Using design to combat economic abuse

Content Warning: The following article discusses violence against women.

Victims of abuse – be it financial, physical or emotional – are some of the most vulnerable members of our society. So, when they seek help, we must listen and act.

Click image to zoom Tap image to zoom

A recent report by the Centre for Women’s Economic Safety (CWES) revealed victims of financial abuse were more likely to seek assistance from their bank than from domestic and family violence services.

"Discard the intuition that just because you know someone, they could not possibly hurt or abuse another. The people who use violence and abuse against their families, partners, children, colleagues, friends or dates are people you already know.”  – Members of the Independent Collective of Survivors wrote for the Australian National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-2032

This means a bank can often be the first to learn of abusive relationships. This may surprise many people. But it also raises an important question: how can banks actively respond to, prevent and limit harm from financial abuse?

Catherine Fitzpatrick, Adjunct Associate Professor UNSW School of Social Sciences, offers a compelling answer through her report, "Designed to Disrupt." It presents a blueprint for reimagining banking products to enhance financial safety.

"Women are more than twice as likely as men to experience economic abuse, compounded by existing economic inequities. Coupled with an inadequate safety net, this predicament forces women to choose between violence and poverty," said CWES Chief Executive Officer, Rebecca Glenn.

The impact of financial abuse is typically long term with profound impacts for an individual, according to UNSW’s Fitzpatrick. It can erode self-esteem, create immense stress and hinder long-term financial independence.

Separation from an abusive partner often exacerbates this issue. For example, studies show mothers who separate from violent partners experience a 34 per cent drop in income.

What is Financial Abuse?

Financial abuse is a form of family violence that can be overlooked because other more visible forms of abuse are taking place.

It is more than just a disagreement over money. It involves controlling behaviours and is often combined with other forms of abuse including verbal and psychological abuse, physical violence, stalking, sexual abuse and intimidation. It includes actions that may limit victims’ access to money. 

The Australian National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022–2032, a joint Australian, state and territory government initiative, examined how this abuse can often be hidden.

“Discard the intuition that just because you know someone, they could not possibly hurt or abuse another. The people who use violence and abuse against their families, partners, children, colleagues, friends or dates are people you already know. People you like. People you love.” Members of the Independent Collective of Survivors wrote for the plan.

Warning signs of financial abuse: 

  • Forcing you into debt by taking out loans or a credit card in your name
  • Taking or using your money without permission
  • Not being allowed to work or study
  • Being forced to explain how you spend money 
  • Controlling how much access you have to your money 
  • Withholding financial information from you
  • Making you work
  • Forcing you to make claims for Centrelink payments
  • Taking out joint debts or opening joint accounts to allow easy access to how and where you spend your money

The “Designed to Disrupt” report sites some examples:

  • Credit cards opened within minutes through online portals in the name of victim-survivors without their knowledge, with every application registering on their credit score and building an inaccurate and potentially damaging picture of their financial health
  • Withdrawing all cash from joint accounts or redraw facilities without the knowledge or consent of victim survivors
  • Legally binding property settlement orders to refinance home loans are ignored by perpetrators, forcing victim-survivors to seek support for mortgage repayments they can’t afford while trying to disentangle from their ex-partner
  • Instant receipts or real-time transaction notifications are used to stalk a victim-survivor
  • Payment descriptions are used to send unwanted, threatening, abusive messages

Designing for Safety

In many ways bank products are designed for harmonious relationships, especially joint bank accounts where money is typically shared and either person can operate the account without limitations.

But relationships can and do change over time. Banks need to have easy and flexible ways for customers to alter their banking arrangements. For example, both parties of a relationship may enter a mortgage agreement consensually. When the relationship breaks down, one person – sometimes the victim of abuse – may end up with responsibility for the loan.

UNSW’s Fitzpatrick suggests banks ask the question “What happens to the victim-survivor when they are saddled with a loan they acquired while in a relationship with a person who abused them?”

This is something banks are beginning to wrestle with, with support and measures in place for circumstances involving abuse and or control in the relationship. Fitzpatrick’s research argues the key is trying to prevent abuse before it starts.

Banks need to make it difficult for abusers to exploit financial products for coercive control, signal that abusive behaviour is unacceptable and continually enhance their support for victim-survivors, she said.

Early prevention

In the hands of an abuser, the simplest financial tool can be turned into a medium for abuse.

For example, abusers can use payment description fields to threaten and harass former partners. Typically payments have a low value (under $1), but they can be frequent in nature, sometimes more than 100 messages a day in some cases.

The report recommends banks embed financial safety by design principles in their product development. Changing product terms and conditions is the first step.

Many Australian banks, including ANZ, are doing just that – amending terms and conditions to warn abusers that financial abuse including misuse of payment fields can result in services being cut off.

ANZ wants to make clear to customers we do not tolerate our products being used to abuse and we will take action to suspend, cancel or deny access to any account found to do so. 

Preventive action commenced in 2021 when ANZ’s financial crime team developed an algorithm to identify harmful misuse of payment fields. The algorithm supplements a ‘block’ in digital channels which detects certain profane words. 

When the algorithm identifies potentially abusive messaging, they are investigated. Some cases are referred to the regulator AUSTRAC, which can lead to arrests and prosecutions. Some cases involving serious and imminent threats of harm are reported to police.

Providing support

It is one thing to intervene quickly, but it is also crucial to provide rapid support for victim-survivors when they need it. This can include changing banking arrangements to limit harm from a controlling partner and referrals to community organisations.

Our Extra Care Hub was established to provide that support, with a particular focus on customers impacted by family violence and financial abuse. This year the hub has supported about 800 customers across Australia.

The hub can refer customers to community services, including financial counselling, which can be a key step towards improving financial wellbeing and regaining economic independence. Economic dependency can keep a person locked in an abusive relationship.

ANZ also partners with Uniting CareRing to provide support to customers impacted by family violence. CareRing connects customers to services including housing support, social workers, drug and alcohol support, employment services and financial counselling.

We have referred 499 customers to CareRing this year. Customers can also be referred to our MoneyMinded program to help develop financial literacry and basic budgeting skills.

Tackling financial abuse takes a whole of community response and banks play an important role. Both through support, but also increasingly through prevention strategies including product design.

For more information about how ANZ can provide support for customers impacted by family violence, visit: Family violence and financial abuse | ANZ

Meg Dalling is Customer Advocate at ANZ.

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

editor's picks

19 May 2023

Data driven solutions: from driving quality in technology to violence prevention

Catherine Lockstone | Capability Area Lead – Quality Engineering at ANZ

Catherine Lockstone crunched data when she was on the board of Kara Family Violence Services. That work supported the findings of an Australian Royal Commission. Now she does similar work at ANZ, enhancing the quality of engineering.

08 Mar 2023

More action is needed to bridge the financial wellbeing gender gap

Natalie Paine | Social Impact Research and Reporting Lead, ANZ

A disparity exists in the financial wellbeing of men and women – and just like the gender pay gap it will take work and systemic change to address the inequity.