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Scammers used AI to tell the world I was dead. Why? I had to find out

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Photo illustration of a hand with extra fingers laying a white rose on a gravestone with screenshots
(Photo illustration by Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times; Photos via Getty Images)

When I died the other day, no one really noticed. That is, aside from a few alarmed members of my family.

“The event,” as I now call it, unfolded one morning last month as I was racing out the door to a meeting. My phone rang.

“De-De-Debbie, hi,” my dad said, nearly out of breath. “Listen: please DO NOT BE ALARMED by what I am about to send you!”

That got my attention.

“It’s an” — he paused for dramatic effect — “an obituary.”

“Oh, my God, for who?” I said, putting down my purse.

“驰辞耻.”

“奥丑补迟?”

“There’s a rumor going around the World Wide Web,” he said, as if it were 1997, “that you died. Your obituary — it’s going viral internationally!”

He’d heard about it from my aunt, who gets updates from Google whenever my name appears online. I immediately called her.

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“I got an alert. It linked to your obit,” she said. Then: “They said some really nice things about you.”

It turns out there were several reports of my death circulating online. And in the words of Mark Twain, they were “greatly exaggerated.”

The lengthy obituaries detailed my career accomplishments and deep ties to family and friends with the uncanny discordance of an AI bot. “Deborah Vankin Obituary, Arts And Culture Writer At Los Angeles Times Sadly Passed Away,” the first headline read. “... Family Mourns The Loss,” read another. “Deborah Vankin, an esteemed journalist whose eloquent storytelling and insightful narratives illuminated the world around us, has passed away.” They cited no cause of death.

The obits, authored by fictional journalists, were part of an elaborate death hoax created by anonymous scammers using my name as clickbait. (I’m not linking to them in this story, so as not to further play into their scheme.)

It was a multimedia operation, I learned from my brother, who’d seen an obit on YouTube. At least four different reports of my death came in the form of videos. One depicted a car crash in the thumbnail, another a coffin exiting a funeral home, another my portrait beside the bright flame of a memorial candle.

“Oh, which picture did they use? Did my hair look OK?” I asked my brother on the phone. He didn’t see the humor.

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The videos, I soon learned, had real humans in them: an “anchor” at a news desk or a “correspondent” in the field. Each announced my death or — in an amusing scammer counternarrative — relayed that I was, in fact, “alive and thriving” despite “unfounded [reports] circulating on social media.”

In one video, a man in a powder blue blazer rattles off this news, switching between Hindi and English. He’s stiff and awkward, his voice flat as he seems to read off a teleprompter. “Deborah Vankin is one of the most popular arts and culture writers for the Los Angeles Times in America,” he says. (Wildly overblown, but I’ll take it.) At the end he leans in and flips an off switch and the frame goes dark.

It got one view. Sigh.

I don’t often think about death. Oddly, I’ve never been afraid of it. One college summer in Belgium, I chased down a slow-moving train and leaped on because my roommate — and passport — were still on it. I’ve gone hot air ballooning in Arizona, solo hitchhiking in Greece. I parachuted out of an airplane to celebrate a milestone birthday many years ago. I always figured death would come one day