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Scamming Methods are Improving with AI and Other Technologies

Ran Levi talks about scamming methods, cybersecurity, and keeping yourself safe online.

Technology has evolved dramatically since the early days of the internet. With all the new technological developments, scamming methods are improving, too. It’s essential to be vigilant to keep yourself safe.


See The Impact of AI on Scamming with Ran Levi for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Ran Levi has been podcasting since 2007 about history, technology, and more recently, cybersecurity. He is the co-founder of PI Media LTD, helping other people create and produce podcasts. He is also the editor and host of the Malicious Life Podcast, where he tells stories about cybersecurity and digs into the field’s history. Guests, including hackers, security experts, journalists, and politicians, provide commentary and more information.

Researching Cybersecurity History

Ran’s interest in cybersecurity started with his third book. He had previously written two books on science and tech history, and he wanted an interesting topic with great stories for his third book. Even if you want to pass on knowledge and teach people something new, there has to be an interesting story.

While trying to come up with ideas, he happened across the podcast Security Now with Steve Gibson. He started listening, and he was hooked. As a programmer and hardware engineer, he knew a little bit about writing code security, but only the basics. He’d never looked into the history of cybersecurity.

In the 1980s and 1990s in Israel, pirating games was normal. There was no good software industry in the country back then. Ran got lots of viruses on his computer. But people Ran talked to about viruses were stunned that it could do things on its own. It was astonishing to them that a piece of code could replicate itself or resist attempts at debugging.

In the cybersecurity business, we’re used to the idea of autonomous software running on our machine, doing stuff that we can’t control. But I think for the public at large, that’s a very weird idea. It’s a machine. What do you mean, it does what it wants?

Ran Levi

Computer viruses bring up the idea that a machine that is an essential and inescapable part of everyone’s life can somehow turn against you. It brings up questions of trust and privacy, fear of leaking sensitive information, and the greed of people using cyberattacks and other scamming methods to make money. It’s terrifying, and that fear is the heart of many cybersecurity stories.

In the 1990s, Ran dealt with viruses all the time - nobody had to worry about sophisticated scamming methods back then.

An Israeli Engineer Starts a Cybersecurity Podcast

Ran is from Israel and an engineer by trade, but writing and spreading knowledge was always his passion. About fifteen years ago, he started a podcast in Israel about history and technology. Nobody knew what a podcast was back then, but he enjoyed it.

The podcast took off. Six years ago, he was able to quit his engineering job and start a podcast producing company full-time.

About a year after starting the company, he got a call from Cybereason, an Israeli-American cybersecurity company. The founders had been listening to Ran’s podcast in Hebrew, and they asked if he could create a show in the same style about cybersecurity. The topic combined technology and psychology, two of Ran’s favorite subjects. He’d even written a book on the history of the field five years previously. So he agreed to try.

Ran spent six months practicing his accent before he was ready to try podcasting in English. He wasn’t confident that it would be professional enough. But the new podcast took off within six months, hitting #9 on iTunes’ tech podcast categories. For an Israeli guy who speaks English as a second language, he thinks that’s pretty good!

Podcast Highlights

Ran has interviewed hundreds of people over his podcasting career. One of the more memorable ones was Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who he interviewed onstage at a cybersecurity conference. They talked about how Apple thought about security in the 1970s: They didn’t. Nobody did back then. Scamming methods weren’t very sophisticated yet and nobody thought it would be an issue. Ran also had the opportunity to interview most of the members of L0pht Heavy Industries, a hacker collective active in the 1990s. They found major security flaws in Microsoft Windows, and Microsoft just ignored them.

Ran has covered many alarming incidents on the podcast, but he thinks the Equifax hack was one of the most alarming. He isn’t a US citizen, so he doesn’t have a credit history or credit score. It was surprising to him that Equifax gathers so much information on everyone. He was shocked that mass surveillance like that was allowed.

Interviews with security scientists are some of Ran’s favorites. Not every new technological development really takes off. Those interviews give a glimpse of the future of technology, scamming methods, and cybersecurity.

The Growth of AI Technology

Artificial intelligence (AI) technology is rapidly improving. The latest generation of AI, like Dolly 2 and GPT-3, can imitate human interactions, texts, images, and more. So far, AI isn’t a huge part of scamming methods. Chat bots do exist, but they’re pretty easy to spot. But in the new generation of AI, the lines are blurred. Imagine talking to someone online who you think is a real person and getting scammed by a machine. We really haven’t seen the full potential of AI for scamming methods or cybersecurity yet.

I think we haven’t seen [AI] still in cybersecurity, a real potential coming to fruition. Once we do, that will be very interesting.

Ran Levi

Ran recently had the opportunity to see the power of AI in person. A listener wrote to him saying that he works for a startup synthesizing deepfake voices. Ran had hundreds of hours of great audio, and he wanted to ask permission to train his AI on Ran’s voice. Ran agreed. Later he received sixty seconds of a computer narrating a text in his voice. It wouldn’t fool anybody at that point, but Ran could see how close it was. In a year or two, he might be able to have AI host part of the Malicious Life podcast and listeners might not be able to tell it was a machine talking.

Scamming Methods with AI

The ability to use AI to create deepfakes will open up all kinds of new scamming methods. What if someone could call your mother and ask for money using your voice? The tech is there, and that scam has a high likelihood of working.

Some people think that would never work because a machine wouldn’t be able to imitate your speech patterns and phrasing. But Ran fears that when machines zoom in on you, they can imitate you better than you think. It’s even easier if you have a large presence on the internet. Many scamming methods involve scraping your Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or other social media for data. That can just be fed into the AI to improve its imitation.

If AI is used in scamming methods, it may be able to scam people you love by pretending to be you.

If a deepfake of someone like Biden or Putin shows up, hundreds of experts check it to confirm it’s not legitimate. If someone decided to deepfake Ran, maybe one listener would think to look deeper. Nobody is going to care about ordinary people being imitated by AI, and that’s why these scamming methods will be so successful. We may need an AI-detecting AI or something similar to protect ourselves from these scamming methods.

Protecting Yourself Online

Ran has learned a lot about cybersecurity, scamming methods, and protecting yourself through his research and hosting the Malicious Life podcast. Here are some of his takeaways.

Everyone Makes Privacy and Security Mistakes

One of the benefits of the internet is anonymity, supposedly. But nobody is really anonymous online. People feel like they can say or do whatever they want, but as soon as someone shows up at their door, that online activity gets real very quickly.

Brian Krebs, who runs the blog Krebs on Security, researches cybersecurity topics. One of the things he publishes is research unmasking or doxxing spammers and hackers from silly mistakes. These people face real consequences from their hacking and scamming methods if they are caught, and they still make mistakes. If even they screw up, the rest of us definitely are.

Everybody makes mistakes online. If the spammers and hackers are making mistakes, what chance do regular people have?

Ran Levi

Never Trust an Organization with Your Data

Ran has researched, written, and heard so many stories about getting hacked, he feels like he can’t trust any organizations. None of them are immune to being hacked. He never answers the security questions honestly or gives out real birthdays.

The first thing I learned is never to trust an organization with my data. I have researched and wrote about and told so many stories about organizations being hacked that I feel like I can no longer trust anyone.

Ran Levi

He knows he’s become more paranoid over the years, but it’s a good paranoia. In the past, he would reuse passwords and use less secure but memorable passwords. Our data is that company’s livelihood, and they’re not our friends. We can’t trust them to keep our information private, but if we don’t give them our information in the first place, we don’t have to.

Think About What You Share Online

It’s less fun being online when you’re always on the lookout for privacy problems, scamming methods, and online security mistakes. Ran stopped sharing his personal life online because anyone can scrape data from it to get a sense of who he is, where he lives, who is family is, and where his blind spots are. He’s much more careful now.

In the early 1990s, the internet was fun. You might catch a computer virus and it would mess with your hard drive, but as long as you had a good backup, everything was fine. Now there’s sophisticated scamming methods, ransomware, and hacks that expose your data to the world. For Ran, the internet is not fun anymore.

Ignorance Is (Not) Bliss

Some people prefer to stay ignorant of the dangers. They don’t know or don’t understand and don’t make an effort to change that. Sometimes those people get lucky and nothing happens. Ran’s mother probably has no idea how to protect herself online. Luckily for her, she’s Israeli – spam calls and sophisticated scamming methods are much less common in non-English speaking countries. It will be an issue in the future, but for now Ran’s mother doesn’t see the dangers because her world isn’t very dangerous.

Ran, however, is everywhere online. That opens him up to all the dangers of the internet. To stay safe, he can’t remain ignorant. He has to know what scamming methods are out there and how to protect his own personal data. Everyone who has a presence on the internet needs to know these things, too.

Being ignorant is inviting somebody to scam you.

Ran Levi

You can learn more and listen to the Malicious Life Podcast at malicious.life. You can connect with Ran personally on Twitter @ranlevi. He also has a personal blog, mostly in Hebrew but occasionally in English, at ranlevi.co.il.

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