Financial abuse

7.4          Financial elder abuse often involves taking or spending funds held in an older person’s bank account. Legal Aid NSW provided a case study of an 83 year old pensioner named Doris, who found she had a large outstanding balance on her credit card:

Doris was easily confused and her memory was not good. … Doris said she had not received any credit card statements for some time but she knew how much she was putting on her card and made sure she made the payments every month. [Her bank statements showed that] the amount and frequency of transactions on her credit card increased dramatically over a short period. … The statements also showed a marked change in the usual pattern of transactions. For example, there were large online purchases and large cash advances, when Doris had never obtained a cash advance on the card before, nor was aware it was possible. … Legal Aid NSW argued that the bank should have seen the ‘red flags’ and contacted Doris to confirm whether she was aware of this unusual activity on her account. Big Bank agreed to waive the debt.[1]

7.5          The Top End Women’s Legal Service wrote of a 50 year old Indigenous woman named Margaret, who suffered significant health problems. Her husband and carer ‘assists her to conduct her financial matters, but also uses her key card without permission to purchase items for himself and often retains Margaret’s key card’.[2]

7.6          Poor health, remote living and poverty in the community are among the factors that may make some older Indigenous people more vulnerable to financial abuse.[3] The following case study illustrates these issues:

Queenie is approximately 70 years old. She is Indigenous and resides with family outside a regional centre. Members of her immediate family assist her with day-to-day living and related, including financial, matters.

Queenie is frail, with multiple significant health issues and disabilities. In addition, she has been diagnosed with psychological disorders as a consequence of five decades of domestic violence that included multiple physical assaults causing multiple physical impairments, as well as multiple sexual assaults.

Queenie’s family accesses her bank account via her pin number, often without her consent. Queenie feels unable to regain control of her bank account; she does not how to change her pin number, does not have a relationship with her financial institution, speaks limited English, and cannot communicate with her financial institution without assistance.[4]

7.7          The Hervey Bay Seniors Legal and Support Service provided examples of the types of elder abuse that it had observed:

  • The older person lives with the abuser and has given them authority to access their bank account, either by giving them the card or through internet banking access. The account is used to pay household expenses and to make cash withdrawals. Often the older person has no knowledge as to the extent of the use of their funds, especially as with internet banking bank, statements are no longer posted through the mail. The use of the funds continues after the older person goes into care and is often only picked up when nursing home fees are not paid.

  • The older person has difficulty getting to a bank and gives the abuser access for the purpose of withdrawing funds for them. The abuser withdraws funds for their own use.

  • The older person authorises use of a credit card for a specific purpose but it is then used for other purposes.[5]

7.8          Banks may not be able to detect all financial abuse. For example, while banks may be more likely to notice large and unusual transactions, financial abuse may also be committed by small, common transactions. Furthermore, some methods of detecting financial abuse, even if possible, might be considered too intrusive.

7.9          Customers will continue to need to monitor their accounts and take an active interest in their own finances. Financial literacy is itself a safeguard from abuse, and some stakeholders noted the importance of government initiatives to improve people’s financial literacy. Alzheimer’s Australia said that to prevent financial abuse, ‘older people require targeted, consumer-friendly information to support their financial literacy.’[6] The Financial Services Council said that such initiatives were particularly important for women and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.[7] The Top End Women’s Legal Service recommended ‘increased community financial and legal education to reduce the prevalence of Indigenous elder abuse’.[8]

7.10       Planning for the future will also remain important. For example, some older people may need to consider appointing trusted family or friends to later help them manage their financial affairs and protect them from abuse by others, should they need such help.[9]