Banks and credit unions in Maine have trained more than 300 tellers to identify and report suspected financial abuse of seniors as part of a state-sponsored program that is becoming a model for the nation.

So far, eight training sessions have been held in Portland and Bangor as part of the Senior$afe program.

The program targets front-line employees of financial institutions and their managers because they are often in the best position to notice warning signs of elder financial abuse, the organizers said.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that one in 10 seniors age 60 and older is a victim of abuse, neglect or exploitation each year. In Maine that number is about 32,242 people annually. In national prevalence studies, financial exploitation was either the most frequently or second-most frequently self-reported form of elder abuse, with 3.5 percent to 5.2 percent of older adults reporting financial exploitation by a family member, according to the Justice Department. A MetLife study in 2011 estimated seniors lose a minimum of $2.9 billion annually due to elder financial abuse and exploitation.

The program is a joint initiative launched in early 2014 by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Aging and Disability Services; the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, which includes the Maine Office of Securities; the Maine Bankers Association; the Maine Credit Union League, the state’s Legal Services for the Elderly; and all five Area Agencies on Aging.

Since the program began, banks and credit unions have reported nearly 30 suspected cases of abuse to a special hotline set up for the Senior$afe program that have been investigated by the state Office of Securities and other agencies. Maine Securities Administrator Judith Shaw, who co-chairs the program, testified before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging this year to tout the program’s effectiveness. In November, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, co-sponsored a bill that would expand the Senior$afe program nationwide.

PeoplesChoice Credit Union in southern Maine is one of the dozens of financial institutions in the state that have signed on to the program, said Brenda Piecuch, the company’s vice president of compliance.

“Financial elder abuse is probably one of the greatest concerns we have in the financial industry right now,” she said. “They (seniors) are prime targets for abuse, and we’re seeing that right now.”

While Piecuch and others involved in the program declined to give names and descriptions of suspected victims and perpetrators for privacy reasons, they described several observed cases of extortion, coercion and financial scams that have targeted seniors.

In one instance, a prominent municipal employee allegedly had threatened to burn an older woman’s house down unless she changed her will to make him the beneficiary of her estate, Piecuch said. The incident has been referred to the Maine Attorney General’s Office, she said.

In another, a senior was sending money to a man claiming to be an investment adviser living in Maryland. But an Office of Securities investor educator traced the address to a gas station and used a Google Earth picture to convince the senior that the adviser wasn’t legitimate.

The Senior$afe program has identified a number of “red flags” that financial professionals should watch out for. They include:

 A person accompanying a senior shows excessive interest in the senior’s finances or accounts, does not allow the senior to speak for himself or herself, or is reluctant to leave the senior’s side during conversations.

A senior shows an unusual degree of fear, anxiety, submissiveness or deference toward a person accompanying him or her.

The sudden appearance of previously uninvolved relatives claiming their rights to a senior’s affairs and possessions.

Abrupt changes to financial documents, such as power of attorney, account beneficiaries, wills and trusts, property title and deeds.

Frequent large withdrawals, including daily maximum currency withdrawals from an ATM machine.

A senior displays unexplained or unusual excitement over a financial windfall or prize check but may be reluctant to discuss the details.

Noticeable neglect or decline in a senior’s appearance, grooming or hygiene.

A new caretaker, relative or friend suddenly begins conducting financial transactions on behalf of a senior.

In many cases, bank tellers are in a better position than anyone else to spot behavior that could indicate elder financial abuse, said Chris Pinkham, president and CEO of the Maine Bankers Association. The purpose of Senior$afe is to provide those employees with tools and strategies to follow up on those warning signs and alert the proper authorities if necessary.

“There’s all kinds of problems and they vary,” Pinkham said. “Sometimes you need law enforcement. Sometimes you need legal assistance.”

The program makes it easier for bank and credit union employees by giving them a single number to call. The administrators of Senior$afe then decide which agency to alert, whether it’s Adult Protective Services, Legal Services for the Elderly or the local police.

The program is working, co-chairwoman Shaw said, although she was unable to provide data on criminal investigations or prosecutions. As of now, the focus remains on getting everyone in the state’s financial sector to participate and get trained.

Some of the more remote rural areas have yet to be offered a reasonably accessible training session, a problem Shaw said she hopes to rectify.

“I would really like to get a training done in The County,” she said.

In the meantime, Shaw, Pinkham, Piecuch and others continue to raise awareness about elder financial abuse by speaking out about its prevalence and reminding employees of financial institutions not to look the other way.

In one recent incident, a report of suspected elder financial abuse led to an investigation by Adult Protective Services that found a senior who was being neglected at home and was at risk of dying as a result, Shaw said.

“Not only are they helping to protect people’s finances,” she said. “They’re saving lives.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard contributed to this report.