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Arup victim of multimillion-dollar deepfake video scam in Hong Kong

Engineering firm Arup has lost HK$200 million after falling victim to a deepfake video, during which ​​a digitally cloned version of its chief financial officer demanded monetary transfers.

The hyper-realistic video, which was generated using artificial intelligence, targeted an employee at the Hong Kong office of the international firm in January.

According to the British business newspaper Financial Times (FT), which broke the news this morning, it is "one of the world's biggest known deepfake scams".

"We can confirm that fake voices and images were used," Arup told the FT.

"Our financial stability and business operations were not affected and none of our internal systems were compromised," it added.

Investigations are ongoing

Arup is an international engineering firm that has worked on landmark structures including the Sagrada Familia, the world's longest sea crossing and the Sydney Opera House.

The scam is reported to have started after a member of staff in the Hong Kong office received a message regarding a "confidential transaction" from what appeared to be Arup's UK-based CFO.

This led to a video conference in which the staff member was asked by the fake CFO to make 15 transfers to five Hong Kong bank accounts, totalling HK$200 million (£20 million).

The elaborate deepfake video also impersonated several other company employees.

After raising this with the group's headquarters, the targeted staff member discovered it was a scam.

Arup had "notified the police about an incident of fraud" in Hong Kong in January and local authorities shared the news of the event in February, but did not initially name Arup as the victim.

At the time, local police also said the worker had initially been suspicious but felt reassured after seeing other people in the video that "looked and sounded just like colleagues he recognized", according to media company CNN.

So far, no arrests have been made and no further details have been released due to ongoing investigations.

"Unfortunately, we can't go into details at this stage as the incident is still the subject of an ongoing investigation," a spokesperson from Arup told Dezeen.

Number of deepfake scams "rising sharply"

In a separate statement, Arup's global chief information officer Rob Greig said he hopes the scam will increase understanding of these threats, which he said are "rising sharply".

"Like many other businesses around the globe, our operations are subject to regular attacks, including invoice fraud, phishing scams, WhatsApp voice spoofing, and deepfakes," he told Dezeen.

"What we have seen is that the number and sophistication of these attacks has been rising sharply in recent months," added Greig.

"This is an industry, business, and social issue, and I hope our experience can help raise awareness of the increasing sophistication and evolving techniques of bad actors."

According to the FT, advertising agency WPP was also recently targeted by a deepfake scam, though it was unsuccessful.

Artificial intelligence, or AI, attracted significant hype in 2023 and became the focus of Dezeen's major editorial series AItopia. As part of the series, a number of experts raised their hopes and concerns for the technology.

Among them were LookX founder Wanyu He, who told Dezeen: "only by embracing AI can you be involved in controlling it".

The photo is by Thomas Lefebvre via Unsplash.