As Gary Schildhorn was driving to work from his Lower Merion home, he got a call from an unfamiliar number. Hesitant, but worried it could be a client because of the Philadelphia area code, he answered.

“Dad, it’s me, Brett,” said the crying voice on the other line. “I’ve been in an accident. ”

The person who Schildhorn thought was his 32-year-old son said he injured a pregnant woman, was in police custody, and had been assigned a public defender.

“Dad, please, I need your help,” he pleaded.

Schildhorn, a Center City business lawyer of more than 30 years, assured him that it would be OK. They hung up.

In the next 10 minutes, Schildhorn, 67, would receive calls from someone who claimed to be his son’s lawyer, speak with Montgomery County’s supposed clerk of court, and nearly begin the process of wiring $9,000 in bail.

“I was in action mode,” said Schildhorn in a recent interview. “I had to help my son. ”

But from the beginning, it was all a scam. The voice wasn’t actually his son’s. The public defender didn’t exist.

And now, Schildhorn and law enforcement are worried that, in an emerging trend, scammers could be using more advanced technology, including artificial intelligence, to escalate the common ploy of swindling money from people desperate to help their loved ones. That emergence, paired with the vast amount of information available through social media and data breaches, has armed scammers with more sophisticated schemes, making it harder than ever for people to know what is and is not real.

"I know it was my son’s voice,” said Schildhorn, of the law firm Eckert Seamans. “It was his voice, his cadence, using words that he would use. ”

Schildhorn didn’t end up wiring any of the money, but he came close.

As soon as he hung up with his “son,” his phone rang again. This time, the caller introduced himself as lawyer Barry Goldstein, and said he was representing Brett. He gave Schildhorn a number for a fake court clerk, who also said his son was in jail and explained how the bail payment could be made.

The caller spoke clearly and "sounded like a lawyer,” Schildhorn said. “He wasn’t too pushy and he spoke very calmly. ”

Gary Schildhorn, 67, has been a business lawyer for 30 years and practices at Eckert Seamans in Center City.
Gary Schildhorn, 67, has been a business lawyer for 30 years and practices at Eckert Seamans in Center City.

Schildhorn called his daughter-in-law, who alerted Brett’s work.

Schildhorn had almost reached his bank when his phone rang again. This time, it was actually his son.

“Dad, it’s me, I’m OK,” Brett assured him. “This is fake. It’s a scam. ”

He was stunned.

“It was your voice, Brett,” Schildhorn recalled saying. “If it wasn’t your voice my antennae would have gone up very quickly. ”

Increasingly convincing scams

After Schildhorn figured out the scheme, he played along with “Barry" to try to get Lower Merion police involved. But police said there was little they could do because the calls were likely made on burner phones and he didn’t lose any money. But he’s far from alone in being fooled by a scammer impersonating a loved one.

Impersonation is the largest scam category reported to the Federal Trade Commission, a spokesperson said. Last year, it received more than 647,400 complaints of impersonation, conducted through calls, texts, email, and other means. Of those, 20,232 reports were scams impersonating a friend or family member. Fraudulent requests for bail money are a common variation.

And experts say voice scammers are getting savvier and more convincing. They use voicemail greetings to identify a person’s voice and occupation, and websites and social media to discover the names of colleagues and family members. They’re compromising company e-mails at higher rates and use “spoofing” to manipulate the area codes of the numbers they’re calling from. In Schildhorn’s case, two of the three numbers that called him appeared to have Philadelphia and Montgomery County area codes.

Jonathan Sasse, marketing executive for First Orion, an Arkansas-based company that builds scam protections for mobile phone users, said scammers get peoples’ information through data breaches, voicemails, and social media. As the amount of consumer information on the internet continues to increase, scammers will become more sophisticated, making it more difficult for people to know what is authentic, he said. The more information scammers have, the more tailored their claims can be.

“They are using anything they can get their hands on in order to get an effective scam,” said Sasse.

While it’s still unclear how the voice impersonating Schildhorn’s son was so accurate — the lawyer admits the crying could have masked discrepancies — he suspects that AI played a role, a method scam experts are seeing more consistently.

“It’s hard to put a specific number on" the prevalence of AI scam calls, Sasse said. “But it’s definitely a trend that we are seeing. "

In one high-dollar example in the United Kingdom last summer, criminals used AI to impersonate a CEO’s voice and scammed $243,000 out of a major company. A few software companies offer services that can quickly impersonate voices.

“All these types of highly sophisticated scams," said Sasse, “ … we are seeing those start to explode. ”

The FTC said it has received a “very small handful” of complaints involving AI voice scams. But the agency is becoming more cautious of the possibility. Last month, it hosted a workshop on voice cloning.

Michael Levy, former chief of computer crimes at Philadelphia’s U.S. Attorney’s Office, said he hadn’t seen an AI voice scam, “But I would not be surprised given what I know we are capable of doing with computers these days. ”

“If I got a call like that from one of my kids, I would also panic, and I know all about fraud cases," he added.

It seems similar to deep fakes, he said, the class of AI-generated audiovisual materials that appear authentic and have been used in disinformation campaigns.

“If you can do it with a face, it’s got to be a whole lot easier to do it with a voice,” he said.

‘I’m the best attorney in the country’

A call to the number for “Barry Goldstein” a week after Schildhorn was called went through.

“This is Barry," answered the voice.

“Barry” said he was a lawyer and confirmed he spoke with Schildhorn. He claimed someone arrested gave the identity of Schildhorn’s son. “Barry" couldn’t identify his employer but said he practices as a public defender in many states.

“If you look me up, I’m the best attorney in the country,” he said.

Two days later, the number was disconnected. When Sgt. Michael Vice, detective for Lower Merion police, searched it through his database, he hit a dead end, indicating it was a burner phone.

“It’s not shocking,” Vice said.

None of this is entirely shocking to Brett Schildhorn, either.

“Does it scare me that it was my voice?” he said. “No, because I think everyone and anyone is vulnerable to that with enough data.”

Brett Schildhorn, who lives in Center City and works in Audubon doing acquisitions for a medical device company, doesn’t blame his father for nearly falling for the scheme, but he has teased him a bit in the aftermath.

Gary Schildhorn has found humor in it, too. He said he joked with Brett that if he ever does end up in jail, "he might sit there for a long time. ”

How to protect yourself

  • Police and public defenders will never take or coordinate bail money, especially through a wire. Anytime someone asks you to wire them money, you should be suspicious.
  • If someone tells you a family member is injured or in jail, call local police to confirm.
  • Beware of time constraints. There is never a “deadline” to bail your loved one out of jail.
  • Caller IDs can be spoofed: If someone claims to be your loved one, hang up and call the person back.