The Real-Time Deepfake Romance Scams Have Arrived

A WIRED review of the videos and three associated Yahoo Boy Telegram channels shows how the con artists’ techniques have evolved as deepfake applications and artificial intelligence have improved. It is one of the first times the specific tactics and outlandish techniques of scammers using deepfake video calls has been documented in this detail.

The videos show Yahoo Boys using the technology on setups involving both laptops and phones. In multiple videos, the scammers often brazenly show their own faces, as well as those of the victims they are scamming. “I don’t think they’re doing this because they’re stupid,” Maimon says. “I think that they simply don’t care, and they’re not afraid of the repercussions.”

The Yahoo Boys are experienced scammers—and they openly brag about it. Photos and videos of their conning and recruitment can be found all across social media, from Facebook to TikTok. However, the cybercriminals, who have links back to Nigerian prince email scams, are arguably their most open on Telegram.

In groups containing thousands of members, Yahoo Boys organize and advertise their individual skills for a smorgasbord of scams. They’re skilled social manipulators, who can have long-lasting impacts on their victims. Business email compromise, crypto scams, and impersonation scams are all touted in hundreds of posts per day. Members claim to be selling photo and video editing skills and entire albums of explicit photographs that can be used to build a convincing persona. Fake IDs and legitimate-looking social media profiles are for sale. Scam “scripts” are free to download.

“The Yahoo Boys have elements of organized crime and disorganized crime,” says Paul Raffile, an intelligence analyst at the Network Contagion Research Institute, who has investigated Yahoo Boys sextorting teenagers and driving them towards suicide. “They don’t have a leader, they don’t have a governance structure.” Rather, Raffile says, they organize in clusters and share advice and tips online. Telegram did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment about Yahoo Boys’ channels, but the three channels no longer appear to be accessible.

The digital con artists started using deepfakes as part of their romance scams around May 2022, says Maimon. “What folks were doing was just posting videos of themselves, changing their appearance, and then sending them to the victim—trying to lure them to talk to them,” he says. Since then, they’ve moved on.

To create their videos, the Yahoo Boys are using a handful of different software and apps. WIRED is not naming the specific software, to limit people’s ability to copy the attacks. However, the tools they are using are often advertised for entertainment purposes, such as allowing people to swap their faces with celebrities or influencers.

The Yahoo Boys’ live deepfake calls run in two different ways. In the first, shown above, the scammers use a setup of two phones and a face-swapping app. The scammer holds the phone they are calling their victim with—they’re mostly seen using Zoom, Maimon says, but it can work on any platform—and uses its rear camera to record the screen of a second phone. This second phone has its camera pointing at the scammer’s face and is running a face-swapping app. They often place the two phones on stands to ensure they don’t move and use ring lights to improve conditions for a real-time face-swap, the videos show.

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