Downers Grove 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, 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' moneys, in part to make payments to other investors and in part to benefit himself.
"Don't trust anyone," Jan Govenat, 71, said Tuesday 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 last week 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. In 2011, Illinois received 6,205 reports of suspected financial abuse and exploitation of senior citizens. The numbers have generally risen in recent years and are up 14 percent from 2007. Financial exploitation accounts for 57 percent of reported abuse cases against older adults.
Trying to counter such exploitation, Illinois has enacted several new laws.
As of Feb. 1, Illinois law requires front-line financial services workers to be trained to spot signs of elders being taken advantage of financially, as well as how to report it. Last year, only 2.2 percent of Illinois senior abuse cases were reported by financial institutions. New personnel must be trained within six months of their hiring, and employees must receive refresher training every three years. The Illinois Department on Aging calls banks "an important first line of defense against" financial predators.
In late July, Illinois added several more laws aimed at better protecting seniors. Taking effect in January 2013, they include making it tougher for scam artists to use stolen money to defend themselves in court and giving law enforcement greater access to reports of elder abuse compiled by senior services agencies.
Nationally, the newly formed federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in June said it was starting public inquiry to learn more about the ways in which older Americans are financially exploited. The request for public comments, with a deadline of Aug. 13, came as part of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.