A California widow was scammed out of at least $287,000 by an unidentified overseas con man who romanced her online using “deepfake” video to pose as the superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, according to federal prosecutors.
Deepfakes, which are created using artificial intelligence to make it appear as if someone is doing or saying something they aren’t, have been called a threat to national security. Researchers have long feared the technology could potentially distort democracy, making it impossible for people to distinguish between fact and fiction. But this is the first time they have seen a deepfake used specifically to perpetuate a romance scam, said one expert.
In the fall of 2019, about six months after her husband died, a Santa Monica woman identified in court records only as “M.M.” joined an online dating site. She soon met a purported U.S. Navy admiral named Sean Buck, who said he was stationed on an aircraft carrier in the Middle East. They developed a relationship over the next few months via email and video chats on Skype, during which Buck—who for some reason also went by “Scott”—was always dressed in his military uniform.
As it happened, M.M. had also been in touch with another suitor from the same site. This man, an American who called himself Robert Ankeny, claimed to be building a hospital in Turkey. However, Ankeny explained, his funds had been mistakenly tied up by the bank. M.M. wired him $20,000 so the construction could get started.
Ankeny soon wrote back with bad news: He had been arrested following a construction accident and was now stuck in a Turkish jail. Frightened for his safety, M.M. asked Buck if he could do anything to help. Of course, Buck assured her, explaining that he would use his military connections to fix the situation. A few days later, Buck told M.M. he could get Ankeny sprung—but it wouldn’t be cheap. Buck instructed M.M. to liquidate her accounts and wire the money to a lawyer in New York who would forward the money to Turkey for Ankeny’s release.
According to the FBI, romance scammers can be found on “most” dating sites. They appear genuine and caring, and quickly establish the victim’s trust. Although the scammer always makes plans to meet in person, they never do. And eventually, they ask for money. Having by this time developed an attachment to the other person, the target is often eager to help them get out of what they believe to be a bad situation.
M.M. sent at least seven payments to Buck, totaling $287,928.
But “Robert Ankeny” wasn’t the real Ankeny, a Pennsylvania resident who knew nothing about what was going on. And “Adm. Sean Buck” wasn’t actually Adm. Sean Buck—who, in real life, is the superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.
“While M.M. believed she was communicating with [Buck] via live chat on Skype, what she was seeing were actually manipulated clips of preexisting publicly-available video of the real Admiral Buck, and not the live video chats that M.M. believed them to be,” according to a forfeiture complaint filed by U.S. prosecutors. “This technique is often associated with a practice known as ‘deep fake’ videos, where preexisting video footage is altered to create the appearance that the subject pictured is saying or doing things different from that captured in the original video footage.”
It is getting easier and easier to create a convincing deepfake, which can now be done with open-source software on a consumer-grade computer.
When M.M.’s son informed her that it seemed she had been swindled, M.M. attempted to recall the wire transfers. Fortunately, the banks were able to seize some, but not all, of the funds M.M. lost.
Buck did not respond to a request for comment. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California, which is handling the case, declined to provide any additional details.
Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center and a former district attorney’s investigator in Southern California, said she hasn’t seen a case like this before.
“The adage, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it with my own eyes,’ really no longer applies to the world today,” Velasquez told The Daily Beast. “And it’s going to take a tectonic shift for people to become willing to suspend that and say, ‘Even though I’m seeing these pictures, and even though I’m seeing this video, I’m going to continue to be skeptical.”
It’s crucial that anyone using an online dating site verify who they’re speaking to is actually who they say they are. This can be as simple as doing a reverse image search on their profile picture—if it’s a stock photo anyone can pull from the internet, keep asking questions.
Most important, said Velasquez, “Only pay people you know.”
The suspects who bilked M.M. remain at large.
“I understand that when your heart’s involved, it’s really, really hard,” she said. “Because they build a relationship with you, and you think you actually have this relationship, but if a romantic interest asks you for money and you’ve never met face to face? Walk away.”