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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

In the first signs of a mounting threat, criminals are starting to use deepfakes — starting with AI-generated audio — to impersonate CEOs and steal millions from companies, which are largely unprepared to combat them.

Why it matters: Nightmare scenarios abound. As deepfakes grow more sophisticated, a convincing forgery could send a company's stock plummeting (or soaring), to extract money or to ruin its reputation in a viral instant.

  • Imagine a convincing fake video or audio clip of Elon Musk, say, disclosing a massive defect the day before a big Tesla launch — the company's share price would crumple.

What's happening: For all the talk about fake videos, it's deepfake audio that has emerged as the first real threat to the private sector.

  • Symantec, a major cybersecurity company, says it has seen three successful audio attacks on private companies. In each, a company's "CEO" called a senior financial officer to request an urgent money transfer.
  • Scammers were mimicking the CEOs' voices with an AI program that had been trained on hours of their speech — culled from earnings calls, YouTube videos, TED talks and the like.
  • Millions of dollars were stolen from each company, whose names were not revealed. The attacks were first reported in the BBC.

And in March, a Twitter account falsely claiming to belong to a Bloomberg journalist reportedly tried to coax personal information from Tesla short-sellers. Amateur sleuths said the account's profile photo had the hallmarks of an AI-generated image.

Big picture: This threat is just beginning to emerge. Video and audio deepfakes are improving at a frightening pace and are increasingly easy to make.

  • There's been an uptick in sophisticated audio attacks over the past year, says Vijay Balasubramaniyan, CEO of Pindrop, a company that protects call centers from scammers.
  • But businesses aren't ready, experts tell Axios. "I don’t think corporate infrastructure is prepared for a world where you can’t trust the voice or video of your colleague anymore," says Henry Ajder of Deeptrace, a deepfakes-detection startup.

Even if companies were clamoring for defenses, few tools exist to keep harmful deepfakes at bay, says Symantec's Saurabh Shintre. The challenge of automatically spotting a deepfake is almost insurmountable, and there are hurdles still ahead for a promising alternative: creating a digital breadcrumb trail for unaltered media.

  • Pindrop monitors for audio attacks like altered voices on customer service lines.
  • Symantec and ZeroFOX, another cybersecurity company, say they are developing technology to detect audio fakes.

What's out there already isn't cheap.

  • New Knowledge, a firm that defends companies from disinformation, says its services can run from $50,000 to "a couple million" a year.
  • Just monitoring the internet for potential fakes comes at "a substantial cost," says Matt Price of ZeroFOX. "And that's not even talking about the detection piece, which will probably be fairly expensive."

As a result, businesses are largely defenseless for now, leaving an opening for a well-timed deepfake to drop like a bomb.

  • "If you're waiting for it to happen, you're already too late," New Knowledge COO Ryan Fox tells Axios.

Go deeper: Companies take the battle to online mobs

Go deeper

28 U.S. citizens depart Afghanistan on Qatar Airways flight

Passengers board a Qatar Airways aircraft bound to Qatar at the airport in Kabul on September 10, 2021. Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images

The State Department on Saturday confirmed that a Qatar Airways charter flight left Kabul on Friday with 28 U.S. citizens and seven lawful permanent residents on board.

The big picture: Friday's flight is the third such airlift by Qatar Airways since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, AP reports.

Updated 34 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Smaller than expected "Justice for J6" rally met with large police presence

Police officers watch as demonstrators gather for the "Justice for J6" rally in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 18, 2021. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

A few hundred demonstrators were met by a heavy law enforcement presence on Saturday at the "Justice for J6" rally outside the fenced-off U.S. Capitol, AP reports.

The latest: About 400 to 450 people were inside the protest area, excluding law enforcement, U.S. Capitol Police said.

DHS to increase deportation flights to Haiti from Del Rio

Migrants walk across the Rio Grande River carrying supplies back to a makeshift encampment under the international bridge between Del Rio, Texas, and Acuña, Mexico. Officials are struggling to provide food, water, shelter and sanitation, forcing migrants to cross the Rio Grande several times per day for basic necessities. Photo: Jordan Vonderhaar via Getty Images

The Department of Homeland Security on Saturday announced plans to ramp up deportation flights to Haiti out of the small Texas border town Del Rio, starting as soon as Sunday.

Why it matters: Reports have emerged of more than 10,000 migrants, primarily from Haiti, crowded in a temporary camp under the international bridge in Del Rio. Hoping to find refuge in the United States, they've had to bear with filthy conditions and the scorching sun for days, per an NBC News affiliate.