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Protecting the vulnerable from exploitation and protecting rights

Unsolicited contact from charities, providers and the like are common for almost everyone, but for some of our most vulnerable members in society, this contact can cause unexpected issues for the individual.

Best advice: sign up to the Do Not Call register. (Source: Shutterstock)
Best advice: sign up to the Do Not Call register. (Source: Shutterstock)

Even legitimate fundraising calls can have unexpected adverse consequences for elderly people who might readily agree to make regular
donations that they really cannot afford. It is much worse of course where the contact is from a scammer.

It is important for carers, families and friends, often the ones left to pick up the pieces, to know their options and where to turn to prevent or assist when their elderly or vulnerable family members are at risk.

New South Wales community legal service Seniors Rights Service (SRS) Solicitor Melissa Chaperlin says that if any elderly people or carers of elderly people are concerned there may be exploitation, it is important to contact someone in a position to help or advise them immediately.

“Organisations like ours are available to older people to get the legal advice they need as soon as possible so that early action can be taken,” Ms Chaperlin says.

“If we are called by the family and not the older person or of the older person’s attorney directly, we can provide them with information but not legal advice. We can provide legal advice directly to the older person; they need to be part of the process.

“This way, we can ensure that the older person’s rights are respected either through talking to them, or to their attorney or guardian they have appointed. Usually it is the carer, guardian or attorney that we speak to who have the job of trying to undo a transaction.”

In a recent letter to the editor at The Weekend Australian Magazine, it was noted that one carer of an elderly lady discovered 15 directly addressed charity letters, 15 cheques written out and two organisations had signed her up for monthly lotteries and regular card debits, something that Ms Chaperlin says is not uncommon.

“We often get calls from or about older people who have been diagnosed with dementia and have signed up for a product or service – quite often changing something like a utility company or Telco provider,” Ms Chaperlin says.

“They have often been approached to sign up over the phone or door to door and their carers or attorney’s call our service about these documents and want out and ask us what they can do.”

In addition to the published letter, two other examples have also come to light from anonymous caregivers about marketing tactics targeting the vulnerable.

A care worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, spoke of having to help an elderly resident with unwanted charity donations.

“He’d received his bank statement that morning and was in a terrible state by the time I arrived to help with domestic duties,” she says.

“I spent most of my allocated time trying to calm him down and help him track down the numbers so he could call the charities and have his information removed.

“He was very, very stressed; around $80 a month was being taken out of his basic pension.”

Another carer within the family of a vulnerable person with cognitive decline also raised concerns over supplier marketing tactics after car insurance, cancelled by the attorney, was reinstated after the company tried and succeeded in calling the grandmother with dementia. The carer also raised concerns that the grandmother could find herself being unknowingly signed up to NBN packages or something else on offer through a Telco, even though she didn’t have the Internet.

For those diagnosed medically with dementia that have entered into any contract unintentionally, Ms Chaperlin says a medical note from a doctor presented by an attorney or guardian can be a way to resolve the issue.

“In cases where someone with reduced cognitive capacity, like dementia, enters into a contract with a provider without the knowledge of the attorney or guardian, we recommend visiting a doctor for a medical note,” Ms Chaperlin says.

“The medical note should state that the elderly person has dementia, meaning that the contract was entered into without full understanding and when presented to the provider by the attorney or guardian, should be enough to have the contract made void and the option to have any funds returned and resolve the situation.”

In terms of putting practices in place to prevent issues arising from charity and provider calls, Ms Chaperlin and SRS recommend signing up to the Do Not Call register.

“Our best advice for the elderly receiving calls like this is to sign up to the Do Not Call register which can reduce the amount of calls however, it is unlikely to stop them entirely,” Ms Chaperlin says.

“Another option is if the carer is there, they can shield the calls.”

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) manages the Do Not Call Register and states on their website that being part of the register allows you to ‘reduce the amount of unwanted telemarketing calls’. However it also states that ‘many calls to solicit donations are made by, or on behalf of, charities’ and these organisations are permitted to call numbers listed on the register.

They also go on to state that telemarketing calls seeking donations, made by organisations other than registered charities or registered charitable institutions, are not permitted.

The recent Review into elder abuse makes recommendations for banks to have a code of practice and for there to be a register of those with power of attorney, but when it comes to older persons being taken advantage of, by providers and companies, Ms Chaperlin says that society needs to take more responsibility.

“When companies and providers get a person to sign a contract, they should be asking more questions,” Ms Chaperlin says.

“Start with the basics to ascertain if the person has knowledge of what they are doing, why they want the service and what it is used for – even asking if they have appointed an attorney under an enduring power of attorney instrument.

“Doing this would help to identify circumstances that show they are not capable of entering into the contract or obligation.”

For cases where an elderly person has entered into a contract prior to their cognitive decline, the cancellation process is often fixed to the terms of the signed contract.

“Many elderly people have the capacity when they initially enter into an agreement but then forget about it or don’t use it and continue to be debited,” Ms Chaperlin says.

“This is something that older people and carers need to be aware of because it is not an easy thing to undo a contract if it was entered into when the person had the capacity.”

Find out more information on the Do Not Call Register or seek any legal advice on the topic by contacting Senior Rights Service on 1800 424 079 or an Advocate in your state.

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