With more and more seniors using the Internet every day (there are more than 33 million people over the age of 55 on Facebook, according to Digital Age and a plethora of websites containing easily accessible personal information, it is easier than ever for scammers and thieves to get their "hands" on data that lets them steal from unsuspecting victims.

The Family Member in Distress Scam

The newest trend – known as the "family member in distress" or "granny scam" scam – takes advantage of seniors' compassion and willingness to help family members out of trouble. Here's an example of the scam, which happened to an AgingCare.com member's family:

75-year-old Evelyn got a phone call: "Grandma, it's Josh. I got in an accident and got arrested. I'm fine, but I need $2,500 sent to me to get out of jail."

Josh didn't sound like himself. He said it was because he was so upset. Sensing something wasn't right, Evelyn told Josh she was going to call his mother. Then the line went dead.

It wasn't actually Josh who had called, but an identity thief who got personal information, including the names of her family members, from Evelyn's Facebook profile. Evelyn didn't fall prey to the scam, but thousands of seniors do every year. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that 60,000 complaints about this type of fraud were filed last year.

How Do Scammers Get Family Information Online?

According to Detective Alex Lorenzo with the Borough of Fort Lee, N.J. Police Department, just by having a profile on a social networking website, seniors unknowingly give con artists the information they need (and so do their friends and relatives). For example, there may be a family photo of Evelyn and her grandson Josh. Armed with her grandson's name, if a scammer can get Evelyn's phone number, the scam is on.

How to Keep Elders Safe

Det. Lorenzo offers tips to keep elderly loved ones safe from this phone scam:

  • Make your elderly loved ones aware that this scam exists.
  • Ask the caller detailed questions only they would know.
  • If a relative calls panicking and needs money wired, tell your parents to verify the story by calling another relative. If the caller says to keep it a secret, that's a red flag.
  • Check the caller's number. Overseas or out-of-country calls are another common indicator of the scam.
  • Hang up and call the caller back at their home or cell number. If "Josh" is at home, he's obviously not in jail.
  • Have someone else in the family check out the story no matter what.

What To Do If an Elderly Loved One is a Victim

If your loved one wires the money, here is what Det. Lorenzo says to do:

  • Call the bank immediately to stop payment.
  • Call the police right away and tell them what happened.
  • If the money is still being processed, the person attempting the theft may still be waiting on the transfer and could be apprehended.
  • Contact the three credit bureaus and let them know that you believe your identity has been compromised.

For up-to-date information on scams like the "Family Member in Distress scam," visit the FTC's identify theft website: http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/scam-alerts.