WA Government, banks join forces in crackdown on financial abuse of elderly people CBA

ABC News 5 November, 2021


There has been an increase in suspected financial abuse of elderly bank customers.(AAP)

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Efforts to stop family members and friends ripping off elderly people in Western Australia have been ramped up with the Government and banks moving to crack down on the growing problem.

The Government has released a strategy to tackle the issue and raise awareness about it, while also joining forces with Bankwest to host a financial services roundtable on elder abuse.

The Government's draft strategy has been put out for public comment, and Prevention of Family and Domestic Violence Minister Simone McGurk, called on stakeholders, service providers and individuals to make their views heard.

"Elder abuse is a family and domestic violence issue just like any other, and this Government is serious about cracking down on those who seek to exploit vulnerable people," she said.

"Abuse is abuse and everyone should call it out when they see it."

Advocare CEO Diedre Timms, Prevention of Family and Domestic Violence Minister Simone McGurk and Bankwest's Shari Cosgriff.
Advocare's Diedre Timms, Minister Simone McGurk and Bankwest's Shari Cosgriff discuss the draft strategy.(ABC News: Emily Piesse)

Bank blocks suspect transactions

Shari Cosgriff, chief operating officer of Bankwest's personal and business banking division, said financial abuse accounted for a third of all reported cases of abuse.

Ms Cosgriff believed the roundtable provided the perfect opportunity for members of the financial services sector to share insights into how it could work together to protect older customers.

She said Bankwest staff were already being trained to spot signs of financial abuse. "[Abuse] looks like coercion, change and confusion," Ms Cosgriff said.

"An example of which, in our branches and our contact centres, you can sometimes hear children or carers in the background, giving instruction to elderly people on … their handling of their money.

"It would look like when a person comes into a bank and their banking habits change, so we train our staff to identify that.

"Our ordinary fraud systems can identify and detect changes, unusual occurrences."

Ms Cosgriff said Bankwest had seen an uptick in suspected financial abuse of elderly customers, possibly due to increased awareness of the issue.

In cases where staff have suspected abuse, the bank has blocked transactions.

"In the last month alone, I can cite around 10 different examples of where we have prevented crime occurring," Ms Cosgriff said.

"Sums ranging from as little as $1,000 ordering animals online, to be delivered from another state, and sums unfortunately up to around the $800,000 mark."

A close up of a call button sitting on a knitted blanket in a woman's hands
Advocare says people's attitudes towards elderly abuse need to change.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

'We all need to stand up and take action'

Diedre Timms, Advocare's chief executive, said community awareness of financial abuse of the elderly was rising.

That had led to a spike in calls to the organisation's elder abuse helpline.

"Three years ago, we would have received around 500 calls. Last year, it was around 650, and this year we will have had over 1,000 calls," Ms Timms said."We had one call where this woman rang and she said, 'I cut [a newspaper] article out six months ago and I kept reading the article and I thought … that is me'," she said.

"She had the courage to ring us and she had actually been experiencing financial abuse for a very long time, but she didn't actually recognise it as such."

Ms Timms said Advocare's elder abuse helpline maintains strict privacy standards.

"It's confidential and we're not going to do something unless the older person actually wants us to, because these are very complex family matters," she said.

"We actually get calls to the line that are anonymous, and we don't pressurise people to give us data or to give their name.

"Some people will ring us multiple times as they understand the situation more and understand that they can actually do something."

A woman's hand holding an elderly patient hand.
Service providers, stakeholders and individuals are being urged to get involved in the public consultation process.(Supplied: Rosie O'Beirne)

Part of the problem, Ms Timms said, was the reliance many elderly people developed on family members, leaving them vulnerable to financial abuse.

"As people become increasingly frail, they do become reliant on family members or community members to support them," she said. "There's a lot of emotional abuse that goes with financial abuse. You know, 'if you don't give me this $10,000, I'm not going to bring the grandchildren around'."

Ms Timms said attitudes towards elder abuse needed to change.

"The abuse of older people is everybody's business. We must change minds and attitudes to address ageism wherever it occurs," she said.

"We all need to stand up and take action. It is very pleasing indeed to see a major financial institution like Bankwest being prepared to do just that alongside the State Government and Advocare."

The WA Elder Abuse Helpline is 1300 724 679.

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