Some 400 social workers, law enforcers, lawyers, nursing home workers and others who work with vulnerable adults gathered Wednesday at the University of Minnesota to discuss what could be the next big crime wave: Elder abuse.

The conference, hosted by the nonprofit Minnesota Elder Justice Center, was one of many nationwide marking World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, which began in 2006 to shine a light on financial crimes and other abuse targeting older people.

A statewide Elder Abuse reporting hot line launched last year consolidated 169 different county phone numbers into a single toll-free number — (844) 880-1574 — and mandated reporters have a dedicated website for filing reports. Together, they are bringing in about 1,000 tips a week, said Emily Johnson Piper, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services. She attended the conference along with Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman.

Debra Hilstrom, an Anoka County prosecutor and state representative from Brooklyn Center, said more and more tips are coming from financial institutions and nursing homes covering a wide variety of concerns, including possible financial exploitation and medication thefts. The victims themselves are frequently reluctant to report the crimes because they are embarrassed and don't want to be seen as vulnerable adults, Hilstrom said.

Erica Yarlagadda, an assistant Hennepin County prosecutor, said crimes against the elderly are "doubling year-over-year."

She's one of two attorneys Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman assigned to work full time on crimes against the elderly. She said the most common crimes involve financial exploitation by family members who seem to think they're entitled to their loved ones' wealth. She said abuse by professionals, including investment advisers and insurance agents, probably ranks second.

Thomas R. Hatch joined the Ramsey County attorney's office two years ago after working 20 years in civil litigation.

"All I do is financial fraud [prosecutions], which would include financial exploitation of vulnerable adults," Hatch said.

He described a recent case in which an Arizona man stole $154,000 from his mother, who lives in Minnesota, in less than a year. She was torn about whether she wanted her son to spend 180 days in jail, Hatch said. She eventually signed off on the plea bargain, yet continued to drive him to and from the airport when he flew into town for court hearings. Hatch said he questioned why she would do that.

" 'Well, he is my son,' " Hatch recalled her saying.

"These are family," he said. "What are we going to do about it?"

Thomas Haines, an assistant Carver County attorney, said his office is preparing for "a tsunami of financial exploitation" crimes that prey on older people. Haines said prosecutions can be avoided sometimes by summoning a suspected abuser in for a meeting with adult protection maltreatment investigators to spell out the penalties for wrongdoing.

Ashton Applewhite, an author and activist, set the tone for the conference in her keynote speech.

"We aspire to grow old, and yet we dread the prospect," she said. "We are all old people in training."

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493