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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The scheme works like this: An elderly person gets an unexpected call from someone claiming to be a relative in desperate need of money - there has been a mugging or a car has broken down - with instructions for wiring funds.
Authorities across the United States say these "grandparent scams" have reached an alarming rate, and what is more, they have proven so successful that con artists are using them against younger victims.
Reports of imposter scams for all age groups rose to 73,281 in 2011, up 22 percent from a year earlier, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
In New York the elderly were bilked out of nearly $450,000 in 2011, said a consumer protection alert issued on Thursday by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
"Typically, the caller says they are embarrassed about what has happened to them, and asks the grandparent not to tell anyone else in the family," the alert said.
Schneiderman's office said it tracked the number of complaints last year after receiving a flood of calls from victims.
The culprits are difficult to track down in part because they often operate abroad, in countries like Canada, Spain, Mexico and Nigeria, Schneiderman's office said.
"The granny scam is unbelievably prevalent and really kind of nasty," said Sally Hurme, an attorney at AARP, the prominent association for older Americans.
The New Jersey Attorney General's office reported that fraud complaints from people aged 60 or older totaled 1,600 last year.
In addition to the grandparent scams, the cons include requests from bogus charities and the "advance fee fraud," in which victims are told they have won a prize but must pay for processing fees or taxes.
"The schemes, whether large or small, all have the same goal - to defraud seniors and enrich the con artist," said Thomas Calcagni, Director of New Jersey's Division of Consumer Affairs.
Reporting By Edith Honan; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Xavier Briand