An ambitious new resource will be added to the campaign against elder abuse in Minnesota, taking square aim at a growing 21st Century crime: financial exploitation of vulnerable adults.

The Minnesota Elder Justice Center, slated to open at the William Mitchell College of Law in January, combines the Minnesota S.A.F.E. Elders Initiative developed by the Anoka County attorney's office with the Center for Elder Justice and Policy at William Mitchell. The new center — announced Thursday, on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day — will be staffed, have a toll-free hot line and offer resources through an Internet site, said Iris Freeman, associate director for the Center for Elder Justice and Policy.

"We need to remove the walls of family shame," said Scott Campbell, a former Duluth police officer who took his brother to court after learning he'd stolen $107,000 from their mother.

Campbell, who was honored for his advocacy work during Thursday's program at William Mitchell in St. Paul, warned that seniors are being bilked of billions of dollars in a variety of ways: by family members, fraudulent business deals and Internet scams.

"Prior to the Campbell case, the law was not as clear," said Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo, considered a pioneer in advocacy for seniors among Minnesota county attorneys. "We need to get moving."

Palumbo told an audience of health and government officials at William Mitchell that the key to eliminating elder exploitation comes down to breaking barriers and asking seniors three questions:

Are you afraid? Is anyone hurting you? Is anyone taking your money without permission?

The National Center on Elder Abuse estimates that as many as 2 million older adults are victims each year of financial exploitation, at a collective loss of $3 billion per year. In Minnesota, allegations of the financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult reported to Adult Protective Services rose from 3,900 in 2011 to 5,546 last year.

"The problems are unrecognized and largely underreported," said Will Phillips, of AARP Minnesota. "They're taking advantage of people in their weakest and most vulnerable states."

Two-thirds of elder-abuse victims say they feel isolated, Phillips said. One in five say they recently lost jobs and nearly half say they suffered a loss in finances before falling prey to scams.

That may explain why the percentage of online scam ­victims has doubled — from 20 percent of elder abuse victims in 2007 to 40 percent in 2011, according to Phillips. One in five seniors clicked on pop-up ads and/or opened e-mails from senders with free offers.

Area cases

Local seniors have fallen prey to various schemes.

A year and a half after her husband died, an elderly woman living in Ramsey County met a Kent Norman Meyer through an online dating site. He talked her into giving him $130,000 to invest on her behalf. She later learned that Meyer had several convictions for swindles. He pleaded guilty to theft by swindle in this case and will be sentenced next month.

Two months ago, longtime Maple Grove City Council Member LeAnn Bobleter Sargent was sentenced to two months in the Hennepin County workhouse for exploiting her dying father. In Anoka County, a 74-year-old Rush City woman was charged with financially exploiting her mother, accused of secretly spending nearly $90,000 of her mother's assets.

"We must address prevention in a systematic way," said Freeman.

That involves working with local law enforcement, government agencies, financial institutions and the private sector, Freeman said.

Ron Long, a vice president and compliance director with Wells Fargo Advisors, said financial institutions need to do a better job of getting client information, but not in a confrontational way.

He told a story of an Australian woman who died in her home and her death was not discovered for eight years — when she missed her brother's funeral. When relatives learned that the woman had a house worth $875,000, they came out of the woodwork trying to claim her estate. But Long wonders why bank officials hadn't noticed that the $75,000 in her checking account never moved in eight years.

Minnesota law requires the reporting of reasonable suspicion of exploitation of a vulnerable adult, said Sue Voigt, who practices health care law.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419