Scammers in North America have started using artificial intelligence (AI) to generate voices of people’s loved ones to trick them into handing over cash – and there are concerns this technique could soon target Australians.

A story in the Washington Post this week outlined how the scam can be surprisingly elaborate.

That was the case with the parents of 39-year-old Benjamin Perkin who got a call from someone claiming to be a lawyer.

The ‘lawyer’ said their son had “killed a US diplomat in a car accident” and was in jail, then he put ‘Benjamin’ on the phone. The copycat son told his parents he loved them and that he would really appreciate the money.

According to Benjamin, the voice was “close enough for my parents to truly believe they did speak with me” so they withdrew $21,800 (CA$20,000) from the bank, had it converted to Bitcoin, and sent it to the ‘lawyer’.

New AI tools are able to generate nearly identical voices from small samples of audio, in this case possibly from Benjamin’s snowboarding YouTube videos.

Early last month, a company called Eleven Labs clamped down on the free version of its AI-generated voice tool because people were using it “for malicious purposes”, forcing people to use a credit card to sign up for a free trial, and including a way to check if an audio sample was created using the company’s software.

Two grandparents in their 70s had a similar close call with AI voice scammers when their grandson Brandon called to say he was in jail and needed money to help bail him out.

Ruth Card, the grandmother, said she had felt “fear” and the sense “that we’ve got to help him right now”.

She and her husband went to a bank and took out their daily maximum of $3,200 (CA$3,000). Then they went to another branch and tried to withdraw more money, only to be pulled aside by a diligent bank manager who told them it was probably a scam.

“We were convinced that we were talking to Brandon,” Ruth said.

In many ways, this is a technologically advanced extension of the already popular ‘Hi Mum’ scam.

This had scammers send a WhatsApp or text message to their target pretending to be their child on a temporary new phone number because theirs was either stolen, lost or damaged.

After establishing contact, the scammers said they needed money to buy a new phone or to pay bills.

Earlier this year, Victorian police arrested a man who was operating this scam and who had earned “a substantial amount of money” from it.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) encourages people to come forward and submit details to its Scamwatch program about how they have been scammed.

Last year, nearly 240,000 Australians reported scams for a total of $568 million lost.

A spokesperson for the ACCC told Information Age it has “not had any scam reports that specifically point to the use of AI” just yet.

“With the emergence of new technologies, Scamwatch continues to see growing sophistication in scam approaches and is alert to the risks AI presents,” the ACCC said.

“This makes scams harder for the community to identify.

“The community should continue to approach any requests for personal information or money with caution and exercise caution when clicking on hyperlinks.”