People become more trusting with age, a recent study from Northwestern University found. That can be good — and bad. It’s bad if that trust allows an older person to be ripped off by a stranger or even someone they know. And it happens far more often than you might think.

Older Americans are swindled out of more than $36 billion a year, according to one recent estimate. As staggering as that number may be, it’s likely low, says Naomi Karp, a senior policy analyst in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Office for Older Americans. She points to an eye-opening 2011 study in New York, which found that for every 44 incidents of financial elder abuse, only one appeared to have been reported.

Whatever its national cost, financial elder abuse can be devastating on an individual basis. Victims may be robbed of their life savings, cheated out of their homes, even evicted from assisted living facilities because they can no longer pay the bills. They may feel shame and embarrassment, which is a major reason these crimes so often go unreported. And unlike younger scam victims who have time to rebuild their financial lives, the elderly rarely can.

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What kind of terrible person would do this? The perpetrators aren’t always who you’d assume. Cybercriminals in far-off lands and con artists working the phones at shady brokerage firms are part of the problem, for sure. But the largest single category of offender, Karp says, are people the elderly person knows and trusts: their relatives, friends, neighbors, caregivers, lawyers, financial advisers and even clergy members.

Related: Does Your Financial Advisor Have Your Best Interest In Mind?

Older people who are cognitively impaired due to a disease such as Alzheimer’s may be at the greatest risk, but these kinds of scams can and do happen to anyone.piggy bank with holes

 (Photo: Lightspring/Shutterstock)

The warning signs

If you have an older relative you fear could be a victim of financial abuse, watch out for these signs, advise the CFPB, the National Center on Elder Abuse, and other experts:

  • The disappearance of money or valuables.
  • Unpaid bills that the person could normally afford to pay.
  • Changes in the person’s banking habits, such as frequent ATM withdrawals or an unusual number of checks made out to cash.
  • Transferring assets to another person.
  • Someone else in the older person’s life, such as a new “friend,” who seems to have assumed an inappropriate level of control.

What to do

If you think your loved one is being physically intimidated and is in imminent danger, call 911. Otherwise, your first call should usually be to the state or local Adult ProtectiveServices agency, which can investigate. You can find the phone number through the national Eldercare Locator orby calling 800-677-1116. You may also need to file a police report.Other agencies can sometimes be of help as well, Karp notes. If you believe the person’s Social Security benefits may have been stolen, contact the local Social Security office. For veteran’s benefits, call the Department of Veterans Affairs. If mail fraud played a role, the Postal Inspection Service may be able to investigate.

If you have serious suspicions, it’s best to act as soon as possible, before the older person has been completely cleaned out. Financial abusers have a habit of coming back for more and more.

“Usually once the money is out the door it’s gone forever,” Karp says. “That’s why we like to see older people and those who care about them try to prevent it from happening in the first place.”

The CFPB has other helpful advice on protecting older adults and reporting suspected financial exploitation on its website.

Related: Caregivers: Protect Your Own Health, Too

Greg Daugherty is a longtime personal-finance writer and a former senior editor of Money magazine.