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Hassan expected to sign bill that criminalizes elder financial abuse

Gov. Maggie Hassan is expected to sign legislation this morning that would criminalize financial abuse of elderly, disabled or otherwise impaired adults, a move meant to curb what proponents view as one of the fastest growing and least reported injustices in the state.

The bill, which easily passed the House and Senate this spring, would codify new and existing forms of fraud against anyone older than 60 or who otherwise lacks the ability to make sound personal decisions. It would also authorize state and local law enforcement to investigate such activity when it’s alleged.

Fraud is prohibited under state law, but not in all contexts involving older adults. Rep. Katherine Rogers, a former county attorney and the bill’s chief sponsor, said the intent is to clarify exactly what constitutes elder financial abuse.

“This puts it in one place in the criminal code where it’s more suitable and can be more quickly and more succinctly prosecuted – and therefore prevented,” said Rogers, a Concord Democrat.

The bill additionally imposes a mandatory prison sentence for any second offense involving neglect or financial exploitation.

Proponents said the legislation especially targets smaller forms of fraud that target a relatively small sum of money or a lone victim. Victims like Wendell Titus of Raymond, who his son Gary said died in 2010 at age 79, just months after a handyman-turned-caretaker drained $264,000 from his bank account through forged notes. Gary Titus said the family tried to pursue criminal charges, but was turned away by the police and prosecutors. They later recouped the money through a civil suit, but the case was costly and took years to complete.

“This bill is, to me, written for my father,” Titus told legislators at a hearing in April.

Supporters said elder financial abuse is a growing problem in the state, which has one of the oldest populations in the country – that’s expected to double by 2025. Rogers noted also that a 2011 study by the insurance company Metlife estimated that at least $2.9 billion was lost nationally in 2010 to elder financial abuse alone.

“So you can extrapolate how many people are being defrauded,” she said.

But she and others said the abuse is rarely reported, either because victims are embarrassed or because the perpetrator is a relative or other close acquaintance. Criminalizing it could help reverse the trend.

“The more people understand it’s out there and it’s wrong, it kind of comes out of the shadows,” Rogers said.

Tom Fahey, vice president of government relations for the New Hampshire Bankers Association, said the changes would also help the banking community more easily spot and report suspect transactions involving senior citizens.

“Now we have a clear explanation of what constitutes exploitation,” he said.

The bill is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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