Seventeen percent of Americans aged at least 65 years have “been taken advantage of financially in terms of an inappropriate investment, unreasonably high fees for financial services or outright fraud,” according to a new survey (PDF).

Public Policy Polling conducted the research on behalf of the Investor Protection Trust, a nonprofit organization designed to educate and protect investors. Results are based on responses from 3,672 American adults, including 703 adult children with at least one parent aged 65 or more years and 2,257 adults aged at least 65 years.

The organization’s efforts to educate healthcare professionals, older adults and others since its 2010 survey on the same topic seem to be working, however, IPT President and CEO Don Blandin said in a March 22 call with members of the press. More adult children are reporting that their parents’ healthcare providers are relaying concerns about money-handling and mental comprehension, and older adults are scoring better on a test of basic investment knowledge, he said.

“While it is still alarming to see that nearly one out of five older Americans have been victims of financial swindles, it is encouraging that doctors and adult children are more tuned into this problem,” Blandin (pictured) said. “Doctors and the nurses who work with seniors are playing an important ‘first responder’ role in spotting older Americans who have been or are being victimized by investment fraud and other financial exploitation.”

Forty-three percent of older adults exhibit one or more of the warning signs of current financial victimization, according to the survey. By far, the most commonly reported warning sign was receiving telephone calls about money, lotteries and other schemes, with 35% of respondents saying they had received such calls.

IPT’s Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation prevention program educates healthcare and securities professionals, but anyone can look for the warning signs, said Robert Roush, EdD, MPH, (pictured) professor of geriatrics and director of the Texas Consortium Geriatrics Education Center at Baylor College of Medicine’s Huffington Center on Aging. The Huffington Center developed the EIFFE program.

“If you know your client or your patient or your customer well, you’re going to see some changes in how they present themselves,” he said. “Maybe they use language that’s different from what they’ve had in the past. You will know if they’ve lost a spouse, and we know that bereavement and the depression that is subsequent to that can make people more vulnerable to being financially exploited. If you see the customer, client or patient in question being brought to your office by someone you don’t know, that’s a red flag. If Ms. Jones comes in and she was always prim and proper and well-manicured and she’s a little on the disheveled side, that may be a sign of self-neglect, which is part of the overall picture.”

Those who suspect financial abuse in the life of an older adult they know should report it to Adult Protective Services, the local police and a trustworthy family member of the older adult, Roush said. If the abuse involves a security, such as a stock or a bond, then the state securities regulator also should be informed.

IPT maintains lists of resources available in each state, Blandin said, and those interested in a list can call IPT at (202) 775-2112. IPT also has a pocket guide (PDF) with checklists for clinicians and resources related to elder investment fraud and financial exploitation. Those who would like a laminated guide specific to their state can request a copy through the investor education coordinator in their state securities regulator’s office at one of the 30 participating states/jurisdictions or can email Blandin.

“We try to serve as a clearinghouse for organizations,” Blandin said. “We drop everything if we suspect that something terrible is about to happen to a senior.”