Deputies in charge of foreign relations in the parliaments of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Britain, the Netherlands and Ukraine, among others, have recently spoken in video calls in which they think they are face-to-face with Leonid Volkov, known as the closest aide to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
In reality, however, their interlocutor has not been the real Volkov, but a scammer on his face who has used deepfake technology that utilizes artificial intelligence.
It’s not some harmless bullying filter known from Facebook, but an increasingly dangerous and sophisticated way to fake anyone’s face with their expressions and mouth movements to say anything that is truly impressive.
Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the British Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, is one of the most recent victims of Vale-Volkov.
- Putin's Kremlin is so weak and scared of Navalny's power that they hold false meetings to blackmail Navalny's team.
They contacted me today.
They’re not going to post passages where I call Putin a murderer and a thief, so I’ll put it here, Tugendhat tweeted.
One of the victims of the scam is Rihards Kols, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Latvian Parliament, who recently published a comparison of a real Volkov and a fake Volkov.
The one on the left is the right Volkov and the one on the right is “Volkov” taken as a screenshot of a video call Kols and his assistants had had with a cheater in March.
As Volkov himself looked at the screenshot published by Kols, he commented on the scammer's face as follows:
- Looks like it's my real face.
But how did they manage to implement it in the Zoom call?
Welcome to the era of deepfake, Volkov wrote on Facebook.
Aito Volkov is an exiled Navalny creditor and long-term assistant from Russia, who currently lives in Lithuania and hosts, among other things, live broadcasts of the Navalny team on the Internet.
Kols says he only realized later what kind of scam he had been subjected to.
When the matter was investigated, it became clear that several other politicians from the Baltics, Ukraine and Britain had fallen victim to a similar Volkov scam.
- Nothing made me think then that we met (in a video call) Vale-Volkov before Ukrainian colleagues recently told us about their own meeting with Vale-Volkov, Kols wrote.
- This is unpleasant and unpleasant.
It is flaring, but perhaps we - me and our colleagues from Lithuania and Estonia - should thank Vale-Volkov for this lesson, Kols continued.
Zygimantas Pavilionis, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Lithuanian Parliament, says that Vale-Volkov also managed to cheat him at first.
The Pavilionis 'suspicions later arose partly because Vale-Volkov was very interested in Pavilionis' connections to the US Congress, says the Lithuanian broadcaster LRT.
- The person who introduced himself as Volkov called me and we had a personal conversation.
We saw (with the assistant) his face for a short time, Pavilionis told the BNS news agency.
According to the Pavilionis, the caller, who appeared as Volkov, had left the camera on for only a short time, but then he had turned off the camera, citing technical problems.
In subsequent scams, however, Vale-Volkov has left the camera on for a long time, and Western politicians who have spoken to him have thought, on the basis of both voice and face, that they are talking to the real Volkov.
- Then we started to realize that he was a cheater.
He had spoken to members of the Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Committee and started openly mocking them during the debate.
We checked the matter with the right Volkov and it turned out that it was not the right person, Pavilionis said.
- This shows that we need to be vigilant, because the Kremlin uses state-of-the-art technology, he said.
Vale-Volkov is known to have asked for foreign funding from various countries for the Navalny campaign, among other things.
It is therefore possible, for example, that this has provided evidence for the Kremlin's propaganda claims that Navalnyi is the creation of Western intelligence services.
The parties behind the scam have not been identified with certainty, but Volkov himself suspects a rogue duo known on Russian state television, known by the nicknames “Vovan” and “Lexus”.
Behind the nicknames are Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexei Stoljarov, who for many years have excelled in making various voice-scam calls to the world’s leading politicians.
The duo suggest they are doing harmless pranks, but in reality, most of their abductions have served the Kremlin in one way or another.
In February, Vovan and Lexus fell victim to a number of senior employees of the human rights organization Amnesty International, who also thought they were talking to Leonid Volkov.
However, in that video chat, Vale-Volkov only appeared with his voice, so cheating on Amnesty was just the prelude to the now-revealed deepfake facial scams.
Read more: Russian scammers pull Amnesty leaders - they thought they were talking to Navalny's assistant in a "live" video call
Volkov himself is sure that the roots of the fake campaign go back to Kremlin agents and that this is not a joke by individuals.
News site Meduza also suspects that the traces will lead to Kremlin-minded Vovan and Lexus.
Vovan and Lexus have admitted to the Amnesty scam, but when the British newspaper Guardian asked them about the deepfake scam, the duo gave an evasive and vague answer.
Dutch parliamentarians also admitted last week that they had gone deepfake-Volkov:
The Foreign Affairs Committees of the Baltic parliaments have now also issued a joint appeal warning other countries' decision-makers to fall into the trap of Kremlin-minded fraudsters.
In addition to Kols and Pavilionis, the statement has been signed by Marko Mihkelson, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Estonian Parliament.
According to parliamentarians, cyber-scams using deepfake videos are becoming a serious threat to both Western democratic societies and members of the Russian opposition, for example.
- These attacks are intended to spread false information, disgrace the Russian opposition and weaken the Baltic countries' support for it, the statement says.
According to Baltic politicians, this is clearly an attack on Kremlin critics and opponents.
- The attacks are intended to ridicule the Kremlin's critics, but it has only encouraged us to show our support for the Russian opposition, the statement of the Baltic parliaments says.
According to Kols, deepfake technology is already a real threat to political decision-making.
- It is clear that in the so-called post-truth period there is no longer anything “so-called”, but a crisis of truth can potentially threaten social peace and security, not to mention the government, Kols warns.
Recently, Vale-Volkov also fell victim to Latvian television LTV, whose editorial board had, however, only spoken to the scammer by voice.
The Latvian Parliament's press department is suspected of giving deepfake-Volkov's contact information to TV reporters before the video scam was exposed to the parliament itself, so the scam had gotten new rounds.
Vale-Volkov had managed to trick Lavia into the news, including the claim that popular video blogger Yuri Dud in Russia was taking over the leadership of the Navalny team.
When the scam came to light on the LTV channel, it apologized and pulled the story off the broadcast.