As the wave of Baby Boomers hits 65 — and many retire to the Rogue Valley — they can become vulnerable to financial abuse by relatives, caretakers, housekeepers and a range of handymen and helpers.

As the wave of Baby Boomers hits 65 — and many retire to the Rogue Valley — they can become vulnerable to financial abuse by relatives, caretakers, housekeepers and a range of handymen and helpers.

In response, the Southern Oregon Financial Fraud and Security Team, a consortium of social service workers, bankers and police detectives are honing methods for early detection and intervention and, if needed, for prosecuting the abuse as a crime, rather than a civil matter to be pursued by the victim.

"The barriers that have been thrown up to impede prosecution and investigation are coming down," said elder abuse expert Paul Greenwood, a deputy district attorney in San Diego and the main speaker Friday at an Elder Abuse Seminar for professionals at Rogue Valley Medical Center.

"There are a lot of stereotypes out there, such as that elders would not be good witnesses because their memory may be shot," said Greenwood in an interview. "OK, their memory may be shot. Testifying will show that's why they took advantage of them."

Often, when elders or their relatives go to law-enforcement officials in their jurisdiction to complain of being ripped off by an unscrupulous contractor, Greenwood converts it to a criminal action.

"I treat it as a residential burglary, because the roofer or painter intended to rip them off," Greenwood said, adding that "judges are getting the picture."

Perpetrators of elder financial fraud often are adult children, grandchildren or siblings who feel a sense of "entitlement" because of help they've given the relative.

They also use the rationalization that the elder isn't using the money and will be gone soon and the family member will inherit it anyway, said elder law attorney Jason Broesder of Medford, a speaker at the seminar.

"It's wrong," said Broesder. "It's black and white. Until they're dead, it's their money."

Prosecution has become easier with recent changes in Oregon elder abuse laws — including offender liability for up to triple damages plus attorney fees, he said, and protection of bankers from privacy violations as they probe suspicious account activity.

The revised law, Broesder said, prohibits "wrongfully" taking money or property from anyone over 65, but doesn't define wrongfully, thus giving prosecutors much more latitude in bringing cases.

"The crime, where a family thinks it's OK to take a parent's money, is no longer a civil matter," said Sue Campbell, a Medford police detective. "It's not OK to take the money of a senior when there's any question of (lack of) competency."

Caregivers who have "undue influence" and who take money from an elder by deception can be prosecuted for criminal mistreatment, said Campbell, in an interview, noting that most violators, when confronted with the evidence and potential prosecution, agree to a plea bargain and repay the money.

The new statutes have helped bank officials become the first line of defense against elder financial abuse, said Teena Larette, vice president of Evergreen Federal Bank in Grants Pass.

"This community is small enough that we really know customers' patterns," Larette said. "When we see them normally take out a couple hundred dollars for the week, then we suddenly see them withdraw $8,000 to $10,000, that's abnormal. We have tort immunity. We're going to call Senior and Disabled Services and they often contact the police."

"This is huge," she said, "because the population is aging — and 85 percent of financial abusers are family members."

The Rogue Valley is a popular retirement destination and many retirees have been frugal all their lives, have substantial savings, don't have children to look after them and come here without a support system of people they can trust, said Campbell.

If trusted family members live far away, they may call the bank of their loved one and say they're concerned that the house cleaner might be borrowing money, said Larette.

"We will help in any way we can without breaching privacy laws," she said. "It's surprising how many we've stopped, and that have led to arrests and convictions."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.