The most disgraceful acts of greed in the financial royal commission.
The most disgraceful acts of greed in the financial royal commission.

Our nation’s most disgraceful acts of greed

GRAVE robbing. An anxiety sufferer stalked by private investigators. A family forced to stay in their home as it falls to pieces around them.

The banking royal commission had resembled more of a horror show than an investigation into how Aussies access finance.

These are some of the worst moments that shocked the nation in the first six months.

WE CHARGE DEAD PEOPLE

In April the commission revealed the sordid details in which planners from Commonwealth Bank subsidiary Count Financial profited for years from dead customers' fees.

Three financial planners charged fees to the accounts of four deceased customers for years.

In the worst case revealed, a planner knew a client had died in January 2004, but was still taking almost $1000 a year in fees until December, 2015.

When questioned about it, the financial planner complained "he didn't know what to do".

 

Even death can’t get you out of paying National Australia Bank fees. Picture: AAP
Even death can’t get you out of paying National Australia Bank fees. Picture: AAP

 

By August it was also revealed how National Australia Bank superannuation services whacked fees on the accounts of more than 4000 dead customers.

It heard a glitch led to the accounts of customers paying for financial advice, even though they were dead.

It is believed 4135 deceased people may have been charged a total of $3 million by NAB. This equates to about $730 per account.

A remediation plan is being developed with cash going to the members' estates.

A month later, in September, it was the turn of AMP to be caught out charging life insurance to dead people on their superannuation accounts.

In one case AMP kept charging for 18 months after they were notified a member had died.

The problem was discovered in April this year and about 4645 member estates were owed $1.3 million. When a person dies and an insurance company charges fees, the expectation is to be paid back as soon as possible.

But AMP's processes broke down and premiums were either not refunded or refunded to an incorrect date.

 

BADGERING THE DISABLED AND MOCKING THEIR FAMILY

Royal Commissioner Kenneth Hayne has seen a lot in his long legal career.

But he was obviously touched by the case of a dad - Baptist preacher Grant Stewart - who went into bat for his 26-year-old son, who has Down syndrome, was cold called and sold life insurance by a pushy salesman from Freedom Insurance.

In one of the toughest moment of the commission, recordings of a call were played in which Mr Stewart's son, struggling to understand the call, handed over bank details.

The call revealed a salesman bombarding the young man with information, with the 26-year-old offering hesitant, one word answers. Mr Stewart said his son not understand what was happening.

When he pleads: "I need to go", the salesman pressures him for bank details to set up direct debit.

 

Grant Stewart was mocked by employees at Freedom Insurance. Picture: Stuart McEvoy
Grant Stewart was mocked by employees at Freedom Insurance. Picture: Stuart McEvoy

 

The commission heard Mr Stewart made repeated attempts to cancel by email and over the phone.

The eventual call in which it is cancelled, his son struggles to get through the conversation.

Commissioner Hayne QC - in a rare moment breaking away from an inscrutable persona - said the call was particularly affecting.

"I think the community might have been particularly struck by the phone call where the agent insisted upon the son uttering the words 'I want to terminate the policy'.

"There's a particularly affecting record."

But things got worse before the policy was eventually cancelled.

In internal messages, staff belittled Mr Stewart as a "bloody whinger".

Another staff member who dealt with the case by using 25 sad-face emojis was labelled "childish" at the commission.

When another worker sent an internal message saying the father would take the case further the worker replied: "Ah well. I don't know what he expects to get out of it LOL."

 

STALKING AND SPYING ON THE MENTALLY ILL

Some workers would do anything to make sure their company clawed back every dollar, the commission heard.

In September the commission heard how aggressive case managers at insurance giant TAL who hounded a nurse with an anxiety disorder for six years - including using a private detective to film her at a swimming pool - went unpunished.

A doctor who tracked the woman's case said her anxiety worsened over that time, and she was now permanently unfit for full-time work.

It was revealed insurance giant TAL hired the detective to spy on the nurse.

 

 

Insurance giant TAL hired a private detective to spy on the nurse. Picture: Stock image
Insurance giant TAL hired a private detective to spy on the nurse. Picture: Stock image

 

The PI's work included filming the woman both at the pool and kissing her partner, in a bid to disprove her case for income protection payments.

The commission heard TAL had finally agreed to honour the policy in 2016, but only after six years of persistent harassment.

TAL general manager of claims Loraine van Eeden agreed it was a "deeply troubling response" to a legitimate mental health claim.

 

CANCER SURGERY NOT 'RADICAL' ENOUGH

Battling cancer is tough enough.

But the Commonwealth Bank's insurance division made one woman's battle even tougher.

The commission heard how CommInsure rejected a woman's claim after she was treated for breast cancer because her surgery wasn't "radical" enough.

Counsel assisting the commission Rowena Orr, QC, turned the blowtorch on CommInsure over the 2016 case in which the insurer quibbled over terminology to prevent paying out the trauma insurance claim for the crucial surgery.

The commission heard the woman had been insured for 20 years - taking out the policy in 1996 - but CommInsure had not updated its breast cancer definition for 18 years.

So yes - CommInsure's terms were stuck in the 1990s.

A doctor advocating for the woman pointed out that had the surgery taken place when the policy was last updated, in 1998, she would have had a mastectomy.

"But now it is treated with radiotherapy," they said.

Counsel assisting Rowena Orr QC said: "So medical practice had moved on - but CommInsure's definition had not."

 

BANK KEPT LENDING TO GAMBLER

In March, the commission heard from a man who told the Commonwealth Bank "I'm a gambler, I've got a gambling problem" as he pleaded to escape a credit card debt spiral. Instead he was offered more credit.

Roof plumber and tiler Andrew Harris, 30, told the commission that after getting his first credit card in 2014, he maxed out three cards due to a gambling problem.

Fighting back tears, Mr Harris said he told bank he wanted to stop getting credit increases.

"I tried to reach out for help and I didn't get any. I got the opposite. I got more credit increases."

The bank offered Mr Harris, who already owed $27,000, an $8000 increase. The bank put Mr Harris on a hardship program, reducing his debt by $10,000 and stopping interest payments. As of March he still owed $23,400.

 

INSURERS LEAVING DISASTER VICTIMS HIGH AND DRY

You might have seen a lot of insurance advertisements during the AFL grand final - they need some positive publicity after the insurance round of the commission.

Youth-focused insurer Youi provided service that was anything but "awesome", leaving victims of natural disasters displaced from their homes for more than a year.

 

Jason Storey of Youi conceded Youi had failed customers. Picture: AAP
Jason Storey of Youi conceded Youi had failed customers. Picture: AAP

 

In one case, a couple were last month still unable to return home 18 months after their house was damaged in a major cyclone, while in the other, a family only had their roof fixed 18 months after it was severely damaged in a hailstorm.

Counsel assisting the commission Rowena Orr, QC - questioning Youi chief operating officer of claims services Jason Storey - referenced the insurer's professed aim of offering "awesome" service.

"Now, can I ask you, Mr Storey, do you think that (these people) received awesome service from Youi," she said.

"I definitely do not," Mr Storey said.

The commission heard how a woman battled Suncorp for two and a half years as her Hunter Valley house, damaged in a storm in 2015, was falling down around her.

Bernadette Heald was told by an engineer her house was structurally unsound after the storm. Both her children were sick, her 14-year-old having had a heart transplant and the eight-year-old suffered anxiety.

"The fact that they left us to live in a house for over two and a half years that was broken - which they knew about - and we had two special needs (children) in the house which they knew about right from the word go, was atrocious," she said.

 

TRIPS TO VEGAS AND VESPA SCOOTERS

What is it about Vespa scooters that is supposed to inspire call centre sales staff?

The commission saw evidence of how Freedom Insurance - the company which pressure sold to a man with Down syndrome - rewarded the best salespeople with Vespa scooters and trips to Bali.

One email for a sales contest included a picture of Tom Cruise in his 1996 film Jerry Maguire, with a speech balloon with the line "Show me the money!". Another contest email had a picture of rapper 50 Cent with a handful of cash.

Classy stuff.

 

There was nothing subtle about Freedom Insurance’s email to its staff. Picture: Supplied
There was nothing subtle about Freedom Insurance’s email to its staff. Picture: Supplied

 

But it was revealed funeral insurer Let's Insure did similar incentives, offering top sales people trips to Las Vegas to stay at a "glitzy hotel".

The competition promised: "A paid holiday to buzzing Las Vegas Nevada, USA, 24 hour casinos and endless entertainment options".

It was also revealed another competition saw people rewarded with - you guessed it - a Vespa motor scooter.

In yet another case a BankWest manager was awarded a trip to Hayman Island and hailed as a "regional champion" before his dodgy lending practices contributed to a struggling farmer losing his property.

The love of largesse extended to lucrative commissions received for years after selling products.

In one case, the royal commission blasted Aussie Home Loans for keeping tearful victims of a shonky mortgage broker in the dark about his fraud, all the while continuing to collect trailing commissions on the $70 million of loans he wrote.

In one case a victim was kept in the dark even after she called Aussie in tears after being accused by her bank of presenting faked loan documents.

The commission was told the broker Shiv Sahay falsified that victim's savings - without her knowledge - from $25,000 to $49,000 to get a home loan accepted.

"Why hadn't (the Aussie employee) told the person who called up in distress and fear of prison that Mr Sahay changed the numbers?" Ms Orr asked.

An Aussie executive said it was a process that had now changed.

The commission then presented email evidence showing the Aussie employee who took the victim's call was more concerned about losing the lucrative trailing commission on the contract.

The staffer who took that call wrote: "I know this isn't the best timing with what has happened, but will this affect the commission paid on the file?"

"As (a manager) advised it was transferred to me and would take effect post settlement."

Yep, that's the kind of greed Mr Hayne talked about in his interim report.

 

ROGUE PLANNERS

While much of the harm coming to consumers came via greed and stupidity - there was also a fair share of deliberate law breaking.

In April we heard of rogue National Australia Bank staff who falsified documents to secure mortgages for customers in return for cash bribes paid across the counter, the banking royal commission has heard.

Counsel assisting the commission Rowena Orr QC turned a blowtorch on the NAB "Introducer" program, where the bank pays commissions to businesses that refer customers who then take out loans.

The alleged network of rogue bankers operated in five branches across greater western Sydney. The Introducer program had generated $24 billion worth of business.

 

Rowena Orr QC. Picture: Eddie Jim
Rowena Orr QC. Picture: Eddie Jim

 

But it had been marred by rorting, she revealed, including cases where pay slips were been forged, bribes were paid to staff, and customers' signatures were faked.

While the program was meant to be for businesses such as financial planning, architectural and real estate agencies, Ms Orr said there were instances of gym instructors acting as "introducers".

Staff embroiled in the scheme included some managers, the whistleblower said.

Bribes of $2800 were paid "in white envelopes over the counter" at some branches, it was alleged.

In another case - a high-flying Westpac executive said the bank was too busy to tell the corporate cop about a shonky financial planner, even though it had secretly started paying back the planner's victims.

Counsel assisting the commission Rowena Orr said the adviser, Andrew Smith, was first flagged in May 2015 and the bank started paying back customers by July.

"But it took until November to tell the regulator?" she asked Westpac's national head of BT finance Michael Wright.

"I do acknowledge it feels like a long time, there was a lot going on," Mr Wright said as the reason for keeping the regulator in the dark.

 

POSSIBLE CRIMINAL CHARGES FOR THE BIG BOYS

And of course there are the recommended criminal charges against giants like AMP and NAB.

In April it was revealed at the commission that AMP made 20 false statements to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission about its efforts to end the practice.

AMP paid some customers compensation.

The company also commissioned a supposedly independent report to give to ASIC about the scandal.

It hired prominent law firm Clayton Utz to carry out a review and write the "independent" report - but AMP then involved itself heavily in the editing process.

There were 25 drafts of the report, which was the subject of more than 700 emails between AMP and Clayton Utz.

 

Andrew Hagger was moved on from NAB. Picture: AAP
Andrew Hagger was moved on from NAB. Picture: AAP

 

AMP succeeded in having chief Craig Meller's name scrubbed from the report. He had been named as one of those who received legal advice about the controversy.

Mr Meller has now left, as has the group's chief lawyer, group general counsel Brian Salter and chairman Catherine Brenner.

In August it was NAB's turn in the spotlight facing accusations of misleading superannuation customers and wrongly taking $100 million from members.

ASIC has now taken the issue to court.

In September it was revealed a man once touted as the next NAB chief - rising star Andrew Hagger - was leaving.

The bank said Mr Hagger, its consumer and wealth chief customer officer, would leave as part of broader shake-up in senior management ranks.

Mr Hagger said he took "accountability for what has occurred on my watch".

Mr Hagger has faced intense scrutiny at the inquiry, particularly over how much detail he shared with ASIC over the bank's fee-for-no-service scandal.

 

BUT IS THE REAL HORROR STORY THE NATION'S $7 TRILLION HOUSING MARKET?

One of the scariest things in the whole commission were questions over how safe our mortgage market actually is.

The commission posed serious questions about the Household Expenditure Measure (HEM) - the benchmark used to assess a customer's debts and liabilities - which was heavily criticised in the interim report.

The commission said lenders did not diligently analyse a customer's household expenses which could restrict or prohibit their ability to take out a loan.

"Using HEM as the default measure of household expenditure does not constitute any verification of a borrower's expenditure," the report said.

UBS analyst Jonathan Mott has estimated there are $500 billion of "liar loans" in the Aussie housing system due to borrowers over-estimating their incomes and underestimating their expenses when applying for a mortgage. Scary stuff.

At the commission, the banks said it was "too hard" to check expenses using things like bank account and credit card spending data.

In his interim report Mr Hayne disagreed that this was too hard.

Many say the days of benchmarks like HEM are now limited.

What this means for the housing market is another question.

 

Former AMP CEO Craig Meller. Picture: John Feder
Former AMP CEO Craig Meller. Picture: John Feder