Up to 20% of adults have experience of financial abuse, however many older adults still do not think that it could happen to them – according to new research commissioned by Banking & Payments Federation Ireland (BPFI).
The findings of the research have been published as part of a public awareness campaign, led by BPFI in partnership with Safeguarding Ireland, which is highlighting the need for greater awareness of the real risks of financial abuse and calling on all adults to better plan ahead to safeguard their finances.
Steps which people can take include:
- Understanding and organising your day-to-day banking to best protect against financial abuse
- Checking your bank account(s) regularly
- Ensuring access for you, and only a trusted person if needed, to your money by putting in place an Enduring Power of Attorney.
Age Action welcomes the fact that research has been carried out on this often hidden issue of financial abuse.
We welcome the focus on the issue particularly for those in a vulnerable situation which often includes older people, many of whom remain unaware of what constitutes financial abuse and where to go to seek help.
Those over 65 are a diverse group. However, it is clear that as we age, at different times many of us may face particular challenges to our financial independence due to difficulties in accessing and overseeing our own financial matters due to declining health issues, inability to access bank or post office branches and a lack of trusted supports. In order to safeguard those in a vulnerable situation – whether temporary or of a more longer term nature – it is crucial that financial and Government institutions continue to recognise the right and capacity of people to manage their own personal finances and to promote information on safeguarding finances in a clear and simple manner.
Age Action remains concerned about the increasing abuse referrals to the HSE Safeguarding Teams whose mandate is to protect vulnerable adults: 13,339 cases of abuse reported in 2018 alone, and many related to multiple abuse including many from people worried about their own personal situations. Latest figures from the HSE National Safeguarding Office show that reports of psychological, financial and self-neglect, neglect abuse concerns all increase with age over 65 years.
Independent Advocacy Supports
Vulnerable adults often experience abuse and exploitation from immediate family members which in turns complicates their access to independent information and supports. In addition, many older people may be in a vulnerable situation, where they are housebound or fearful of discussing concerns about abuse from family members or close friends. It is therefore crucial that an independent advocacy support – on a statutory footing – is available to provide accurate, sensitive and confidential supports to vulnerable adults, particularly when they do report concerns to help them navigate through a complicated process with multiple stakeholders.
Policy and Legislative Gaps
Significant policy and regulation gaps remain to protect the finances of vulnerable adults living in the community whether alone or with other people (excluding HSE group homes). There are no guidelines in existence to help people in vulnerable situations to safeguard their finances. This in turn leads to confusion for both the vulnerable person – and often the alleged perpetrator - over what rights they have, what financial abuse looks like, and how to seek specialist help at a distressing time.
Age Action remains disappointed that significant legislative and policy gaps continue to exist in the area. The Assisted Decision Making (Capacity) Act 2015 gave statutory effect to the presumption that all persons have capacity. While enacted, the 2015 Act will not be commenced until Q4 2020. Currently, no legislative or resulting policy exists to comprehensively ensure that the rights, freedoms and dignity of people are promoted and protected, including protection against financial abuse. An Adult Safeguarding Bill has been in development since 2017 to replace or cover out of date or non-existent legislation in the area. We are pleased to note that HIQA and the Mental Health Commission will launch jointly-developed National Standards for Adult Safeguarding next month as well as the draft HSE Adult Safeguarding Policy published in June.
It is also unclear what guidelines – if any – are in practice in Government departments to ensure the rights of those in a vulnerable situation are protected when they are unable to self-access payments or when facing physical, cognitive and sensory disabilities.
Repeated research shows that many people in vulnerable situations – as well as those allegedly perpetrating the abuse – are unaware of what constitutes financial abuse. This is especially true in cases where an older person may be reliant on the person for care or supports and is isolated from the wider community. A targeted information campaign on what financial abuse looks like and where people can go for support is urgently needed.
It is clear that there is a lack of understanding within the general population on the complicated measures to take to protect their rights, make their wishes known and to safeguard against abuse. This is especially true in the context of our understanding of Enduring Powers of Attorney (EPAs) and related Advanced Healthcare Directives. EPAs remain prohibitively expensive for many people and confusion exists as to their remit. There is a clear need for a targeted information campaign to simply explain the role of EPAs to the general public in order to ensure they are not exploited.
Role of Financial Institutions
Age Action welcomes the initiatives for financial institutions to provide training to staff and to highlight the issue to customers. However, a role exists for targeted information campaigns from financial institutions to highlight both the issue and where people can best go for help and confidential assistance. A gap continues to exist as to the role for the officials of financial institutions to proactively monitor accounts for suspicious activity as well as customer interaction (e.g. observing undue pressure from family members or friends or concerns around a person’s ability to make decisions)
However, clearer and greater guidance by the Central Bank on the issue of financial abuse of vulnerable persons would allow banks (and other institutions) to respond in a standardised manner, along a clear pathway and to take actions that are ‘regulatory sanctioned’. Guidance should outline the role of financial institutions in monitoring of legal arrangements such as Power of Attorney (or other forms of agency) as well as protection for financial institutions engaged in ‘good faith’ responses.
Callers to the Age Action Information service often express worry and frustration over bank branch and post office closures. Branch closures have also made it more difficult to access services. Older people may need to travel longer distances to undertake financial transactions such as collection of pensions (and other State income supports) or to pay bills. This may result in older people engaging in riskier behaviours such as withdrawing large amounts of cash at once and keeping it in their homes. There is also an increasing number of over 65s not online, and this effectively prohibits them from having control over their own accounts.
Collaboration between financial institutions and regulatory bodies is needed to ensure that the evolving needs of the ageing population are fully understood and that innovative responses to service provision and design of financial products reflects these needs.
 Phelan et al. (2018) Experience of Bank Staff of the Financial Abuse of Vulnerable Adults.