COLUMBIA - Two of South Carolina's leading advocates for senior citizens introduced legislation Wednesday designed to strengthen protections for the state's older or vulnerable residents and increase penalties for abusers and scammers.

"We want to send the message that this group is not a target for abuse or exploitation," said Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, who is in charge of the state's office on aging.

McConnell was joined at a Statehouse news conference by the primary sponsor of the bill, Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Aging.

They pointed out that, with the state's elderly population expected to double to nearly 2 million people in about 15 years, a 1993 law's protections need to be updated and its loopholes closed. They said they drew on similar legislation from Florida and Alabama to craft their proposal.

The men said the bill broadens who is covered under the legislation to include anyone older than 60, which brings it in line with federal law.

"I look forward to this passing this year," Alexander said. "It puts some teeth into this issue."

McConnell said his office has heard complaints regarding phone and Internet scams, adult children stealing their own parents' money, and employees in care facilities defrauding patients, oftentimes leaving them without their earnings, retirement funds or government checks.

The state also has received reports of people who troll emergency rooms seeking older people being discharged who don't have a stable home environment to go to.

The lieutenant governor said the "unscrupulous predators" promise them a place to live and get care in return for their income or government checks, but in reality they are left neglected and in substandard conditions.

Their proposal requires hospitals to find out where patients are being taken, and by whom, so law enforcement can follow up to ensure they are being properly cared for.

McConnell said he has found support for the legislation among local police organizations, because many already are involved in neighborhood programs to check on senior citizens.

In some cases, seniors have had their savings taken and then disappeared, only to surface years later without any support or upkeep. McConnell said they are then forced onto public support. The new law specifically addresses the problem with protections against what is considered "human trafficking," he said.

The proposed legislation also would stiffen punishments for a variety of crimes against the elderly or vulnerable.

For example, it proposes that those whose reckless abuse or neglect results in death face up to 10 years in prison. Those found guilty of reckless abuse or neglect resulting in great bodily injury would face five years in prison.

People who gain more than $2,500 by exploiting a vulnerable adult or senior would be fined not more than $5,000 and imprisoned for up to 25 years. If someone subjects a vulnerable adult or senior to human trafficking, he could be imprisoned for up to 25 years.

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