Federal prosecutors are taking steps to crack down on elder exploitation in Montana.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Montana will prosecute crimes where $20,000 or more is taken from a senior victim, compared to the prior $100,000 threshold.

Kurt Alme, the state’s U.S. attorney, said that comes as the U.S. Department of Justice has made elder exploitation a focal point nationwide. Because of the high number of senior citizens living in Montana, Alme said, the state is more vulnerable.

“This is just going to become a bigger and bigger issue,” Alme said.

Alme made the announcement Wednesday morning in Bozeman at a fraud prevention training for law enforcement officers and county attorneys. State Auditor Matt Rosendale, who is running for the U.S. House, organized the training, which focused on recognizing and preventing financial exploitation among seniors.

Alme said nationally one in 44 crimes against seniors are reported. Alme said there have been great strides made in past state legislative sessions to prevent fraud among the older population and that this was a slow-burn issue.

“It’s burning now, and it’s going to burn brighter and brighter,” Alme said.

In 2017, the Legislature passed a bill that gave Rosendale’s office permission to temporarily freeze a bank account when suspicious activity is happening. In 2019, the Legislature expanded the law with a bill that protects a bank for sharing information with the auditor’s officer when it suspects fraud.

Rosendale’s office reported in May that it received more than 30 reports of suspected exploitation and stopped $5 million in problematic transactions. More than a quarter of the reports involved Bozeman seniors, the office said.

Rosendale said the likelihood of retrieving money from a fraud case is pretty thin and that the sooner his office begins investigating, the better. He said the goal of Wednesday’s training was to help law enforcement recognize early signs of when someone might be taking advantage of an older person.

“The more that we could make folks aware that these problems are out there, and any time we could catch them before they happen, the better off the whole community is going to be,” Rosendale said.

The training was part of Rosendale’s Senior Financial Exploitation Task Force. The task force was created in January to protect the state’s older population from financial crimes and abuse. The task force set up a Billings team and is working on setting up others across the state to quickly respond to cases of financial abuse of seniors and other vulnerable populations.

Alme and Rosendale said signs that an older person might be falling victim to exploitation could include isolation, inability to pay bills, and a change in their personality, demeanor or hygiene. People can report suspicious activity to local law enforcement, Adult Protective Services or online to the FBI at IC3.gov.

Freddy Monares can be reached at fmonares@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2630. Follow him on Twitter @TGIFreddy.

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