WASHINGTON — Elder financial abuse and exploitation is a significant and growing financial issue facing seniors, a top official from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau told a Senate panel Tuesday.

Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III, the director of the bureau's Office for Older Americans, said the agency plans to work with law enforcement and senior advocates to build awareness of elder abuse, address the underreporting of fraudulent or abusive practices targeted at seniors, and facilitate more training on the issue for law enforcement and financial institutions.

"It's been called a hidden epidemic or the Crime of the 21st Century, and it's a growing and serious problem that we need to address," Humphrey said.

Democrats used the hearing as an opportunity to emphasize yet again that the bureau is hobbled without a permanent director.

"Too many seniors are struggling to meet the unfair terms of unscrupulous lenders looking to take advantage of their vulnerable state," Sen. Sherrod Brown, the chairman of the Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection, said Tuesday. "Unfortunately, many of these activities are perpetrated by non-banks, and the CFPB does not have authority over these lenders until a full-time director is confirmed."

Brown urged his colleagues to confirm Richard Corday, the bureau's enforcement chief, as its first director.

He also noted that Sen. Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican, said Monday that he supports Cordray's confirmation. Brown is facing a reelection challenge from Elizabeth Warren, the bureau's architect and the interim leader in charge of getting off the ground this year. Warren left the bureau in August.

Julie Nepveu, a senior attorney for AARP Foundation Litigation, said financial fraud and abuse against seniors is becoming more sophisticated and harder to combat, and is one of the major nonviolent crimes perpetrated against older people. Embarrassment, shame and the fear of being deemed incompetent to control their finances make many seniors reluctant to report financial abuse.

Seniors are reporting problems in particular with payday lending, debt collection, overdraft fees and mortgage modifications, Nepveu said. In many cases, the questionable practices are perpetrated by nonbanks, which the CFPB cannot supervise until it has a director, she said.

"The full potential for the CFPB to be an effective cop on the beat to protect Americans from unfair and deceptive acts or practices cannot be real until there is a leader in place and the agency can use all the power that has been granted," Nepveu said. "We urge the full Senate to move quickly to continue this confirmation process."

Republicans have vowed the block confirmation of a CFPB director until the director is replaced with a five-member commission, the bureau is subject to the appropriations process and a council of regulators has more leeway to overturn the bureau's rules.

Brown said Sen. Bob Corker, the subcommittee's top Republican, was on a call with GOP leadership and would be arriving late to the hearing. No other Republicans were in attendance.

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