The Financial Hardship Department doesn’t exist—but somebody wants me to think it does. For months, I’ve been getting voicemails with a slightly stilted, inhuman quality that all say the same thing:
“Hey, it’s Jeff. I am following up with the Financial Hardship Department. I’m not sure if you’ve spoken to an assigned agent yet regarding our hardship program… But, I do see you’re approved for a hardship loan up to $37,000. So, what I’m going to do is put this in a pending status and if you have about five minutes today, go ahead and give me a call back so we can go over the details…”
Obviously, I’d love $37,000 for my hardships, but I’m lucky that I know enough about scam calls to clock this one the first time I heard it—although, it’s scary to admit, it took me a second. This is the latest debt relief service scam: a common genre of scam that offers a service to people in debt, for a hefty fee, and then fails to deliver. If I’d followed through with the Financial Hardship Department, I would likely have had to pay someone for access to a fake loan that would never actually materialize. Scammers run similar operations offering to improve people’s credit scores or lower their monthly car payments, only to skip out once they get a hold of a (presumably cash-strapped) victim’s money.
It’s a particularly cruel scam at a time when credit card debt in the U.S. is at an all-time high, the total burden of student loan debt is literally more than a trillion dollars, and more than 100 million people in the country live with medical debt. But one thing almost got me to call back: “Jeff” sounded a lot like a real guy. His voice moved up and down in a coherent cadence and paused in places a man reading through a script might conceivably pause.
According to Hany Farid, a professor of computer science at UC Berkeley who specializes in digital forensics, though, Jeff is definitely not real. “I’ve not seen this specific scam before,” Farid told VICE. “The voice is quite lifelike, but almost certainly synthetically generated. This is an interesting use-case in which—instead of cloning a specific voice—these voices are just more human, which I suspect is more likely to generate a call back compared to an obvious robot caller.”
“How could it be a scam? Voice cloning, that's how.”
This newfound realism is a widespread development in the realm of scam calls. Scammers are now able to use AI to mimic a specific person’s voice from snippets of them speaking that already exist online. That means, besides the ability to produce a human-like robo-caller like Jeff and shooting out an untold number of calls and voicemails on a daily basis, scammers are also able to target individuals using the voices of their loved ones begging for money. It’s a big enough problem that the Federal Trade Commission issued a consumer alert in March, writing:
“You get a call. There's a panicked voice on the line. It's your grandson. He says he's in deep trouble—he wrecked the car and landed in jail. But you can help by sending money. You take a deep breath and think. You've heard about grandparent scams. But darn, it sounds just like him. How could it be a scam? Voice cloning, that's how.”
Fortunately, the “Financial Hardship Department” is a well-documented scam, both in phone call and email form, which makes it a little easier to dodge. A month ago, a Reddit user posted an email with near-identical wording to the voicemails I’ve been getting, and seven other users chimed in that they’d received the same one.
According to Farid, scams that use human-sounding voices will only get more common as AI’s capacity for voice-cloning advances, making it easier and easier to pull off. And according to the FTC, people in the U.S. lost $789 million to phone fraud last year, while money lost to fraud spiked across the board—and those are just the losses that were officially reported. Unfortunately, it’s especially difficult to crack down on scammers who, according to Farid, often fall outside of U.S. jurisdiction anyway, which means that once someone falls for a scam, it’s unlikely that they’ll see any of that money again.
It’s possible, of course, to deal with debt in a way that doesn’t lead to getting fleeced. Apply for student debt relief or medical bill relief through a state agency, and look for debt management agencies with accreditations from the Financial Counseling Association of America or the National Foundation for Credit Counseling to make sure you’re dealing with a legitimate source of help. Meanwhile, the best way to deal with phone scams from the Hardship Department or otherwise is to be careful and skeptical—and get comfortable with blocking numbers like Jeff’s.