11 July 2024

Over the past few days, Thais wonder why same-old “call centre” tricks managed to fool an elderly man familiar with the banking industry and two sisters who are just over 30s and looked sophisticated enough to not fall prey to easy scams.

But anyone scratching his or her head is about to get really scared. Fast-evolving artificial intelligence and new cashless lifestyle that depends more and more on smartphone clicks mean nobody will be safe, and naivety might not be the first thing gangsters look out for in the near future.

The elderly man’s case is simple enough. One day, the 81-year-old “grandpa” received a “police” phone call saying a saving account opened in his name in Ayutthaya displayed illegal activities and he must transfer all financial assets to the authorities for thorough scrutiny.

He believed it and the rest is history. The worst part, though, was that the racketeers eventually told him his assets were clean and he would get everything back along with a hefty financial compensation for all the trouble.

They, however, asked for a couple million more as a guarantee which he complied.

Altogether he lost Bt22 million. His young son was alerted near the end and rushed back to Thailand from Singapore, where he worked in the stock business, but it was too late.

The sisters lost a combined Bt7 million. The younger one was hit first, in the form of a telephone company call saying her personal information was used to open a suspicious number and she needed to press charges in Khon Kaen.

The provincial “police” then followed up by telling her on the phone that her name and banking account were involved in suspected money laundering and they needed to check all her assets.

She transferred Bt500,000, after which all the calls stopped and became unreachable.

Her elder sister, meanwhile, downloaded a “bank app” in a bid to borrow Bt1 million, reportedly in order to help the younger one.

The app was fake and she was told that she could not get the “approved” borrowing because she typed one wrong number.

The elder sister corrected it but had to transferred her own money to “unlock” the approved but frozen borrowing. She did it repeatedly and both sisters ended

up losing Bt7 million combined. (It was not quite clear why the elder sister had to borrow Bt1 million since she had a lot more than that at hand and the younger sister apparently did not need that much money in the first place.)

Both the grandpa and sisters cases involved old tricks and people we don’t actually know, who can forge police or court documents and send fake or real photos of people in police uniforms. But imagine more convincing scenarios.

One day your close friend may call, telling you in his or her unmistakable voice that emergency money is needed, in the mid of an accident maybe, and that his or her bank app is not working. That friend may even “facetime” you to make it more believable.

It can even be your beloved son or granddaughter studying in Europe. The deepfake technology has no limits.

Discount hunters may get an SMS prompting them to click for a major advantage when shopping next time on their popular online stores.

Accompanying that maybe a famous influencer asking you in a friendly video to do it quickly for your own good.

When a crypto king tells you in an “invest with me” clip that it’s a win-win, but you have to do it now, prudence can go out the window.

“It’s hard for any country’s law to keep pace with cyber fraudsters using AI,” said MP Siam Hattasongkroh, who heads the parliamentary ad hoc committee on AI promotion and control. He suggested during a recent media interview that Thailand needed a far-bigger mechanism and budget to deal with potential problems caused by AI development especially crimes.

Another participant in the same news programme said the more selfies you take and share, or the more videos of yourself you post online, the realer the deepfake “you” may become. He said celebrities are easy to fake, because there are plenty of audio, video and written information about them on the internet.

The Covid-19 pandemic opened the floodgates for cashless financial activities, which have intensified in the reopened world.

With big transactions taking place on mobile phones at an unprecedented rate, victims of cyber crimes are no longer limited to certain types of people.

Today, police and experts warn, anybody can be victimized, including those thinking it will never happen to them.

Thailand’s latest much-publicised cases showed that scammers are showing a greater tendency to take time, and there have been signs that “smart” targets are an attractive challenge, not something to stay away from.

In other words, a smart one could be up against a group of equally (if not more) brilliant individuals working in unison against him or her, and all are devoted to enlisting AI help more than the target.

It’s a bad idea to assume that all “call centre” scammers are hopelessly-unemployed immigrants with bad foreign accent who easily get angry when provoked.

Those are just parts of some of the best-organised, most mobile, most tenacious, most diligent, most technologically well-versed and most disciplined companies daring governments and law enforcers around the world to catch them if they can.

The worst part is they know you one-sidedly.

Tulsathit Taptim