The “Grandparent Scam” has been around forever, in one form or another, but has been gaining ground lately as more scam artists learn about it and as evolving forms of communication make it easier to find victims and drain their funds.

The investigative TV news show “Inside Edition” identified the scam way back in 2006 and since then, consumer organizations and law enforcement officials have been issuing warnings, even as the number of victims rises. In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission received more than 60,000 complaints nationwide.

Now the Consumer Federation of America and New Jersey Attorney General Paula T. Dow are launching a nationwide public education campaign, including a two-minute video, to alert consumers to the threat.

The key to protecting consumers from fraud is public awareness. We hope that our new video and tips about the grandparent scam will help consumers in New Jersey and across the country avoid being tricked out of their money,” said Susan Grant, Director of Consumer Protection at the Consumer Federation of America.

The Grandparent Scam typically begins with an urgent phone call to an unsuspecting senior citizen. The caller may claim to be the victim’s grandchild, or claim to be a police officer. The message is always the same: Your grandchild is hurt, in jail, or otherwise in trouble, and needs hundreds of dollars immediately. Please don’t tell mom. Please do send a money order via Western Union or a similar service.

Those who fall victim later learn their grandchild never was in trouble. Instead, their money has been wired to a thief and may never be seen again.

A press event in Newark, NJ, yesterday included a statement from Jim and Dorothy, a Wayne, NJ, couple who nearly fell victim to the Grandparent Scam and who spoke publicly on the condition that their last name not be used. The couple received a call on February 15, 2011 from a young person who sounded remarkably like their grandson, and who accounted for the difference in his voice by saying his nose had been broken in a car accident. He claimed he was in jail in Canada while visiting family friends, and desperately needed $2,800 for bail.

The caller had a plausible and urgent story. He used specific family details during the lengthy conversation – details the family now believes were gleaned from the grandson’s or his friends’ Facebook pages. He pleaded with them not to tell his mother, but said he would tell her himself after his court appearance. Despite some reservations, the couple strongly considered sending money to a recipient in Canada. They stopped themselves when their daughter, the grandson’s aunt, saw them and asked questions that made them consider whether the caller’s story was real.

The Grandparent Scam and other impostor scams come in many varieties. Some common factors include:

  • Scammers typically ask the victim to send funds via a money order or other transfer service. Once money has been transferred and picked up by a recipient with a phony ID, it may be impossible to trace and retrieve.

  • Scammers often use marketing lists, with names and phone numbers or email addresses, to target victims.

  • Some scammers will tell their story using specific details, like the names of the grandchild’s relatives or friends. Scammers can often find this information online, such as on social networking websites.

  • Some scammers hack into consumers’ email accounts, then send emergency emails to the consumers’ friends.

  • Scammers who call on the phone will typically try to prevent the victim from checking whether their story is true. They will insist, “Don’t tell mom,” or, “You must act immediately.”

The Division of Consumer Affairs and Consumer Federation of America offer the following very simple tips to prevent senior citizens and others from being victimized:

  • If you receive an emergency call asking for money, always check with a family member to find out whether your loved one really needs help.

  • Take the time now to talk with your family about this and similar scams. Consider creating a code word or phrase – one only the family would know – in case it becomes necessary to make an emergency call for help.

  • Make it a personal policy, and a family policy, never to wire money without being sure the story you’re being told is true.