CONCORD — New Hampshire law criminalizing the financial exploitation of elderly and impaired adults will be enhanced Jan. 1 with additional language that casts a wider net.

As currently written, the 2015 law (HB 1807-FN) prohibits taking property from elderly, disabled or impaired adults without legal authority and "knowingly or recklessly" through the use of "undue influence, harassment, duress, force, compulsion, [or] coercion."

On Jan. 1, added to the law will be language stating, "or under any circumstances where the person knew that the elderly, disabled, or impaired adult lacked capacity to consent, or consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the elderly, disabled, or impaired adult lacked capacity to consent."

Assistant Attorney General Brandon Garod, who heads the Department of Justice Elder Abuse and Exploitation Unit, said the new language will help prosecutors get more convictions. As an example of what the expanded law will encompass, Garod cited a fictitious case of a son who regularly takes a parent to a doctor who diagnosed the parent with dementia, while the son takes property from the parent.

Garod said victims of these crimes, by definition, cannot make meaningful decisions, so when they're interviewed, they sometimes say they consented. To get a conviction, he said, prosecutors have to prove someone took the victim's property, the victim lacked capacity to consent and the perpetrator knew, or consciously disregarded the victim's lack of capacity.

Hired to investigate and prosecute elder-exploitation cases across the state, Garod said his office receives "hundreds of reports" of elder exploitation every week. He said many reports come from the Bureau of Elderly and Adult Services (BEAS) where everyone is a mandated reporter, meaning they have to report all allegations that come to them.

Garod said his office and the state's county attorney offices "are bringing more cases than ever before." 

"If we feel we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt, we will take the case," he said. "Reports are coming in at an astounding rate."

After investigating, Garod said, a small percentage of initial reports are found to have merit. If the value of property taken from an impaired adult is between $1,000 and $1,500, the case will be prosecuted as a Class B felony, he said. Allegations involving more than $1,500 will be prosecuted as Class A felonies.

Garod said the state's elder-exploitation caseload is largely comprised of hands-on exploitation. Cases involving people sending money in response to online or phone scams usually involve perpetrators in other countries, making them nearly impossible to prosecute, he said.

"It's almost always a person who is not here in New Hampshire, or the United States," he said of those scams. 

He said many victims of these crimes are well educated, but sometimes are lonely and "ecstatic" to be talking to someone on the phone. He said others want to believe they won a lottery and send cash, as instructed, to collect a fictitious prize.

"Education and outreach are the best thing we can do," he said.

Portsmouth Police Community Outreach Coordinator Rochelle Navelski has been hosting events for area seniors, including a recent one titled, "How to Outsmart the Scam Artists." She has a senior outreach brochure with tips and phone numbers and is the initial contact person for reports about senior exploitation in Portsmouth, available by phone at (603) 610-7503.

"Love and friendship should not cost anything," Navelski tells seniors. "Never feel embarrassed if you are the victim of a crime. You are not weak or stupid. Keep in mind that criminals do not discriminate."

Garod said New Hampshire has one of the oldest populations in the country and one of the most rapidly aging. Because of that, he said, it would not surprise him if New Hampshire also has a disproportionately higher number of elderly victims.

One of the sponsors of the bill to expand the elder exploitation law was state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth.

"This bill will make it harder for people who prey on the elderly to avoid responsibility by claiming that they weren't aware of a person's condition or their limitations," she said. "As people live longer, and often in circumstances where they lack adequate protective care, we need to make sure that protections like this are available and enforced."

Garod urged anyone with information about the financial exploitation of an elderly or disabled person to do one of two things. He said people can report suspicious behavior by calling the BEAS at (603) 271-7014. Tips can also be made through the Department of Justice Consumer Complaint hotline at (888) 468-4454.