakably your kid crying for help, and being told by someone she’s being put into a trunk?” Robert said.

All this was unfolding while he had 911 on the line.

When Robert reached the parking lot, he did a couple of loops and didn’t find her.

“I don’t see any signs of her or another car or anything. And – just that sinking feeling,” Robert said, getting emotional. “I’m too late. I didn’t get here in time. And your head starts running – did I see her for the last time today?” he said.

Meanwhile, Heidi is still at home on the phone with the scammer, who was giving specific instructions.

“The original amount was $10,000,” Heidi said. “I was getting into my car to go to the bank and pull out cash. I would have met him to get my daughter,” she said.

But then, the ransom turned into a demand for a wire transfer instead of cash – raising red flags. And while on the phone, Heidi was able to reach her daughter by text.

“Finally she texted back and said I’m at school and sent me a picture. So I hung up on him,” Heidi said.

By this point, Robert had met up with Pierce County deputies at the South Hill Walmart, and Puyallup police were going to check the Walmart near the mall. He says his wife called him and told him it was all a scam.

“Everything is okay and the adrenaline crashed. And I’m almost throwing up in the parking lot,” Robert said.

Now the family and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department are putting out a warning about how criminals are now pulling off advanced scams with AI.

“This is a new scam that’s out. This is going to be affecting other people if they’re not familiar with this artificial intelligence. People can take a loved one’s voice and create it into something that it’s not,” said Deputy Carly Cappetto. “They will try to keep you on the phone. They don’t want you to hang up the phone because they don’t want you to make contact with that person to verify,” she said.

The sheriff’s department is urging you to make a plan with your family – have a secret question – or ask for information only your loved one would know.

“We have safety features in our family. We have the passwords. We have the tracking. None of that mattered. When you hear your child’s voice, you don’t question,” Heidi said. “I don’t want anyone else to go through what we went through,” she said.

Investigators believe scammers are pulling your voice from social media videos, then using AI apps to replicate it. Deputies say there have already been multiple cases in Western Washington, not just in Pierce County.

“It’s unfortunate we have to develop these plans with our family, but it is so important to have,” Cappetto said. “This is now our reality,” she said.

If you get a scam call like the one described, report it to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

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