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'We were horrified by what we found.' How a bank discovered a hidden tactic of abuse.

Financial abuse — the act of controlling a person’s access to economic resources — is understood to be a particularly ‘hidden’ tactic used in the context of domestic violence (DV).

While we know that financial abuse is present in almost every case of DV, victims often don’t recognise the signs until after they’ve left the relationship. Behaviours like restricting access to money and making major financial decisions without any consultation can seem acceptable, and might even appear to come under the guise of an intimate partner being ‘caring’. But money is one of the biggest barriers to people leaving violent relationships, and when it’s being used as a tactic of abuse, it can take years or even decades to recover.

Despite the prevalence and severe toll of financial abuse, we’re only just starting to understand what it looks like and the impact it has on victims.

On Thursday, the Commonwealth Bank announced a new acceptable use policy for its digital banking services, after discovering abusive messages in transaction descriptions.

“After noticing disturbing messages in the account of a customer experiencing domestic and family violence, we conducted analysis to better understand the problem,” said Catherine Fitzpatrick, General Manager of Community and Customer Vulnerability.

“We were horrified by both the scale and the nature of what we found. In a three month period, we identified more than 8,000 CBA customers who received multiple low-value deposits, often less than $1, with potentially abusive messages in the transaction descriptions – in effect using them as a messaging service. All genders were sending and receiving these messages, but the nature ranged from fairly innocuous ‘jokes’ using profanities to serious threats and clear references to domestic and family violence.”

It’s the latest iteration of what Anna Bligh, CEO of the Australian Banking Association, describes as “the shocking… lengths that violent partners will go to threaten, harass and abuse”.

Listen: The ‘invisible’ issue of financial abuse. Post continues after audio.


Tactics of abuse, it seems, evolve as technology, lifestyles and circumstances change.

“When we talk about financial abuse, we often think about someone coming home and taking all the money from the pay packet, and that physical thing of removing their partner’s money,” Moo Baulch, Head of Customer Vulnerability at Commonwealth Bank, told Mamamia. The reality, however, is that it’s far more complex.

“It’s also things like stopping [a person] accessing Centrelink benefits or childcare benefits, or refusing access to a bank account or a credit card.

“It might be coercing them to do those sorts of things against their will. And then we see this really awful, insidious stuff where that power and control is so focused that it’s… ‘I want to see all your receipts for this week, I want you to keep a diary of what you’re spending money on, and you need to justify every single expense to me.’ It might be stopping somebody from being able to pay bills, access to resources from the outside, like a car or money for petrol.”

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And, now, there’s evidence transaction descriptions offer another avenue for abusers to belittle, humiliate and control their victims.

“The new acceptable use policy makes it clear that it is unacceptable to use our digital services to stalk, harass or intimidate any person and if we see this we may refuse transactions or close a perpetrator’s account entirely,” Fitzpatrick said on Thursday. “We worked with experts, community partners and law enforcement to ensure they are aware of what we found and to help us to develop responses that will not have unintended consequences.

“Our customers should always feel safe using digital banking. These changes will ensure that all customers can continue to enjoy the benefits of digital banking in a safe and secure way and represents our first step to address the issue of technology-facilitated abuse.

“We are committed to improving the financial wellbeing of all Australians, including the most vulnerable and those impacted by domestic and financial abuse. We will continue to look for new and innovative ways to protect our customers, and have shared our findings with other banks and financial services organisations to ensure this issue is known across the industry.”

It’s particularly worrying that the global COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on domestic and family violence, with a report from Women’s Safety NSW showing a dramatic increase in both the demand and complexity of DFV. Factors like stress and uncertainty, as well as people losing jobs and financial concerns, often correlate with an increase in financial abuse. Therefore, it’s an important time to be aware of the range of behaviours that constitute financial abuse — including threats and harassment in online banking transaction descriptions.

According to Renata Field, media spokesperson for Domestic Violence New South Wales (DVNSW), the two most important things we can do if we suspect someone in our lives is experiencing abuse is to listen and believe.

“If somebody is in immediate risk, then always call the police,” she said. “We know that people do die — one woman a week dies, and one child a fortnight — so domestic and family violence is a risk, and it’s important if you think someone is imminently at harm, then to call the police.”

If you are personally affected by domestic violence, you can call 1800 RESPECT 24 hours, 7 days a week.

Financial abuse occurs when someone uses money as a means to gain power or control with their partner. To address this serious issue, CommBank has designed the Recognise and Recover Guide to help you identify and find support when experiencing financial abuse. It includes information about financial abuse, strategies for recognising financial abuse and direction to resources that may be helpful to support your recovery.

Instances of domestic and family violence often increase in times of disaster. The coronavirus pandemic is proving to be no exception globally, with financial abuse also likely to increase. CommBank has also produced a guide about the impact of the coronavirus and domestic and family violence; with helpful information about financial abuse, pathways to support and useful suggestions about staying safe and staying connected.

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