Mardell Sanders' granddaughter Case Kennedy and her oldest daughter Elaine Kennedy, seated at Elaine's kitchen table. Both family members poured over bank statements and receipts and worked the phones for months to untangle where Sanders' money went.

John Daley/CPR News

As Colorado’s senior population grows, so do the numbers of financial exploitation crimes against them. Eighty-four year-old Mardell Sanders and her family know the problem all too well.

A few years back, the Montrose resident made a considerable amount of money in a real estate deal. Soon, Sanders’ daughter Janice said, her mother started getting cold calls at home offering can’t miss investment opportunities. The men on the other end of the line had personal information and used it to gain her mom’s trust.

“They would call her, chat her up,” said Janice Sanders. “They knew information and they tried to befriend her.”

The men “pressured” Sanders, according to her granddaughter Case Kennedy. “They’d tell her ‘if you don’t go tomorrow to empty your account, you’re not going to get this fabulous deal.’”

The hucksters convinced Mardell Sanders to send tens of thousands of dollars to invest in firms allegedly doing business in oil and gas, and plastic surgery. Sanders, who’d worked with her late husband in real estate for years, said it sounded like a good deal.

“I was making money and I wanted to put it somewhere, you know, where I’d be making more money actually,” said the mother of five, who has 13 grandchildren. “So it’s as much my fault as theirs.”

Within a couple of years, her family said Sanders had sunk more than $100,000 into investments that government regulators later determined to be scams. When asked what made her think that the men were trustworthy, Sanders said “I don't know, because they said they were, I guess.”

The state’s Division of Securities, part of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, has a recently launched program called Senior$afe to prevent financial exploitation. Colorado is one of a number of states to adopt the program, which was originally piloted in Maine.

“Research has shown that one in five older adults in the United States is victimized by some form of financial fraud or exploitation,” said Joe Neguse, executive director of the Department of Regulatory Agencies.

What’s new, is one of the program’s target audiences: people in the financial industry, tellers, brokers, investment advisors and institutions. A 2010 study found about 20 percent of Americans 65 or older, more than 7 million people, had been taken advantage of financially by “inappropriate investment, unreasonably high fees for financial services, or outright fraud.”

Jill Sarmo, with the state's Division of Securities, delivers a training session on elder financial exploitation to employees of the Community Choice Credit Union in Commerce City.

John Daley/CPR News

For Jill Sarmo, an investor education and public affairs coordinator with the Division of Securities, the big push is on preventing the problem before it happens. She said those over 65 own well over half of all the assets in in the country and “that just creates a huge target.”

In a training presentation delivered to employees of Community Choice Credit Union in Commerce City, Sarmo reviewed how to recognize and report red flags like sudden significant withdrawals, or attempts to wire large sums of money.

“You’re in a great position to recognize financial exploitation or abuse,” Sarmo told the half a dozen credit union employees.

Heather LaCrue, a member service representative at Community Choice, thinks seniors are targeted more often than other age groups.

“They’re just so trusting and if somebody needs help they’re there, OK?” LaCrue said. “So trusting are many seniors, they will say ‘I have the money, I’ll help you.’”

LaCrue recently uncovered a $10,000 financial exploitation scam involving a man selling a car on Craigslist. The plot unraveled when she spotted what turned out to be a fraudulent check.

“It was, truthfully for me, heartwarming because I was like ‘Oh, my gosh, I hope if that were ever to happen to me somebody would do that for me,’” LaCrue said.

Rainy Thoen, the CEO of Community Choice Credit Union, said their interest in the Senior$afe program comes from the fact that “fraud is reaching all levels (of the community), not just the elderly.” A recent national study, by Allianz Life Insurance, found 40 percent of caregivers said their elder experienced financial abuse more than once -- a sharp rise from just two years earlier.

In the case of Mardell Sanders, no one knew she was being exploited until a check she wrote for a granddaughter’s graduation present bounced. Then her family swept into action, pouring over bank statements and receipts and working the phones.

Sanders’ tenacious granddaughter Case Kennedy, was enlisted to birddog the case. She called the men behind the companies in which Sanders had been persuaded to invest. She called the FBI. She called agencies in Colorado and California, where the firms apparently had offices.

“It was really hard,” Kennedy said. ”My grandma is one of the most generous people, which is why I got involved. It was maddening. It was hard to sleep a lot of nights.”

Mardell’s daughter Janice has a tip to help protect families with potentially vulnerable older members. “Change their parent’s phone numbers and have them unlisted,” she said. She notes her mother’s phone “used to ring non-stop for money.”

Eventually, the state’s Division of Securities filed a legal claim to get the men behind the suspicious scheme to do something rare: pay Mardell Sanders her money back.

It likely would never have happened without the family’s painstaking, methodical detective work. “We would have lost it all, she would have lost it all,” said Sanders’ oldest daughter Elaine Kennedy. She believes with the state’s elderly population surging, more and more families could go through the same thing. “They’re so vulnerable,” Kennedy said.

For her part, Mardell Sanders thinks educating financial institutions about elder financial abuse is “absolutely, absolutely” a good idea.

The whole affair cost the family hundreds of hours and years of stress. All to undo something that might have been nipped in the bud right at the bank.

The Department of Regulatory Agencies’ Senior Hotline provides resources to senior consumers with questions about DORA-regulated industries or financial exploitation and fraud concerns. The hotline can be reached at (720) 593-6720.