Downers Grove, Ill., retiree Robert Govenat was on the computer every day, watching prices of his stocks go down.
It was November 2007, and a bear market was threatening.
"He was about to have a nervous breakdown or a heart attack," recalls his wife, Jan, a retired third-grade schoolteacher.
Over lunch at a hot dog place in Darien, Ill., a longtime friend and financial planner Algird Norkus told Govenat that he had an alternative investment for select people: It would keep the couple's principal safe and pay 13.5 percent annual interest.
Govenat went along. Eventually, the couple would lose nearly all of their life savings - $225,000. Govenat also steered his mother into what ultimately turned out to be a Ponzi scheme, and she lost more than $200,000, most of her assets.
Norkus pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud. In March, he began serving 63 months in prison. He also was ordered to pay $4.6 million in restitution to nearly 70 victims, many elderly, including Robert and Jan Govenat and Robert's mother. His plea agreement said he commingled investors' money, in part to make payments to other investors and in part to benefit himself.
"Don't trust anyone," Jan Govenat, 71, said recently when asked what she learned from the experience. "I can't tell you how many times I've said that to friends since this happened." She also regretted not sharing their change in investment strategy with their two adult children.
Robert Govenat, 72, gets choked up discussing what happened with the savings of his mother, now 99 and living in a retirement community. "I'm not proud of what I've done to my mom," he said with a quivering voice.
"You were trying to help," his wife replied.
Govenat said he lets few people get close to him, but Norkus was one of them.
"I don't trust anyone now, except my wife," he said.
The couple's two children never bring up the ordeal.
"It's the silent death," Robert said.
The couple, who once felt secure about their retirement years, now worry constantly about finances.
"We don't sleep well," Jan said.
Robert and Jan Govenat are hardly the only seniors burned by financial exploitation.
"Aging baby boomers have accumulated substantial assets, either through inheritance, home equity or a lifetime of saving for retirement," Luis Aguilar, a commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission, said earlier this year. "The bad news is that this disparity between seniors and everyone else, including their own children, increases the vulnerability of seniors."
The newly formed federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in June said it was starting a public inquiry to learn more about the ways in which older Americans are financially exploited.
Adds Chicago investors' lawyer Andrew Stoltmann, who is representing the Govenat family: "Willie Sutton once said he robbed banks because that's where the money is, and that's why unscrupulous financial advisers are drawn to seniors like a moth to a flame." Of the 1,000 financial fraud cases that Stoltmann has filed in the past 12 years, half involve investors age 65 and older.
Take Marshall Davies, 93, who helped oversee the traffic light system for the city of Chicago before he retired. He was hospitalized in January 2008 because of hip pain that hindered his walking. Doctors said he would need in-home assistance upon discharge.
Carmelita Pasamba, a certified nursing assistant who cared for Davies while he was in the hospital, took the job.
Over the next 3˝ years, she and her family cared for Davies but also "stole" $536,682 from him, according to a recently filed lawsuit filed by Cook County (Ill.) Public Guardian Robert Harris.
The lawyer representing Pasamba in the case declined to comment.
The money saved by the never-married, "very frugal" Davies was used by his caregivers to buy a Mercedes, finance a son's dance studio and a daughter's nursing tuition, and make trips to retailers such as Best Buy, Harlem Furniture and Empire Carpet, said the suit, filed against six individuals and St. Joseph Hospital.
In 2008, Davies, an Illinois Institute of Technology graduate, was also diagnosed with dementia, but he still has lucid days. He's living in an assisted-living facility on Chicago's North Side.
Davies had lived close to St. Joseph Hospital, and would eat at its cafeteria because meals were inexpensive.
Today, he spends most of his time watching TV.
Davies said he didn't give Pasamba permission to use his money in that fashion. "I didn't know what was going on there," he told the Chicago Tribune this month. "I don't know how she got that money."