It was only after Mariana Cooper, a widow in Seattle, found herself with strained finances that she confessed to her granddaughter that she was afraid she had been bilked out of much of her savings.
Over three years, Cooper, 86, had written at least a dozen checks totaling more than $217,000 to someone she considered a friend and confidant. But the money was never paid back or used on her behalf, according to court documents, and in early November the woman who took advantage of Cooper, Janet Bauml, was convicted on nine counts of felony theft.
Cooper, who lost her home and now lives in a retirement community, is one of an estimated 5 million older U.S. residents annually who are victimized to some extent by a caregiver, friend, family member, lawyer or financial adviser.
With 10,000 people turning 65 every day for the next decade, a growing pool of retirees is susceptible to such exploitation. As many as one in 20 older adults said they were financially mistreated in the recent past, according to a government study.
Traditionally, such exploitation, whether by family, friends or acquaintances, often has been minimized as a private matter, and either dismissed with little or no penalty or handled in civil court.
Even when the sums are large, cases like Cooper's are often difficult to prosecute because of their legal complexity and because the exploitation goes unnoticed or continues for long periods. Money seeps out of savings and retirement funds so slowly it draws attention only after it is too late.
Cooper, for example, wrote her first check, for $3,000, in early 2008, and later gave Bauml her power of attorney. In early 2012, after Cooper realized that Bauml was not going to repay her in time for her to afford a new roof for her house, she told her granddaughter, Amy A. LeCoq, about the checks. She later called the police.
Bauml maintained that Cooper gave her money for services she provided as a home organizer or as loans.
Later, testing by a geriatric mental health specialist found that Cooper had moderate dementia, which showed her judgment had been impaired.
The diagnosis "helped the jury to understand why she would keep signing all these checks to this woman as loans when she was never being paid back," said Page B. Ulrey, senior deputy prosecutor for King County, Washington, who pressed the case against Bauml.
The case was challenging in part because Washington state does not have an elder abuse statute, said Ulrey, who is one of a small but growing number of prosecutors around the country with the specific duty of prosecuting those who take financial advantage of elders, whether it is connected to investments, contracts or other fraud.
As the number of complaints grows, more municipalities are trying to combat such abuse, which is often intertwined with physical or sexual abuse, and emotional neglect.
Some organizations also have set up shelters, modeled on those for victims of domestic abuse. In the New York City, for example, the Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention at the Hebrew Home in Riverdale started such a shelter in 2005. Since then, 14 other such shelters have been opened in various long-term care operations around the country to deal with urgent cases of financial abuse.
One such woman, who agreed to talk only if she was not identified by her last name, stayed at Riverdale after she was threatened with eviction. A neighbor discovered that the woman, a 73-year-old widow named Irene, had not paid her rent in six months because relatives living with her had been withdrawing money from her account and leaving her short of funds.
"I had to leave with one small suitcase," Irene said. "They were abusing me."
She was later able to move to federally subsidized housing away from the abusive situation.
To help elders in financial and other distress, more municipalities, using federal funds, are training law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and social workers how to spot the sometimes subtle signals that may indicate someone has been swindled.
"We see many cases where someone convinces an older person to give them the power of attorney, and then uses that authority to strip their bank accounts, or take the title of their home," said Amy Mix, a lawyer at the AARP Legal Counsel for the Elderly, which works with the Adult Protective Services division in the District of Columbia government as well as the city's police department.
In the most recent fiscal year, 934 cases of abuse were reported in Washington. About one-quarter of those were financial exploitation, according to Sheila Y. Jones, chief of Adult Protective Services. "And they involve millions of dollars," she said.
But many cases are not counted officially because older people are reluctant to pursue legal remedies against relatives and friends. Louise Pearson, 80, a retired government computer analyst, declined to press charges against a security guard in her building who had befriended her and later obtained $30,000 from her savings.
"There was something about him you just had to take to," Pearson said.
When she finally asked Malika Moore, a social worker at Iona Senior Services in Washington, for some assistance with her shaky finances, the social worker realized that the situation was serious.
One clue, she said, was that, "When I opened her refrigerator, it was empty." Moore was able to get Pearson home-delivered meals, and after the bank confirmed that she was missing savings, help to find a conservator to handle her money. Pearson, who now lives in a housing complex for the elderly, said, "I get money whenever I need it, and more than I did before."In Seattle, Cooper's granddaughter expressed determination to educate others on the warning signs of financial abuse. "I wish we had known some of the red flags," she said.
But even though she's a trained social worker, it's not surprising she missed the signs. She was deeply involved in caring for her mother, Cooper's daughter, who was fighting cancer during the period when her grandmother was writing the checks.
"Our family saw her regularly," LeCoq said, "but we just didn't see indications of what was going on." In retrospect, she might have been more suspicious with "my grandmother suddenly having a new friend and a friend who got so close so fast." Once LeCoq and her husband, John, recognized what had happened, they pushed for prosecution. Ulrey, the prosecutor, said the case required medical tests and search warrants of both the victim's and the suspect's financial accounts.
Cooper was unable to recover her lost money and worries about how long she will be able to pay for her retirement home. "She's ashamed and embarrassed and feels guilty," LeCoq of her grandmother. "But I tell her: 'You were a victim of a crime.'"