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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Financial abuse against the elderly is on the rise nationwide. Research indicates that the elderly suffer from up to five million incidents per year of predatory lending, scams and theft. Many cases go unreported, and those that are rarely make it to court.

We have the first of two reports this morning. We'll follow a case going before a California appellate court which could strengthen the prosecution of those who prey on the elderly. Here's Judy Campbell of member station KQED.

JUDY CAMPBELL reporting:

Seventy-seven-year-old Norman Roussey is a man steeped in resigned sadness. He lived with his mother most of his life until she died 12 years ago, leaving him their three-bedroom house and almost $1 million. That left him wealthy, lonely and a target. Exploitation of the elderly usually comes from a trusted relative or friend. For Roussey, it was Ronald Brock, a middle-aged paralegal helping him manage his inheritance. Over several years, Brock befriended Roussey, won his trust and started asking for things.

Mr. NORMAN ROUSSEY (Abuse Victim): And he comes in and he says, `Well, I need some money.' So I wrote him a darned check to pay bills and things.

CAMPBELL: For him or for you?

Mr. ROUSSEY: For him.

CAMPBELL: Court documents show Roussey suffers from Tourette's syndrome and an anxiety disorder. He also has an IQ of 76. That may help explain why, when Brock started asking for money, Roussey gave it.

Mr. ROUSSEY: He says, `You want me to--after you pass away, do you want me to--you want to give me your house?' I said, `No, I don't want to give you my house. Take a flying jump.'

CAMPBELL: Roussey says that now, but he actually did sign his house and all of his assets over to Brock in a new will. Eventually Roussey's niece got suspicious. Her call led police officer Carlton Brown to pay Roussey a visit.

Officer CARLTON BROWN: He was sure that he was fine. `Oh, I'd never let that happen to me. I wouldn't let anyone take advantage of me.' But you could see looking at him that he was like a child. He wanted to please you. You knew that he could be taken for a ride when you first met him.

CAMPBELL: In the end, Roussey lost more than $700,000.

It's a common story, particularly among older people in the beginning stages of dementia. California has some of the strictest elder abuse laws in the country, and many of its counties have dedicated elder abuse units in DA's offices. That's a rarity that's now being duplicated in some other states.

Still, Paul Greenwood, chair of the California DA Association's Elder Abuse Committee, says abuse cases seldom go to court, in part, because older people who've been ripped off are reluctant to talk about it.

Mr. PAUL GREENWOOD (Elder Abuse Committee): After I ask them, `Why didn't you tell somebody?' and their response has been, `I would rather lose $50,000 than run the risk of losing my independence.'

CAMPBELL: The California Attorney General's Office estimates only one in five financial elder abuse cases is reported, often because of the shame. Norman Roussey knows about that.

Ms. MELISSA McKOWAN (District Attorney): And you start doing things...

Mr. ROUSSEY: That makes me out a dummy, doesn't it?

Ms. McKOWAN: Norman, remember we talked about that. It's doesn't...

Mr. ROUSSEY: I know but...

Ms. McKOWAN: It makes you a trusting person, that's all.

CAMPBELL: That's Melissa McKowan, a DA in San Mateo County. It took nearly four months for her office to even convince Roussey that he was a victim and to take his case to court. McKowan says that's because Roussey was essentially brainwashed, persuaded through trust, friendship and isolation. It's called undue influence, and social workers who have long used the concept to identify abuse say it's common. For many older people, the onset of dementia makes them more vulnerable. In Roussey's case, it was his mental health problems.

As a legal term, undue influence is a staple in civil courts, a common charge in disputed wills and lawsuits, but it's not criminal. So McKowan used an unusual argument in her criminal court case, essentially changing the definition of theft.

Ms. McKOWAN: When they don't use lies but friendship and companionship to get the money, where does it go over the line from, `We're friends and you're loaning me money,' to, `I have coerced you through that friendship to give me all your assets'?

CAMPBELL: The judge and jury accepted the argument. Brock got five years in prison. The case is under appeal and is being watched by elder abuse prosecutors as an important test case in using an undue influence argument as a way to prosecute abusers. Critics say the ruling could open up all sorts of family disputes to criminal prosecution. But the American Bar Association's elder abuse specialist, Lori Stiegel, says the undue influence argument is at the cutting edge of abuse prosecution.

Ms. LORI STIEGEL (American Bar Association): We're hoping that down the road in a few years, undue influence will become a very essential tool in the toolbox of law enforcement, of prosecutors, as well as adult protective services and the other people in the community who work on the issue of elder abuse.

CAMPBELL: Stiegel says the issue will only become more pressing over the next several years as older people cash in on the booming real estate market, becoming instantly wealthy and sitting ducks. For NPR News, I'm Judy Campbell.

INSKEEP: Tomorrow, the challenges that authorities face in identifying and rooting out elder abuse. You can learn about signs of financial abuse against the elderly by going to our Web site, npr.org.

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