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Bankers lead push to curb financial abuse of the elderly

elder financial abuse
An estimated one in 10 older Australians experiences elder abuse in any given year. Photo: Getty
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Greed and an impatience for inheritance are fuelling financial abuse of the elderly in Australia, according to the peak banking body.

To combat the growing problem of elder financial abuse, the Australian Banking Association (ABA) has repeated its calls on the federal government to establish a national register of power-of-attorney documents.

It has also proposed a new service to field and deal with complaints about financial abuse, revealing that an estimated one in 10 older Australians experiences elder abuse in any given year.

But the incidence is probably far higher, according to advocates.

Seniors Rights Service chief executive Russell Westacott said his organisation dealt with 650 cases of people experiencing elder abuse annually, or two to three people a day.

Chief executive for seniors lobby group COTA Ian Yates said because of its nature, the breadth of financial abuse was hard to determine.

But based on the banks’ accounts of abuse, the problem was much larger than what was reported, he said.

“Certainly from what the banks are telling us – because they see quite a bit of it – it’s more common than most Australians think, and more common than the government is prepared to admit,” Mr Yates said.

“So it’s a very significant problem and isn’t being given the priority it deserves.”

ABA’s campaign, Stop Elder Financial Abuse, released research revealing that almost six in 10 Australians are worried someone they know will be the victim of financial abuse.

The campaign has called on federal, state and territory governments to establish: Uniform Power of Attorney (POA) laws across the country to protect people from financial abuse; a national POA register to check documents are legitimate and current; and a body to which people can report abuse, which can then investigate and act.

ABA chief executive Anna Bligh called it a “growing problem” and “an uncomfortable truth that every Australian should be aware of”.

“Bank staff have told me stories of attempting to intervene in situations where they see money drained out of the accounts of pensioners, often for items they are not using such as holidays or expensive jewellery, but the victim is unwilling or unable to report what is really happening,” Ms Bligh said.

National Seniors chief executive Professor John McCallum said he had been advocating for national standardised powers of attorney for many years, branding the documents currently “a waste of money”, inconsistent and unenforceable.

Professor McCallum added that as long as banks and bank staff were limited in their ability to share information about suspected cases of elder abuse, victims could simply trawl from one branch to the next until they were successful.

“We need some kind of national register where banks are able to communicate their concerns about certain customers or about certain transactions.”

Ms Bligh said she had spoken to bank staff who had witnessed “terrible circumstances” of potential elder abuse.

“They’ve managed in many cases to completely turn someone’s life around by dealing with the issue – freezing accounts, referring it to the investigating authorities,” she said.

“This is a complicated issue because it does involve people’s families. Often, you can understand, I think, the unwillingness of an older Australian to report their adult son or daughter, the parents of their grandchildren, to the police.

“It requires a more complex response that simply calling the police because, as you’ll appreciate, many older Australians do not want to send their adult son or daughter to jail. They just want the financial abuse to stop. We need to find better solutions.”

A spokesperson for Attorney-General Christian Porter told The New Daily that on top of investing $18 million in elder abuse support units and mediation services, the office was also working with state Attorneys-General towards a uniform national register of POAs.

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