Financial elder abuse 'epidemic' in Florida

- Con-artists steal more than $30 billion from elderly victims in the U.S. each year. Their prime hunting ground is the place with the largest elder population in the U.S. - Florida.

It's called financial elder abuse and we spoke to a family who fought to get back their stolen life savings.

Phillip Deeb showed us a crumpled newspaper clipping of a man who promised to invest his money, but stole his life's savings instead.

 “He was gonna make all this money.” Deeb told FOX 13 News “And I should have known better, but I didn’t, so it’s gone.”

Prosecutors say elder exploitation is reaching epidemic proportions.

“It’s the easiest crime to do and most lucrative,” explained Lisa Chittaro, assistant state attorney in Manatee County. “All you've done is gain somebody's trust. You don't use a gun or a knife, you just ask, and it' is the ultimate betrayal.”

For Deeb, a retired butcher, that betrayal began when he picked Dennis Cline to be his financial advisor.

“He was a nice guy. He went to church, he taught church school for little kids, and was very good to older people, so we thought,” Phillip’s wife, Maryjane Deep said, trailing off.

What they thought all came unraveled when Phillip Deeb got a letter from the bank saying his accounts had been drained and closed. Then the IRS told them they owed thousands.

It's a page straight out of a con artist’s playbook, according to the assistant state attorney who handled the case.

“These are people who are well-respected in the community, with little or no criminal history,” Chittaro said. [They’re] highly intelligent, pathological liars and they know how to distort reality to gain that trust.”

Cline was convicted for fraud, but that's not where this story ends. Cline took $96,000 from the Deebs. He is supposed to pay that money back, but Deeb says he is not holding his breath.

The Deebs told us they aren't getting payments regularly, so we contacted the Florida Department of Corrections, which confirmed Cline has failed to make recent payments while currently out on probation.

WATCH: How to spot the signs of elder financial abuse

We went to Cline’s home to ask him why.

FOX 13 News Consumer Reporter Sorboni Banerjee: Have you been able to keep up with the payments?

Dennis Cline: Yes, yes I have.

Banerjee: You have? There was no gap in payments?

Cline: Yeah, there was back in November and December.

Cline told us he was unemployed at the time, but wanted to tell the Deebs he was sorry.

Cline: Oh, I’m very sorry, you know, about what happened. I’m paying the restitution.

Banerjee: So you believe that you'll be able to get them the money back.

Cline: Oh, yes I'm paying them every month. I only missed two months.

Even if he made every payment, at the $200 a month he's been court ordered to pay the Deebs, it would take cline 472 months – that’s 39 years - to return the more than $96,000 he owes them.

Banerjee: What happened with the money?

Cline: What happened with the money? Oh, I don't have time to talk about it, but I thank you. I appreciate it.

That’s when Cline closed his front door.

Meanwhile, Phillip Deeb had to move in with his daughter. He lost his house, his savings and his faith in what’s fair.

“I prayed. I'll be honest with you, I prayed hard about a lot of stuff. [I] spent a lot of sleepless nights thinking about it. [It] makes me mad, and my answer about it is, he's gonna get his in the end,” Deeb said.

With the baby boomers starting to age, the elder population in Florida is expected to double by 2030 - making more vital to spot warning signs.

Here in Florida, or for anyone with relatives living in Florida, it’s important to be aware of what to look out for.

-Be aware the abuser might not be who you think.

Pay attention to any new people suddenly in an elderly person's life. But keep this in mind: stats from the national adult protective services foundation show the majority of abusers - 90 percent - are a trusted person, like caretakers, bank employees, pastors, attorneys, and family members.

-Pay attention to finances.

There are some red flags to be aware of, like unexplained withdrawals or transfers between accounts, bank statements not arriving, changes in attorneys or bank, missing property or belongings, new authorized signers on accounts or suspicious signatures on checks or other documents. If you find out power of attorney is given to someone, experts say that’s a sign.

Elder abuse is vastly under-reported because the victims are so embarrassed, so some might not even realize what's going on.

-Pay attention to any changes in a senior's behavior.

Are they depressed? Has their life style changed?

-Take preventative steps

Seniors’ phone numbers need to be on the do-not-call list. This provides an extra layer of protection from solicitors.

Check credit reports every couple of months.

Have your elderly loved ones get their estate plans in order when they are of sound mind and health.

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