Someone Kidnapped Your Kid: What Would You Do?

This story might happen to you

Destefano famile selfie with Mom and two daughters

DeStefano family

Here at Subscribe to AI, we look at the fast-paced world of artificial intelligence optimistically. We focus on the human stories behind all the techy online headlines. But now and then, we must share a dark and twisted AI story like this one, which may be crucial for you to read.

At around 4:55 pm, Jennifer DeStefano was picking up her youngest daughter from a dance studio when she received an “unknown” call. She thought about not answering, but her eldest daughter, 15-year-old Brianna, was training for a ski race and feared the call could be significant.

“Mom! I messed up!” Her daughter, Brianna, screamed through the speakerphone. She was yelling and sobbing through the speakerphone.

“What did you do?!? What happened?” Jennifer asked.

And then a man’s voice came onto the phone.

“Lay down, put your head back,” Jennifer heard him say.

And then her daughter’s screams got worse, and the man began speaking directly to Jennnifer on the phone.

“Listen here. I have your daughter. You call the police, you call anybody, I’m going to pop her full of drugs. I’m going to have my way with her, then drop her off in Mexico, and you’ll never see her again.”

Jennifer froze, and then she ran into the dance studio for help.

She finds someone at the dance studio who makes a 911 call and explains to the dispatcher what is happening. Here is an expert from the call:

“So, a mother just came in, she received a phone call from someone who has her daughter … like a kidnapper on the phone saying he wants a million dollars. He won’t let her talk to her daughter.”

In the background of the 911 call recording, you can hear Jenifer yelling at the kidnappers, desperately wanting to speak with her daughter.

You can imagine how devastatingly scary it was for all involved. But, as an avid reader of our Subscribe to AI newsletter, you might expect a particular AI twist in this story. The dispatcher was quick to identify the call as a hoax.

She can be heard in the 911 recording swiftly asking:

“So that is a very popular scam. Are they asking for her to go get gift cards and things like that?”

The dispatcher knew these false kidnapping scams had been around for many years. A scam caller will call a vulnerable person, often a grandparent, and demand money in exchange for the release of their granddaughter.

But with the help of artificial intelligence advancements, scammers have been able to take these kinds of hoax scams up to a whole new level. They can use cheap and easily accessible AI tools to create clones of victims’ voices and create hyper-realistic audio snippets.

While these AI voices can’t interact and improvise over a long phone call, they can provide a scripted opening to a call and an occasional pre-written exchange with the kidnapper during the call.

This is what happened to Jennifer when she answered the scam call. The initial audio of her daughter was fake and created using AI, and then the scammer interacted directly with Jennifer. The occasional snippet from her daughter, with screams, was played throughout to add realism and pressure to the situation.

This sounds like a one-in-a-million scam, but they’re becoming more frequent. This is because a realistic voice clone can be created with less than a minute’s audio of your child and with software that only costs $5 per month.

Is there less than a minute audio of your family members speaking online, perhaps on their social media?

And, regrettably, it works. Even with the 911 dispatcher telling Jennifer that the call sounded like a hoax, Jennifer believed her daughter's screams. She was utterly convinced that the call was genuine. And so, she spent several tense minutes negotiating down the ransom from $1 million to $50,000.

They then discussed how the kidnapper would take the payment. A wire would be traceable, so he said he’d pick Jennifer up in a white van, place a bag over her head and drive her to a location where she could hand over the cash for her daughter.

Thankfully, at this exact moment, Jennifer was handed another phone by one of the Moms at the dance studio. Her eldest daughter, Brianna, was on the phone and immediately explained she was in bed and had no idea what was happening, but she was safe and okay — she had not been kidnapped.

The FBI has several tips for families hoping to avoid these elaborate but realistic scam calls. They include simple things, like keeping your social media private so scammers can’t easily access your audio recordings.

Most notably, they suggest having a family password. If someone calls and says they’ve kidnapped a family member, you can tell them to ask the family member for your family password to know it’s legitimate. We hope nothing like this ever happens to your family, but it’s good that unlikely Jennifer, you are aware of this scam before it ever happens to you.

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Did you know about this new type of kidnap scam call? Let’s set up a family password we can use if anything like this happens to us: t.ly/aiq5P

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