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Scam Artists Using Facebook To Target Grandparents

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- If you use social media to stay in touch with your grandchildren, beware – crooks could be watching you watch them.

As CBS 2's Rob Morrison reported, Facebook is the latest tool being used by con men in a grandparents' scam.

Ruth Winter is a science writer who has authored 34 books, and she also has a master's degree. But she is also a grandmother – and that last fact made her vulnerable.

"I got a telephone call, and a man was on, and he said that my grandson was in jail, and that I should pay money to get him out on bail or he was going to stay there," Ruth said. "And instead of thinking, my grandma emotion overcame me."

Winter followed the caller's instructions, went to Western Union, and wired $1,900 to Peru. She thus became the latest victim of the so-called Granny Scam.

Law enforcement agencies from two Tri-State Area communities have recently issued warnings about the scams. Last month, authorities in Central New Jersey issued a warning after a father in South Brunswick received a cell phone call saying his son had gotten into a car accident, and the suspect claimed to be holding his son captive until the father paid for vehicle damages through Western Union – leading the father to wire money after being on the phone for an hour.

On Tuesday, police in Suffolk County issued a similar warning about the scam. Suffolk County police said Tuesday evening that there had been five instances of the scam within 24 hours, and a huge increase in reported incidents since an initial warning in November of last year.

And lately, there is a new twist. Cyber con-artists use information from Facebook and other social media sites to figure out the names and locations of grandparents, grandchildren and even what they call each other.

"(My grandson) writes his letters about his trips at sea and I answer him and I even sign it Grammy, so they knew everything," Winter said.

Eric Kanefsky, acting director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, said many people with plenty of street smarts are falling for the scam.

"The most surprising thing is the amount of people and the sophistication of people who are victimized, and actually do fall for it," he said.

Kanefsky said the crooks almost always ask the victims to wire money, so that it cannot be refunded.

"They're going to tell you, 'Don't call my mother or my brother or my family member, because it's going to embarrass me, and I'm going to get in trouble,'" Kanefsky said. "We tell you in all cases, ignore that advice. Make sure that this really does pertain to a friend or a family member."

Kanefsky said over the past year alone, 70,000 Americans have fallen victim to so-called impostor scams. In New Jersey alone, the average amount lost to the cyber-crooks is $3,000 to $5,000.

Kanefsky suggested families come up with their own secret code word to use in emergencies, but don't use it on Facebook.

Law enforcement officials said the scammers are often operating from other countries, making it almost impossible to prosecute them.

Have you been victimized by a scam like this, or do you know anyone who has? Leave your comments below...

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