Criminals should think twice before targeting senior residents of this state for their financial scams because government agencies are doing more than ever before to put them out of business and bring about justice for those they swindle.

Because Maine’s population is the oldest in the nation, and seniors are disproportionately the target of financial abuse, elder protection is a top priority for numerous state agencies, including those at the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation that regulate banking, securities, insurance and other segments of the financial services sector. We take our responsibility to educate and safeguard seniors very seriously, and we’re always seeking new ways to protect them.

As he’s done with the issue of domestic violence, Gov. Paul LePage is encouraging greater awareness of elder abuse. To highlight what is sometimes referred to as the “crime of the 21st century” because of its increasing prevalence and devastating impact, the governor issued a proclamation earlier this summer to recognize “Elder Abuse Awareness Day” and urge residents to report suspected exploitation of Maine’s seniors.

Elder financial abuse can have disastrous consequences for its victims. This is especially true when the perpetrator is a friend, relative, caregiver or previously trusted financial adviser. Although scams frequently are conducted electronically by strangers attempting to steal personal information in order to empty bank accounts, seniors often are taken advantage of by people they know very well, which makes it much more difficult for the victim to come forward. As a result, each of us has a responsibility to speak up and report concerns.

In keeping with the governor’s call to action, this department has taken a number of meaningful steps to raise public awareness, to arm seniors with greater resources and to help those who regularly interact with older populations in recognizing the signs of victimization. We’ve successfully worked for passage of legislation to increase the penalties that can be imposed on those who commit securities fraud against older investors, recognizing that losses later in life are difficult or impossible to recoup, and we’ve stepped up efforts aimed at addressing those in the insurance industry who sell inappropriate products to seniors or use overly aggressive tactics in making a sale.

Additionally, we’ve published a Downeaster Guide to Elder Financial Protection available through the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection by calling 1-800-332-8529 or at www.Credit.Maine.gov under Publications and created an extensive online Consumer Library available through the Bureau of Financial Institution at www.maine.gov/pfr/financialinstitutions.

And beginning earlier this year, the Department’s Office of Securities and Bureau of Financial Institutions joined with the Maine Council on Elder Abuse Prevention to launch Senior$afe, a statewide training program to assist bank and credit union employees in identifying older customers who may have been victimized and those who might be especially vulnerable. This initiative is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, and we hope it can be replicated for personnel in other professions who come in regular contact with seniors. It wouldn’t have been possible without the involvement and support of other agencies and organization, including Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services, Legal Services for the Elderly, the Maine Bankers Association and Maine Credit Union League.

Senior$afe will make a difference by sensitizing people to the red flags and warning signs that an older customer or client may be the victim of exploitation or particularly susceptible to abuse, such as:

• Injuries that are not adequately explained.

• Changes in appearance or poor hygiene.

• Missing checks, account statements or documentation regarding finances.

• Running out of money at the end of the month or excessive anxiety about finances.

• Signs of being unusually fearful or depressed.

• Being accompanied by a caregiver who is overly protective or dominating.

• Social isolation, depression or recent loss of a spouse or partner.

• Decline in health or in the ability for self-care.

• Lack of familiarity with financial accounts or overly complicated finances.

• Willingness to listen to telemarketing calls or respond to solicitations from unverified charities or businesses.

These and other red flags can be used by all of us, whether actively involved in the work of elder protection or simply as a kind neighbor, to look out for the seniors in our communities. By doing so, we can make sure the message to criminals is loud and clear: Elder abuse won’t be tolerated, and we’re more committed than ever to prevent it from happening in Maine.

Anne Head is commissioner of the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation. Judith Shaw is securities administrator.

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