Mum’s horror find in 17yo’s mail
When Alyson Gearing returned from an overseas trip to a pile of unopened mail for her daughter, what she found inside horrified her.
Two-and-a-half years ago, the Newcastle mum created an account for 17-year-old Emma with the family superannuation fund, Mine Super.
The high school student was finishing her HSCs and had just started a casual job earning around $80 a week.
Thinking she was doing the right thing, Ms Gearing deposited $200 and later another $1000 in the account to kickstart her daughter's super balance. Less than a year later, the money had gone backwards.
"It was, 'Oh my gosh, where's it all gone?'" the 57-year-old said.
"We didn't even look at any statements for quite a while. I thought it would be a nice healthy $1500 or something. I went overseas and when I came back there were all these letters that hadn't been opened."
A superannuation statement covering 2016 and 2017 shows how Emma's meagre super balance was whittled down via fees and insurance premiums, virtually from the moment the account was opened.
The initial deposit of $200 was hit with $52 in "administration fees" between September and February. That's when the insurance premiums of nearly $80 a month started - $24.92 for total death and disability insurance, $53.91 for income protection.
In March, Emma received her first actual superannuation guarantee payment from her employer of just $34.22. By the end of June, her employer had made $368.07 in contributions but Mine Super had charged her a total of $490.15 in fees and insurance premiums.
"Her balance was down to $39," Ms Gearing said. Emma's balance had continued to go backwards after her mum's top-up payment of $1000 - before anyone opened the statements - to finish October at $883.36.
"They had been taking out $79 a month for total death and disability and income protection (intended for) someone earning $80,000 a year, for a kid that was doing casual work and going to university full-time," she said.
"I rang and I sent letters and said, 'You can't do that.' They just said, 'We have an obligation to protect our clients and their families in case of injury.' If she had had an accident, would they have paid her $80,000 a year? I don't think so."
Adding insult to injury, Mine Super charged Emma an extra $28.22 in "termination fees" to cancel the insurance policy when Ms Gearing stepped in.
Mine Super initially declined to refund the premiums, saying the insurance was "automatically added" once she started receiving employer contributions as she "met the eligibility criteria".
It said she had failed to opt out after receiving an "insurance welcome letter".
"We have conducted a review of your account to determine if we have received any correspondence in relation to your insurance cover with us," a complaints officer wrote in September. "Our search has not identified any correspondence that requests to change your insurance."
Ms Gearing, who ultimately got the money back only after threatening to complain to the Ombudsman, said it was a "double standard" that the insurance was taken out without written permission but it had to be cancelled in writing.
"The point is kids don't look at their superannuation, they don't open their super letters, they don't even know what that is," she said. "Insurance should only be taken out with the written permission of the customer."
A Mine Super spokesperson said in a statement: "While we can't respond on individual circumstances due to confidentiality, we can confirm this case went through our standard complaints procedure.
"All members are given default insurance cover as outlined in our PDS and welcome pack. Members are given 90 days to call us to cancel their insurance for a full refund. We also work with members to give them a refund in certain circumstances outside this 90 day period."
Superannuation Consumers' Centre head of advocacy Xavier O'Halloran said unfortunately Ms Gearing's story was all too common.
He said young people were often loaded up with "every type of insurance, despite not having dependants or financial commitments".
"Too often people's first experience of superannuation is discovering they've lost every cent they earnt in their 20s due to fees and insurance," he said.
"Currently it doesn't work for young people, people on low incomes or those spending long periods out of employment."
It comes as two pieces of federal legislation intended to close superannuation loopholes are set to be voted on by the Senate in coming days.
The changes under the Protecting Your Superannuation Package would make insurance opt-in for under 25s, people on low incomes and with long-term inactive accounts, cap fees at 3 per cent, and auto-consolidate long-term inactive accounts.
A second bill, Improving Accountability and Member Outcomes in Superannuation Measures, allows employees to choose their own superannuation fund and closes a loophole that allows employers to reduce their superannuation payments by the amount an employee voluntarily contributes.
Mr O'Halloran said the next 48 hours would be the "moment of truth for our federal politicians".
"They've got an opportunity to protect our super savings from high fees and set us all up for a much better standard of living in retirement," he said.
"If the Protecting Your Super Package is passed, life insurers stand to lose the easy profits they've been making from the retirement savings of Australians."
Mr O'Halloran said insurers had unleashed a huge lobbying effort to convince politicians and super funds to "keep the gravy train flowing", and had be successful in delaying the legislation so far.
"This legislation strikes a much better balance by allowing those who still want insurance to take it up," he said.
Ms Gearing said she was fortunate she could keep on top of the issue as she works part-time. With two older children aged 23 and 25, she has spent the past decade "fighting every time" they start a new job.
"My kids initially had funds go into a retail industry fund," she said.
"For a long time death and disability insurance was taken out without their knowledge. When we finally managed to get it stopped, and it had to be in writing to stop, not begin, my children had lost most of their super."
While billions of dollars have poured out of retail super funds and into industry funds in the wake of damning revelations at the banking royal commission, Ms Gearing's experience shows industry funds are not immune to poor behaviour.
"I don't think most people look at their super funds," she said. "I bring this up quite often with friends, 'Go and look at your children's statements.'"
Even today, Emma has "still never looked at one of her super statements".
"When I tell her she shrugs her shoulders," she said. "'Thanks mum.'"