Using technology to fight online abuse: hiding in plain sight

Research shows one in two Australians have experienced some form of online abuse. This abuse can take many forms and can have a devastating effect on the lives of its victims.

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A study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics also found one in four women and one in six men have suffered emotional abuse by a partner.

"Increasingly many financial institutions are finding payment text fields on banking platforms are being used to stalk, harass or threaten some victims. The perpetrators use this method to avoid detection and police scrutiny.”

As advancements in digital payments technology continue to evolve, many financial institutions have noticed small transactions are being used to send abusive messages in payment transaction data.

ANZ is a founding member of the AUSTRAC-led Fintel Alliance, formed in 2017 to strengthen the finance industry’s capability to tackle such issues and to better support police investigations.

The alliance has brought industry parties together and that collaboration has been successful at detecting and disrupting serious crimes including child sexual exploitation, illegal wildlife trafficking and money laundering through ATMs.

In 2021 the Fintel Alliance turned its attention to abuse and domestic violence threats facilitated through financial transactions.

Small transactions, big insights

Increasingly many financial institutions are finding payment text fields on banking platforms are being used to stalk, harass or threaten some victims. The perpetrators use this method to avoid detection and police scrutiny.

At ANZ we have been working hard to play a role in identifying and investigating this abusive behaviour. It is some of our most vulnerable customers who are subject to this type of harassment and abuse.

Working with AUSTRAC, industry and law enforcement, our Financial Crime team used abusive payments indicators published in an AUSTRAC financial crime guide to develop a new way to identify this abuse.

Our team deployed a complex algorithm that helps identify threats of domestic violence in payment messages. Once identified, these threats can be investigated and in some cases reported to the relevant authorities.

In some instances the work of our Financial Crime team has identified cases involving an imminent threat to life. In those high-risk cases the team escalated the concerns to ensure the relevant authorities were able to take appropriate action in time.

Detection and monitoring

AUSTRAC Deputy Chief Executive Officer Dr John Moss said “The financial sector has an important role to play in preventing payment platforms being misused by offenders for domestic abuse and other criminal activity.

“We are concerned about the increase in use of financial transaction text fields used to perpetuate family violence and criminal activity.

“As part of AUSTRAC’s Fintel Alliance, ANZ’s work will assist in the detection of these serious crimes, ensuring that law enforcement agencies have critical information to protect vulnerable members of the community from harm.”

In one recent example, ANZ’s algorithm identified an individual who had sent repeated abusive and threatening payment messages valued at $1 or less. These included high-volume, same-day payments to one particular victim.

Following the detection, investigation and escalation through our reporting channels, the offender was apprehended by authorities.

By looking at the low transaction volumes, the team was able to monitor the text fields of those transactions closely. Some of the messages indicated the offender was watching the victim’s house and in others threatened to turn up at locations where the victim would be.

This particular case was reported to AUSTRAC and then referred to the law enforcement upon further analysis. The police investigation identified these messages had been sent in breach of a court-issued Protection Order and the offender was subsequently arrested and charged.

Closer collaboration

Our experience so far has found that once the algorithm was developed, the monitoring and reporting of potential cases is crucial to detecting and escalating these cases.

It is also the close collaboration between AUSTRAC and law enforcement which has helped produce such results.

In relation to ANZ’s abusive payments algorithm and investigations the New South Wales Police said “The reporting that ANZ has come up with is of the highest quality. It's provided valuable added intelligence. It's enhanced the understanding of what's happening and in a number of cases has stopped future offending.”

We have taken some important steps in a process that we’re continually improving and we’ll keep working with our partners to ensure vulnerable customers are protected.

Kevin Corbally is Chief Risk Officer at ANZ

The Fintel Alliance has been awarded the Best Collaboration of the Year Award by the International Compliance Association (ICA). The award recognises the collaborative efforts of the Fintel Alliance to identify and disrupt organised crime syndicates using automatic teller machines (ATMs) to launder the proceeds of crime. AUSTRAC CEO Nicole Rose said “it’s an honour for AUSTRAC’s Fintel Alliance to be nominated for this award by the ANZ bank for this project. We recognise this is an outcome that would not have been achieved without the close collaboration of all partners.”

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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