The voice scam call portrayed in ‘Thelma’ is real and an increasing threat in the age of AI

Personal finance

Theatrical one-sheet for THELMA, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Courtesy: Magnolia Pictures

In the movie “Thelma,” 93-year-old Thelma Post receives a frantic call from what sounds like her grandson saying he’s in jail with a broken nose following an accident and needs $10,000.

Assuming the call is truly her grandson, Thelma, portrayed by June Squibb, follows the scammer’s instructions by fearfully gathering bunches of cash hidden around her home and sending it to a P.O. Box address. 

While this story was dramatized for Hollywood, the threat of such scam calls — also known as grandparents’ scams or family emergency scams — is genuine and getting easier in the age of artificial intelligence.

Total losses from imposter fraud last year reached nearly $2.7 billion, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. But there are ways to stay vigilant, financial experts say, such as freezing your credit or obtaining power of attorney for a vulnerable parent.

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The scam attempt that happened to the real Thelma, the now 103-year-old grandmother of writer and director Josh Margolin, was almost identical to the movie. In the movie, Thelma goes on an epic adventure involving a scooter and a gun to track down her scammers and get her money back. 

In real life, Thelma’s family stopped her before she could send the money. 

“I think the kind of emotion leading [to] action there was definitely a real thing and something that I tried to dramatize in the movie as well,” Margolin told CNBC. “She was kind of getting ready to do it, because she was really panicked. And luckily she called my parents.”

Scammers exploit ‘fear and urgency’

Scams like the one Thelma fell victim to are increasingly common, experts say. Imposter fraud was the most common type of fraud reported to the FTC in 2023, and the agency saw an increase in reports of business and government impersonators.

Social media is fertile ground for harvesting content for these scams.

With advancements in generative AI, a scammer can run just a few seconds of audio from a TikTok video to make the harvested voice say whatever they want, according to computer security company McAfee. 

“Everybody should know that deep fakes are becoming more and more popular and common and easier to do, and there are whole industries built around scamming people,” said Carolyn McClanahan, a certified financial planner and physician who founded Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida.

Typically, AI voice scams mimic distress calls. It could be someone stuck on the side of the road after their car broke down or someone calling from jail in a foreign country claiming they need bail money. The common denominator is that it’s coming from someone you care about who needs money “fast.” 

A 2023 survey from McAfee found that 25% of adults have experienced a similar AI voice scam — and the company says 77% of victims have lost money as a result. The company polled 7,054 adults in seven countries, including 1,009 in the United States.

Thelma’s age in the movie was a factor in her vulnerability.

“They target the elderly, because as we get older, we lose cognitive flexibility, meaning that we can’t make decisions as quickly, and so it takes us longer to think through things,” said McClanahan, who is a member of CNBC’s Financial Advisor Council. “And so these scamsters use techniques like fear and urgency to try to get you to act immediately.”

But older adults aren’t the only ones at risk; younger people who spend more time online are increasingly vulnerable, CFP Andrew Sivertsen said.

“You think about Gen Z and young millennials, I mean, just the number of impressions that they have online with technology is just exponentially more than seniors and so they’re falling victim to a higher number of scams,” said Sivertsen, a senior planner at The Planning Center in Moline, Illinois.

Protecting loved ones and yourself from scams

Speaking with an older loved one about the risk of being scammed can be difficult, and much of the movie showed Thelma grappling with her own autonomy in the situation.

After falling for the scam, she had to come to terms with the fact that she needed help with technology and taking care of herself, but she wasn’t ready to give up her freedom. 

“You have to find a way to kind of process the feelings of watching somebody go through something like this, but also to do so in a thoughtful way, so that when you do talk to them about it, you don’t kind of add to the shame and embarrassment that I believe is probably already there,” Margolin said. 

One way to be proactive about this is by establishing an aging plan when you are in your late 50s or early 60s, and including other family members in that conversation. McClanahan said she does this with her clients to determine who can act as a financial surrogate later in life.

“If you wait until somebody is experiencing symptoms or having cognitive issues, then what happens is they become defensive, they become in denial,” McClanahan said. “They’re afraid of losing control, afraid of losing their freedom.”

Basic security practices can also go a long way.

Sivertsen recommends freezing your credit and setting up multifactor authentication on social media and bank accounts to serve as a barrier protecting your personal information from scammers. You can also purchase identity theft insurance, he said, which can help remedy compromised information.

If you or a loved one does fall victim to a scam, usa.gov/where-report-scams lets you enter details about the scam to direct you to where it should be reported. 

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