KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The numbers are grim: there are more than 5 million elder abuse victims in the United States. That is more than the combined total of child abuse and domestic violence victims.

The state of Tennessee is raising awareness of the growing problem of elder abuse by cracking down on those who commit these crimes. Since January 1, 2019, those convicted of elder abuse face stiffer punishments.

The Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Protection Act of 2019 changed the classification of the most extreme forms of abuse. There are stiff fines and prison time for those convicted of the more serious crimes.

Hazel knew the person who Adult Protective Services say abused her. She was disabled from a series of strokes she entered rehab, but her relatives didn’t pay rent on her apartment as they’d promised and she lost the place. At that point, family members moved her into a shed at their place.

“It didn’t have electricity, it didn’t have no water, it didn’t have bathrooms,” Hazel said. “I would have died, they would never come and check on me.”

Investigators and those who look out for the elderly say most perpetrators are people the victim knows, trusts and/or loves.

“We’re seeing more and more elder abuse every day, all kinds imaginable. Verbal, physical, financial, and all kinds of scams related to business practices. It is unbelievable what is happening to our older population. They sometimes don’t do enough research. They trust too much. They believe what they are told that’s the way they were raised,” said Aaron Bradley, director of East TN Area Agency on Aging and Disability.

Vivian, a recent widow, started corresponding with a guy who said his name was Mark Crocker. He caught Vivian’s affection and began a scheme to steal her money which she sent.

“$10,000, once. $10,000 a second time. $10,000 a third time. Then I did a $20,000 loan from the bank. And then at one point, he needed more. So, I gave him $30,000. That was [from] my IRA. Ah, I maxed out a VISA card, a Discover Card and I gave him cash from my life insurance policy which was $3,000,” said Vivian.

Those who work in the field of protecting seniors know the impacts of elder abuse.

“The general assembly, the governor, lots of folks in the last five years have really made it more advantageous in the way of protection for older adults. DA’s, District Attorneys, have better laws on the books, they can go after criminals better than they could before,” said Bradley.

Billy Cooper received a call last October. He thought he had won the jackpot, but instead, it was a scam. Every year, thousands of seniors respond to unknown callers, the state is now issuing a video warning.

“It happens way too often. Scammers target seniors by getting them on the phone and tricking them into sharing personal information. I’m David Rausch, TBI Director. Our best advice: don’t know the number don’t answer. It’s not rude. These days, it’s just common sense. If it is important, they’ll leave a message and you will have peace of mind,” said Rausch in the video.

The TBI says to find a trusted friend and put their number in your phone if you have caller ID people like your doctor, family members, neighbors, or religious leader. If you see their name and number you know it’s okay to answer.

“But if it is not in your phone and it is an unknown number, just don’t answer it,” said Bradley.

For the longest time in Tennessee, little information was readily available about elder abuse, which has been defined as abandonment, physical abuse, neglect, financial, emotional, psychological, as well as sexual abuse. A study by the National Institutes of Health found only one in 14 cases is ever reported. The National Council on Aging found one in 10 Americans over 60 have experienced some form of elder abuse.

This is why experts call elder abuse a silent epidemic. It doesn’t have to be that way. Report elder abuse in Tennessee by calling toll-free, 1-888-277-8366. To learn more about elder abuse and how to prevent it, click here.