By Ginger Allen, CBS 11 News

NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) – The Secret Service has issued a warning against revealing intimate details on social networking websites, which are often prowled by thieves and criminals.

“The criminals monitor these websites,” said U.S. Secret Service Special Agent David Bentz.

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Bentz heads the North Texas Electronic Crimes Task Force and said he sees this every day. He said people do not realize how much personal information they are putting online in the public view.

Donnie Palmer is the Executive Vice President of The Texas Bankers Association. Palmer trains banks to watch for this type of fraud.

“I can picture someone sitting in an easy chair dialing for dollars,” said Palmer, who then had a personal story to share.

“It started out with a phone call one Monday morning where my friend’s grandmother received a call from what you thought was her grandson,” he said.

The caller said he was arrested for drinking, driving, and causing an accident while on vacation and needed her to wire money overseas to pay restitution. The “grandchild” claimed to be sick, for an excuse as to why he did not sound like himself on the phone. He also was convincing because of what he knew.

“They knew very intimate details about the family,” said Palmer. “They also said something about he was between jobs. He happened to have time off.”

The hacker did his research on Palmer’s grandchild and knew all about him.

“The issue is significant here in North Texas,” Bentz said.

The U.S. Secret Service said criminals are now stalking social networking sites. The agency receives almost daily phone calls concerning these crimes, Bentz said.

“The criminals will actually do their homework about that child, how old they are, where they live, cell phone number, where they went to college. They have all the data they need then follow up with an email or a phone call,” Bentz said.

Secret Service officials said this was once called phishing. Criminals would send out mass emails in an attempting to catch private information and possibly give the hacker access to the computer. Agents said the hackers then decided to “spear-phish.”

This involved the same method, but hackers learned to target particular groups of people. But now, agents say the latest attack relies on research on social networking sites. And the theme continues: This is referred to as “whaling.”

In Palmer’s case, the hackers caught his personal friend – a wealthy individual –who almost fell for the scam and sent the money to the criminals overseas. The U.S. Secret Service commends Western Union for stopping this transaction and many others just before the money wiring is finalized.

“If we believe it to be fraudulent we will stop it,” said Denise Jaworksi, Vice President Global Consumer Protection Program at Western Union.

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Western Union now has a nationwide campaign to stop this social networking stalking scam.

“If we know an elderly or anybody at that matter is sending money to a foreign country, we do have the power to intervene, “Jaworksi said.

Western Union representatives in North Texas questioned and then stopped Palmer’s friend from going forward with her wiring transaction. She went home and discussed it more with family and friends and realized she was almost robbed.

Southlake resident Jacque Robson is thankful her family, especially her grandparents, did not fall for the scam. But she was worried they may. Robson’s friend received a similar email saying she had been robbed while she was vacationing in London.

“I was completely surprised at the message I received from people saying, “Are you ok? Are you ok? Do you need money?’” Robson said.

Now Robson and everyone on her contact list know to be careful what they disclose on places like Facebook and Twitter. Her account has been targeted once, and she doesn’t want criminals to try to “catch” them again after doing more homework on Robson and friends and family.

She’s been warned that hackers could try to use any personal information she posts on social networking accounts.

“When they start figuring out your personal (information) and spewing that information back…you could see how it could happen,” Robson said.

Looking at a Facebook page, Palmer said, “that’s just a goldmine of information.”

Palmer’s elderly friend is still uneasy.

“They are still in fear.” She told him, “If they know this about my family, what else do they know?”

The North Texas Secret Service says hackers get into social media accounts after clicking on a link, pop up, email, or a website that allows them to send malware into the computer. Then they can choose whom to research to make their stories more convincing.

Agents provide this advice on how not to get hooked by phishing:

Ensure that Windows automatic updates are turned-on.
Use a robust anti-virus software and keep it up to date (all-day).
Keep all “Flash Players” updated.
Ensure e-mail clients have Spam Filters enabled.

And, they remind you:

Never email personal or financial information
Question suspicious emails and delete them. A sender can always resend.
Do not acknowledge a pop-up message – certainly not one that asks for personal or financial information.

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If you have become the victim of phishing, contact your local police department.