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News / Business / Clark County Business

Clark County expert encourages vigilance as holidays are a prime time for scams, and AI could give scammers a boost

By Sarah Wolf, Columbian staff writer
Published: December 8, 2023, 6:02am

Artificial intelligence is making scams more difficult to identify. People should be cautious about giving away their information, especially during the holiday season when scams are more prevalent.

This year saw a noticeable evolution in artificial intelligence with the release of ChatGPT in November 2022. ChatGPT is a free online tool that creates detailed humanlike responses to users’ requests on an online interface. Though AI has its benefits, systems like ChatGPT make jobs easier for scammers whose spelling and grammar may have previously given them away.

The scale and sophistication of fraud campaigns has grown exponentially in 2023, said Wendy Smith, chief risk officer at Vancouver-based Columbia Credit Union. However, she hesitates to attribute that to the rise of artificial intelligence.

“Automation has seen a huge impact,” Smith said. They’re “now able to execute large-scale attacks efficiently across multiple channels — phone, text and email — blasting geographical areas with thousands of messages aimed at tricking people into providing personal information or access to their online accounts.”

Even members of the credit union, a major financial institution in the county, have fallen prey to these kind of scams.

Generative artificial intelligence has helped scammers personalize messages to be convincing to victims, Smith said.

“While specifics are hard to pin down, there is a lot of talk about the possibilities of AI in the fraud game,” she added.

Seattle’s FBI office, which oversees the Vancouver area, has heard inklings of artificial intelligence used by fraudsters. Investigations take so long that it’s still early for the bureau to say definitively if AI has had a massive impact.

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Still, fraudsters have used voice generation to further their elder and investment scams. Supervisory Special Agent Zachary Delecki sees generative artificial intelligence as another tool that fraudsters could use.

“I have no doubt that’s being used in furtherance of these scams,” Delecki said.

If scammers are starting to use programs like ChatGPT to fix grammatical and spelling errors in emails and texts, Delecki said people can still keep an eye out for contextual clues that a message is from a scammer.

“It’s again, just using your own sense of what’s right and wrong, what’s normal and what’s not normal,” Delecki said.

Holiday scamming

Experts are encouraging consumers to be especially cautious during the holiday season.

“We do see upticks during the holidays related to increases in online shopping,” Smith said.

The credit union also sees scams pop up around charity giving or individual GoFundMe-style campaigns this time of year.

“There are also times of community crises such as wildfires or floods when we see nefarious individuals take advantage of people with big hearts who want to help,” Smith said.

She said consumers should always be skeptical of unexpected messages, especially those requesting personal information or urgent action.

Scammers often use the holidays as a reason to reach out to people, Delecki said. They may reach out for things like a fake charity drive.

The Internal Revenue Service kicked off its National Tax Security Awareness Week on Cyber Monday, offering tips to consumers for avoiding holiday scams.

“As the holidays and tax season approach, this special week highlights that we are entering a period where taxpayers need to be extra careful protecting their sensitive financial and personal information,” IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel said.

The IRS recommends people shop only at websites beginning with “https,” not shopping on unsecured Wi-Fi networks like coffee shops or malls; keeping security on devices updated; using strong passwords and using multifactor authentication when possible.

More and more money is taken by scammers each year. The Federal Trade Commission reported in February that consumers reported losing nearly $8.8 billion to fraud last year, a more than 30 percent increase from 2021.

Imposter scams and online shopping scams were two of the most prominent scams reported in 2022, according to the FTC.