Cashless harm: older people and a changing financial world.

In what some folks have suggested as the result of both a disorganised mind and lack of focus I recently attended the Scottish Care conference and awards having forgotten to take my wallet. The sense of fiscal nakedness was both fearful and freeing. I discovered after 48 hours that I actually didn’t need cash or even a card. Now lest you suspect that I have delusions of being a cashless royal or a serial borrower from colleagues – I discovered that I was able to exist without either a card or cash. As long as I had my phone I could travel on the trains with downloaded tickets; and through Apple Pay was able to pay for everything I needed. It was a strange experience but one which clearly a whole generation are getting used to and comfortable with – but not all.

The shift to a cashless society is a particular challenge for older people and exposes them both to the heightened risks of exclusion and financial abuse. A RSA report in March suggests that as many as 10 million people in the UK are being left to struggle with their finances as we drift to cashlessness. ‘The Cash Census: Britains’s relationship with cash and digital payments’ indicates that 48% of the population say that a cashless society is personally problematic. The describe this group as ‘Cash dependents’  but there are other groups who they call ‘cashless sceptics’ with 12 million; ‘cashless keepers’ at 12 million; the ‘cashless occasionals’ at 9 million and finally the ‘cashless converts’ at 11 million.

Increased isolation, digital fraud and an inability to control finances and debt are cited in the report as points of concern. Undeniably Covid has resulted in a huge change in the use of cards and digital payments as too has been the loss of free to use cash machines.

All this is creating a world where those who are old are at very real risk of trying to survive in a cashless world but without the knowledge and skills, the confidence and assurance of knowing how to live in that world. I personally support the RSA call that legislation is necessary to ensure everyone has access to cash near to where they live. The report also argues that essential services such as council tax and utilities should not become entirely cashless.

All of this was in my mind when I had another brush with our digital world last week.

A few days after I had returned from London I got a text message from ‘NHS-UK’ and it read: ‘You have been near a person who contracted the new SARS-CoV-2. Please arrange a PCR kit now via:’ (I have altered the actual address.)

My first reaction was to think that I must have – with a sense of inevitability – picked up Covid again on the Tube, train or at a meeting. Then I began to think.

There is no NHS UK; there is no contact system operating now; how did they get my number because I hadn’t signed in anywhere. With caution I then went onto the website and saw a very believable homepage with links to other genuine NHS information. I was asked to input data and did so without revealing accurate information. To cut a long story short this was a sophisticated scam ostensibly to book a home delivered PCR and pay for the postage at 0.99 pence – by which time I would have put in bank details etc.

After further investigation I discovered this scam had been flagged as occurring across the UK.

My reason for mentioning all this is to illustrate just how easy it is to be convinced to do something which in essence is designed to scam or rip you off. Even with a degree of awareness and confidence as a citizen of our increasingly digital and cashless world I very nearly became the victim of a scam. The level of sophistication and ingenuity of those who would seek to hurt and harm us is scarily impressive.

Next Wednesday is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) which since 2006 has been held on that day and is held under the auspices of the World Health Organization and the United Nations.

The purpose of WEAAD is to provide an opportunity for communities around the world to promote a better understanding of abuse and neglect of older persons by raising awareness of the cultural, social, economic and demographic processes affecting elder abuse and neglect.

According to the national elder abuse organisation Hourglass Scotland a 2020 poll showed there were over 225,000 older victims of abuse in Scotland. They also stated that:

  • Only 10% of people in Scotland think of older adults (65+) when they think of victims of abuse. Nearly a quarter (24%) think of animals
  • The Scottish public woefully underestimates the number of older people who experience abuse – not one person surveyed thought the number of UK victims reaches over 2.5m every year.
  • Hansard recorded mentions of the abuse of older people 35 times in Parliament compared to 3603 mentions for domestic abuse, 746 mentions for child abuse and 915 mentions for fox hunting

The lack of societal appreciation of the reality of abuse and harm against older people, predominantly in their own home is shocking. Such lack of knowledge is a complicity in the harm too many women and men are experiencing in our communities. This is partly because the overwhelming number of those who hurt and harm our older citizens are people known to the person, even in terms of financial harm. The increased use of digital payments and cashlessness makes someone already at risk of harm even more at risk.

This coming Wednesday let us all think about whether or not someone known to us who is over 65 might be the victim of hurt, harm and abuse, and rather than crossing the road of indifference, let us stop and enquire, report and act. As we move into a new digital financial and cashless age let us all make sure safeguards are in place so that those already hidden do not become invisible, those already disadvantaged do not become forgotten, and those already victims do not suffer more.

Donald Macaskill