Many of us face a daily onslaught of financial scams by phone, email and social media. These scams are not only annoying but also harmful. Taken as a whole, these scams amount to exploitation that exacts a significant economic toll on our state, which is especially harmful to Mainers who are dependent on others for emotional or physical care and support. Our laws, courts and law enforcement agencies need better tools to combat financial exploitation of older Mainers.

Financial exploitation robs individuals of their retirement income, savings and sometimes even their homes. According to a 2015 report from the Maine Attorney General’s Task Force on Financial Crimes Against the Elderly, the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that one in nine people over the age of 60 was abused or exploited that year, or an estimated 33,000 victims of elder abuse in Maine alone.

A study by the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service analyzed records from Maine Adult Protective Services and Legal Services for the Elderly cases from 2010 to 2016, and estimated that older Mainers lost between $74.4 million and $451.5 million because of financial exploitation over the six study years. The range is broad because the vast majority of these types of crimes are not reported. Nearly one in 10 older adults who has experienced financial abuse and exploitation will need Medicaid benefits to survive, according to the National Adult Protective Services Association.

The Muskie School study found that financial exploitation is frequently perpetrated by a relative – often the victim’s child. Mainers are often exploited by care providers, lawyers and financial advisers. In the “grandparent scam,” a stranger gleans information from social media and other sources to impersonate a grandchild in urgent need of money. Businesses also target people’s life savings, using approaches as simple as deceptive home repairs that trick Mainers out of hundreds of dollars, and as complex as fake nationwide lottery and sweepstakes games. Some of these scams are perpetrated by companies that collect the names of surviving relatives from obituaries and buy mailing lists from companies that sell products commonly used by older people and rake in tens of millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains.

The implications of widespread financial exploitation are clear: Mainers are being deprived of their dignity, property and financial independence. Law enforcement, financial institutions and the legal profession agree it is time for a culture change in our attitude toward abuse of older citizens. In the Maine Legislature, we are currently working on laws to increase reporting and enhance prosecution of these financial crimes. A bill requiring investment advisers to report suspected financial exploitation of vulnerable adults to Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services has already been signed into law this session. Concerns about abuse and financial exploitation can be reported to 1-800-624-8404.

A bill I am sponsoring, L.D. 316, will give law enforcement greater tools to fight financial crimes against vulnerable adults. This bill has had strong bipartisan support throughout the legislative process. If enacted, L.D. 316 will raise four crimes – theft by deception, theft by misapplication of property, theft by unauthorized taking and misuse of entrusted property – to felony levels when the owner of the property is dependent on others for physical or emotional support.

Mainers work hard to maintain a high quality of life for ourselves and our loved ones. We must protect our hard-earned savings from strangers who perpetrate scams and those close to home who misuse the assets entrusted to them. Let’s inspire a culture change in our attitude toward abuse of older Mainers by supporting L.D. 316 and other legislation that addresses financial exploitation of older Mainers.

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