Charity scammers’ latest weapon is AI-generated art

Last week's deadly earthquake in Syria and Turkey highlights how well-meaning people can fall for traps posing as donation sites.
Wanting to help is great—but research where your donations go before opening your wallet. DepositPhotos

Online scammers frequently tug on targets’ heartstrings to trick people into handing over money for a seemingly good cause. The fallout from Syria and Turkey’s deadly, massive earthquake is no exception. Now, however, scams are enlisting tech tools like generative art to bolster their schemes.

As highlighted on Monday by the BBC, some bad actors are leveraging live streaming features on social media platforms like TikTok alongside AI generated artwork to grift users. TikTok creators can receive money via digital gifts on TikTok Live, and often link out to crypto wallets for funds. Given their very nature, however, any money deposited into such addresses are nearly impossible to retrieve after the fact, making them ideal for quick cons based on generating empathy through both real, altered, and outright fictional imagery.

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New generative artwork AI tools like Midjourney are particularly good for these campaigns. In one example offered by the Greek newspaper, OEMA, a deceptive Twitter account solicits readers for an “aid campaign to reach people who have experienced an #earthquake disaster in Turkey” with crypto wallet addresses for both Bitcoin and Ethereum. The tweet also includes a rendering of a firefighter holding a small child amidst the city ruins, but a closer look at the picture offers red flags—such as the firefighter possessing six fingers on one hand. 

According to OEMA, the rendering was generated via a prompt on Midjourney from the Major General of the Aegean fire brigade. BBC’s own experimentation with the AI tool using prompts like “image of firefighter in aftermath of an earthquake rescuing young child and wearing helmet with Greek flag” yielded extremely similar results. Similarly, any accounts soliciting PayPal donations for Turkey recovery efforts should be avoided entirely—due to licensing issues, PayPal hasn’t been available in the country since 2016.

[Related: Cryptocurrency scammers are mining dating sites for victims.]

The natural disaster scams are so rife that the Federal Trade Commission issued a reminder PSA cautioning donors on where to direct their funds. The central tenet of advice in these situations is to slow down and conduct at least a brief background check on the potential recipient—tools like charity watchdog groups are a great help in these instances. Users are also encouraged to utilize reverse image searches like Google’s as a great way to find out if old images are being repurposed for scammers’ most recent campaigns.

To save time, you can also simply go to reliable sources’ lists of vetted charities, such as the UK government’s options.