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updated 3/24/2011 10:48:55 AM ET 2011-03-24T14:48:55

The good hearts and generosity of grandparents are being exploited in a cruel new scam.

The “grandparent scam” occurs when an unsuspecting senior citizen receives an urgent phone call from someone claiming to be a grandchild. The impostor tells the grandparent that he is seriously hurt, or in jail, and desperately needs hundreds or thousands of dollars wired to him immediately.

Believing the caller to be their grandchild, the frightened grandparents wire money to the scammer.

“Scams in which criminals prey on senior citizens, manipulating their fears and stealing their savings, are among the most malicious in our society,” New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow said.

Yesterday (March 23), Dow, with the N.J. State Division of Consumer Affairs and the Consumer Federation of America, launched a campaign to combat and educate against the grandparent scam.

While many traditional frauds – the Nigerian 419 scam, for example – are easy to detect and avoid, the grandparent scam comes with an air of authenticity that adds a frightening element of reality to an otherwise phony phone call.

Social networking sites offer a wealth of family information – often including the grandparents and grandchild’s name, address and date of birth -- that a scammer can use to effectively pose as the victim’s grandchild. Armed with those details, a frantic “Grandma, I need help” call creates an extremely vulnerable victim.

Speaking at the New Jersey campaign launch, Jim and Dorothy, a couple from Wayne, N.J., told the story of how they received a call on Feb. 15 from a young person pretending to be their grandson. He said he had broken his nose in a car accident, and was now in jail in Canada and needed $2,800 for bail. The scammer used specific family details obtained from the grandson’s Facebook page.

“We thought our grandson was injured, in trouble and in need of money and we wanted to help him,” Jim told CBS New York. Thankfully, before they wired any money, Jim and Dorothy contacted their daughter — the alleged grandson’s mother — and found their real grandson was in school — not in Canada — and that they’d been scammed.

To steer clear of the grandparent scam, the Consumer Federation of America urges people to ask detailed questions of the caller, questions no impostor could know – “the name of the person’s pet, for example, or the date of their mother’s birthday.”

It’s important also to report the scam to the money-wiring service the grandchild wants the victim to use.

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