Deepfakes accelerate cryptocurrency scams: ‘It is very easy to fall for them, they are becoming more and more sophisticated’

1 views 10:00 am 0 Comments February 20, 2024

No journalist working with Spain’s public broadcaster TVE is really encouraging viewers to invest in a “super platform” with ties to the energy company Repsol. And yet a video showing the news presenter Marina Ribel apparently pushing this product during a newscast has been circulating in recent days on Instagram. In the video, shared on Instagram stories, Ribel appears to be on the set of Canal 24 Horas reading out the news of the day: “The company Repsol has announced the creation of a new super platform thanks to which any Spaniard can forget about having to work.” A sign underneath explains that by investing an initial €250, people can get returns of €1,500 a day and more than €25,000 a month.

This is a scam carried out with artificial intelligence. “It seemed like odd news for a serious news channel, so I paid more attention to the images. Then I realized that it was a deepfake video, even though the voice is the same as that of the real presenter,” says Marián Sánchez, a 41-year-old content creator who frequently alerts people about this kind of scam on her Instagram account. When she tried to click on the link that appeared at the bottom of the Instagram story, a tab opened up with the logo and design of Spain’s national newspaper El Mundo. A fake article contained the same information as the video, but the domain was not the newspaper’s. “I reported it immediately, but it was already too late. On the same day I came across three other similar cases, featuring different public figures,” says Sánchez.

These types of scams have filled social networks in recent months. By the end of last year, it had become impossible to be on X (formerly Twitter) without coming across purported newspaper articles of this kind, featuring celebrities saying things they never really said. In Spain, affected celebrities include the comedian Pablo Motos, the journalist Susanna Griso and the actor Antonio Resines, who appear to be recommending this type of investment. “In general terms, we are identifying an increase in publications whose purpose is to misinform. But surely the most problematic aspect is the appearance of deepfakes, because they are more difficult to identify. It is very easy to fall prey to these scams that are increasingly sophisticated,” says Ruth García, a technician at Spain’s National Cybersecurity Institute (INCIBE).

Since then, this newspaper has compiled and reported more than 100 posts of this type. In some cases, there are photos of celebrities on different television shows who claim to have found a way to make easy money, and which redirect to phony newspaper articles. On some occasions, the link leads to real news, but after a few hours the genuine URL is replaced by that of a fraudulent website. In all cases, the social media accounts have been recently created, barely have any followers and pay for X’s premium services (which allow them, among other things, to obtain the blue check and earn money with page views).

No moderation on X

The strategy of impersonating media outlets and falsifying news became popular during the cryptocurrency boom. On Elon Musk’s Twitter, who bought the social media platform more than a year ago, this scam has found the perfect breeding ground to proliferate again. As soon as he took over, the entrepreneur fired content moderators en masse, and reinstated accounts that had been expelled for hate speech or spreading hoaxes. As a result of these decisions, many well-known companies suspended their advertising or drastically reduced it, leaving room for other advertisers who have filled the social network with campaigns promoting scams.

Although they are no longer found with the same frequency as they were a few months ago, these types of publications are still in circulation, even after Spain’s stock market watchdog, the National Securities Market Commission (CNMV), announced an investigation into Elon Musk’s social media platform over advertising by fraudulent entities. One of these entities, as listed by the CNMV, is Quantum AI.

“These are cyclical campaigns, which are within the scheme of false investments. Right now it is the biggest scam in circulation, and it is being carried out by very well organized and serious criminal groups,” acknowledges Alberto Redondo, head of the Spanish Civil Guard’s criminal cyber-intelligence group. The scam works in different phases. At first, there is a group that is in charge of looking for victims, hooking them through social media platforms with false promises of investment. After agreeing to give up their data to proceed with the alleged purchase of cryptocurrencies, there is another group that begins to collect this sensitive data to sell it to external platforms.

“In some cases, they even go so far as to impersonate your identity, with all the risks that this entails,” adds Redondo. Exiting this network is complicated, since every time victims try to withdraw their investment, the scammers try to convince them that it is not a good time and that the ideal thing to do would be to invest evebn more. “When they finally realize that they have been scammed and report it, recovering the lost money is impossible, because these companies disappear.”

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