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.
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.
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.