(MONEY Magazine) – WHEN SHIRLEY HINTON LEARNED OF the double murder of her aunt Hazel Gleese and Hazel's husband Leo early this year, she suspected their preacher. "He promised to check on them every single day," she says, "and he never even called to tell me they had died." The interdenominational minister, John Canning, 58, had been a constant and annoying presence six months earlier when Shirley drove from her home in Yuma, Ariz. to Sebring, Fla., where the older couple lived, to try to keep social workers from placing the Gleeses, both 90, in a group home against their will. But Canning had promised Hinton that he would watch over the couple, who were determined to continue living on their own. "Their house was a horror--full of newspapers, letters, magazines," says Shirley. "Leo had Parkinson's disease and Hazel was almost completely blind. She could barely take care of him."

Canning claimed to be so close to them that he called them Mom and Dad. Nevertheless, he didn't pitch in to help when Shirley, her husband Charles and a social worker labored in the suffocating Florida heat to fix up the Gleeses' house. Instead he spent hours in whispered discussions with Leo. "He's trying to get Leo to sell his house," Hazel told the Hintons.

In December, Shirley heard troubling news. Hazel had told neighbors she suspected Canning was taking money from Leo's checking account and that she planned to confront the minister about the missing funds. Only a few days later, Canning turned up at the Sebring police station to report that he had found the Gleeses murdered in their home the night before. The police rushed to the house and found Hazel and Leo beaten bloody and strangled. The authorities immediately suspected Canning, since he had delayed reporting the murder for 24 hours and had cuts and bruises on his arms and hands. The police eventually found what they describe as "tens of thousands of dollars" belonging to the Gleeses in Canning's bank account. On March 3, they arrested him on two first-degree murder charges. Canning has pleaded not guilty. The trial is set for January.

THE GLEESES' STORY MAY SEEM LIKE JUST another freakish misdeed of the sort you hear about on Inside Edition or Hard Copy. But the tragedy bears witness to a growing and dangerous phenomenon: the wholesale ripping off of the elderly, particularly older women. Every day, white-collar thieves relieve them of cash with slick telephone solicitations, mailings and door-to-door pitches for things like overpriced insurance, bogus charities, and sweepstakes that promise to relieve their victims of money worries. Some predators simply worm their way into the lives of their elderly victims and then take everything they have.

FRAUD IS BIG BUSINESS IN AMERICA, TAKING IN ABOUT $100 billion a year, according to the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs. Those revenues place it right up with Exxon, the third largest corporation in the Fortune 500. Nobody knows exactly how much money people over 65 lose each year, but law-enforcement officials believe that seniors are Fraud USA's best customers. Telemarketing scams take in about $40 billion a year, for example, and in 1993 an FBI sting of 95 shady telemarketing firms concluded that 34% of the prospective victims on the firms' phone lists were seniors. One-on-one financial exploitation of the elderly is also widespread. Although many experts believe such crimes are underreported, a 1994 study by the National Center on Elder Abuse in Washington, D.C. says there were more than 29,000 cases of financial exploitation last year.

On the surface, many of the scams don't seem too noxious. After all, a $10 purchase of face cream to enter a sweepstakes will not by itself put anybody in the poorhouse. But one unwise purchase is enough to identify a person as an easy mark, and con artists who sell names to one another will pitch the same victim over and over again. Says Neil Fishman, Connecticut assistant attorney general: "It's not unusual to see individual losses of $10,000, $50,000, $100,000 and even more." Adds Raymond J. Shaw, an assistant professor of psychology at West Virginia University: "Once they've got you hooked, telemarketers raise the stakes. And since you don't want to believe you've been a victim of fraud, you justify your past decision by believing that you'll win this time."

The elderly, of course, have always been targets of fraud; the traditional explanation for their vulnerability is their supposedly trusting nature and their impaired faculties. Older Americans don't think of themselves as gullible, of course. After all, over the years, they've bought houses and cars, held down jobs, maybe managed a portfolio of investments. And you may not be worried about your elderly parents, the folks who taught you to kick the tires and squeeze the cantaloupes before buying. Wisdom and experience, however, may not be enough to protect people from the thousands of businesses gunning for them. Indeed, consumer advocates, law-enforcement authorities, social workers and attorneys say four reasons put seniors at greater risk today than ever before:

Plumper assets. Booming housing markets in the '70s and early '80s, plus terrific stock market returns, have made the most recent crop of seniors richer than any other adult group. According to the Bureau of the Census, in 1991 the median net worth of households headed by a person age 65 or older was $88,192, compared with $58,250 for the 45- to 54-year-old group and $31,148 for the segment 35 to 44. Only three years earlier, the median net worth of older households was $85,226. Willie Sutton, the famous thief, said he robbed banks because "that's where the money is." Now predatory individuals and companies are applying that principle to the elderly. One convicted con man has referred to his victims as Woopies--well-off older people.

More leisure time. Longer life spans and earlier retirements without jobs or family responsibilities often translate to empty hours. Some seniors fill them by reading the mail and taking phone calls and visits from strangers offering "money saving" deals, "can't miss" investments and "big cash prizes."

Isolation. Financial comfort has allowed the elderly to live independently for decades past their retirement day, even to move to warm-weather paradises thousands of miles from their families. Unfortunately, that independence can work against them. All alone, sometimes in failing health, they respond warmly to crooks who may be the only humans who call or visit for months at a time.

Anxiety. "The scams succeed because they go to the heart of the elderly person's concerns," says Adina Kling, a former New York State assistant attorney general. Despite being richer than ever, many older people worry about running out of money or not having any cash to leave to their children. Another big concern: not being able to perform the daily chores of living and then being forced to move into a nursing home. To stay in their own houses, the elderly often fall prey to unscrupulous caretakers.

A MIX OF THESE FOUR FACTORS CAN TURN AN older person into a victim. Westport, Conn. lawyer Rita Steinberger says she was "mystified" five years ago by the sudden desire of her uncle William Boland (shown opposite), now 94, "to get money from sweepstakes." The retired landscaper had modest expenses, had never married and owned the eight-bedroom Dutch colonial he had inherited from his parents and lived in most of his life. What's more, he had $300,000 in cash from his recent sale of 32 acres of land. Still, Steinberger didn't interfere because, she says, her uncle "was of sound mind and financially independent."

Eventually, she got an alarming call from her uncle's banker. Boland had withdrawn $50,000 in a matter of weeks. By then, Steinberger had known about her uncle's sweepstakes habit for years. But she never realized how voracious it had become until she took inventory of his house shortly after receiving the call. He had entered every mail and telemarketing sweepstakes contest imaginable, buying all the goods the companies offered. "The house was overflowing with junk," says Steinberger. He had 10 water-purifying systems and mountains of cheap cameras, paperweights and phony jewelry. The stuff filled three 23-square-yard Dumpsters. "One room was packed with vitamins he ordered from the sweepstakes companies, and the whole house smelled of them," says Steinberger. Meanwhile, Boland had won only three prizes--"a cheap TV set, a VCR and a camcorder," his niece recalls. Her assessment of his losses: a staggering $250,000.

Although her uncle maintained that he made the purchases to win big money, Steinberger has another theory. "He was alone, and I think he liked talking to people," she says. "He kept participating in contests to maintain the contacts. If he stopped, they might end." Entering the sweepstakes also kept him busy.

Boland's need for activity and human contact kept him on the hook. But manipulative techniques used by sweepstakes companies make elderly people among the quickest to respond in the first place, according to psychology professor Shaw. Computer-generated letters that use the recipient's name--"You see, Alice, we can show you how to win..."--convince her that somebody really knows and cares about her. Clever sales pitches also set up what Shaw calls reciprocity. The mailing or telephone pitchman promises to do something nice for the customer, which, in her mind, obligates her to do something nice in return. By proclaiming "You won!" they make you feel like a piker if you refuse to order a measly $390 worth of jewelry in return.

The financial exploitation of an elderly person by a caretaker, relative or even a helpful neighbor or repairman requires no such artful technique. The most common victims of these rip-offs are seniors struggling just to stay in their own homes. The process may start rather benignly. An adult child or housekeeper who fills in amounts on checks to pay for a senior's groceries may begin to add on $10, $20 or $50 as compensation for "extra work." The caretaker eventually becomes familiar with the intimate details of the senior's financial life and starts taking larger sums. As the elderly person becomes more frail and helpless, his exploiter feels free to take more and more.

THE CASE OF FRANCES Reid (shown on page 144), now 85, seems to have followed that pattern. In 1989, deaf and weak, the Riverdale, Ga. widow hired Mildred Addison, 47, to shop for groceries and help with the housework at $5 an hour. Soon after she was hired, Reid's neice Carolyn Smith believes, Addison began using Reid's checkbook to write small amounts to herself. Then as Reid became more and more dependent, the housekeeper grew bolder. At one point, Smith claims, Addison impersonated Reid and cashed in certificates of deposit, pocketing large portions herself.

After Reid broke her hip and moved to a nursing home, Smith and her husband J.R. took over Reid's finances and discovered irregularities in Reid's bank accounts. A grand jury indicted Addison last February on seven counts of theft totaling $70,000, much of what Reid had. The remaining dollars went for Reid's initial months in the nursing home. Now Medicaid picks up the tab, which, of course, makes American taxpayers the ultimate victims.

A senior does not have to be completely incapacitated to fall prey to fraud, though. Even small erosions in a person's abilities--difficulty in reading, for example--play directly into the hands of con artists in legitimate businesses that want to hustle their customers into a lousy deal. Susan Aziz, coordinator of the Fiduciary Abuse Specialist Team, a Los Angeles group funded by the county and city government to work on cases of financial exploitation, points out that "if a person is visually impaired, even partially, someone who has gained his trust may be able to get him to sign a document that is not in his best interest."

Aiding and abetting such weaknesses is the elderly's insufficient grasp of common deceptive practices. For all their experience getting and spending, many seniors are much less vigilant than their children, who got their consumer education from the likes of Ralph Nader. In a 1993 American Association of Retired Persons survey of 957 consumers, only 38% of those over 64 knew, for instance, that 900 calls are typically charged by the minute, vs. 72% of those ages 18 to 64. What's more, younger people were more suspicious than the elderly of the marketing practices of businesses.

Sadly, seniors make especially easy marks because they are not likely to complain about their victimization. "They fear that their overall competence will be called into question," says Anita O'Riordan, director of Arizona's elder affairs program with the attorney general's office.

Retired optometrist Jack Smith (pictured on page 146) did fight back. In 1991, when he was shopping for a car, Smith, 82, and his wife Francine, 88, dropped in at a local car dealership near their Boca Raton, Fla. home. One salesman, four managers and four hours later, the Smiths agreed to buy a Taurus for $10,965. Shortly after, Smith noticed that one of the documents from the dealer indicated that he had leased, not bought, the car. He visited the dealership, where a manager assured him that the "lease" was a clerical error. But two years later, the dealer sent a letter notifying Smith that he now had an option to buy--if he came up with an additional $6,955. Smith went back to the dealer several times to complain but was told that the papers he signed were clearly a lease and that he must have been confused. Smith wrote to government officials and returned the car. After a congressman and the chief of Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services intervened on Smith's behalf, the dealer agreed to refund about $3,000.

FORTUNATELY, LAW ENforcement agencies in Florida, California, New Jersey and a few other states have created special units to deal with elder scams. One successful Florida project has even turned potential elder fraud victims into aggressive watchdogs. Senior Sleuths, a four-year-old group of 400 people over 60 recruited by the state attorney general's office, undertakes consumer investigations for law-enforcement authorities and sometimes the media. To see whether seniors are treated fairly, members have fanned out across Florida to check prices for items such as hearing aids, prescription drugs, car leases and tires. One example of their accomplishments: "They proved that many auto repair shops and tire dealers slapped on extra charges for unnecessary services when they had elderly customers, adding up to one-third to the cost of a tire," says Shelley Feldman, chief sleuth, 69.

But the main burden of safeguarding the elderly from fraud belongs to their families, particularly adult children. The task isn't easy, especially when thousands of miles separate generations. James Bubb, an aging specialist with Pennsylvania's Older Adults Protective Services unit, urges the children of elderly parents to keep in close touch with them to head off trouble. "Stay involved, even if only by telephone," he says. "That should break the real or perceived isolation." You should also discuss your parents' finances with them, if possible, to help keep their assets in order and to show your concern.

When you visit your parents, observe what they receive in the mail. Because marketers sell names on their "sucker lists," sweepstakes addicts often get dozens of offers a day. Shopping bags full of sweepstakes literature as well as junky products typically sold by sweepstakes companies--cubic zirconium jewelry, vitamins and face or hand creams--are other tip-offs. You might also volunteer to go over your parents' telephone or credit-card bills to see whether they have been running up charges to 900 numbers promising big prizes or for sweepstakes-company merchandise.

IF YOUR PARENTS ARE truly failing and seem to be losing their grip on their finances, you may have to take charge. A. Paul Blunt, a Phoenix attorney who specializes in financial exploitation cases, suggests keeping your parents' major investments and savings in accounts that require signatures of one or two others (perhaps two children) before sizable transfers and withdrawals can be made. The parent or caregiver can retain control of a checking account for routine expenses. Also, try to have the monthly bank statements sent to you so you can review transactions.

You could also create a trust for your parents with the help of a lawyer and manage it, perhaps with professional help. Typical setup cost: $1,000 to $3,000. If your mother or father has become incapacitated and can't handle money, you might have to ask a court to appoint you conservator in charge of all her or his assets.

Remember, though: Everyone does stupid things now and then. So don't start berating your folks just because your dad entered a single sweepstakes or your mom gave a brooch to her hairdresser. "You have to allow your parents to be no less foolish than you are yourself," says Anita O'Riordan, director of Arizona's elder affairs program. The key is whether they can learn from their mistakes. If they can't, Fraud USA will surely be back for more.