No matter how many times he sees it, Leo Bonnell says it never gets easier to witness.

The former bank manager from Clarenville has dedicated his retirement to advocating for seniors — now one himself — and a large part of that involves seeing the fallout from financial crime.

“[An elderly man] asked me to drive him to the bank … and he was devastated when he checked the balance that the bank account was empty,” Bonnell said of a recent case.

“Over $4,000 gone and what we found out that there was a whole bunch of e-transfers being made to a relative.”

Bonnell says the relative paid the man’s bills — then paid herself.

Changing industry

Bonnell spent over 40 years in the banking industry, where he says he witnessed and — at times — stopped elder financial abuse from happening.

For the last two decades, Bonnell has been sitting on provincial and federal advisory boards on seniors and aging. A large part of his volunteer work involves educating the public on elder financial abuse through presentations to banks, schools and community groups.

“Most cases there are three parties to this crime. It’s the victim and it’s the perpetrator, and the financial institution.”

As the population ages and banks continue to change how they do business, Bonnell expects these types of crimes to grow.

The closure of community bank branches across Canada and high levels of staff turnover create situations in which there are fewer people keeping an eye on seniors and their finances, he says.

“Most of the seniors that are being impacted are people that are not really sophisticated on financial matters,” Bonnell said, adding statistics show that women fall prey to financial crimes more than men.

“Many of them grew up in an era … where they trusted everybody.”

He believes the financial community must have more effective front-line staff training to spot the early signs of financial elder abuse.

Lillian Thomey, 80, walks arm-in-arm with her son, Paul Thomey, to Harbor Grace provincial court one day in late June.
Lillian Thomey, 80, walks arm in arm with her son, Paul Thomey, to Harbor Grace provincial court in late June. The elder Thomey’s caregivers pleaded guilty to stealing from her in 2018 and 2019. (Dan Arsenault/CBC)

As CBC Investigates reported this week, the number of reported cases of elder financial abuse to the Newfoundland and Labrador government did increase last year.

But Bonnell says that is a drop in the bucket of what is actually occurring in communities in the province.

We have an aging population in our province and everybody has a responsibility.– Leo Bonnell

There are common themes that run through this type of crime, he adds: need, greed and entitlement.

“People just don’t want to come forward simply because it’s the feeling of embarrassment, maybe the shame of, you know, having to report this to the police,” Bonnell said.

Perpetrators tend to prey on seniors with cognitive impairments, older adults who are isolated, or someone who is experiencing a life-changing event, like losing a spouse.

Jana Ray, chief operating officer of CanAge, a seniors advocacy organization, is seen here speaking at a COVID-related news conference in Toronto in October 2021. (CBC/Mark Bochsler)

Jana Ray, chief operating officer of CanAge, a national organization which advocates for older adults, said her organization sees a variety of financial elder abuse, ranging from asking for a loan and failing to pay it back to much more life-threatening scenarios.

“We see really significant cases which are awful and it’s, you know, denying access to service or medical or even caregiver services within a home in exchange for dollars of your money,” Ray said.

Ray said the scope of the problem justifies a nation-wide hotline for seniors to call to report fraud or ask questions.

“If you sense that you’re being placed under pressure, I would encourage older adults to have open conversations with family members,” she said.

“And I would encourage you to bring other people into the fold, consult with other people that you trust to ensure that you can kind of do that benchmarking test and see, does this sound right to you?”

Meanwhile, Bonnell says it will take banks, governments and society as a whole to begin to crack down on what he considers the crime of the 21st century.

“I don’t think you’ll ever eliminate it altogether, but [there are ways] to help address it. It’s all about education and awareness to help seniors and their families better understand the management of their financial affairs,” he said.

“We have an aging population in our province and everybody has a responsibility.”

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