The money trap: Australian women drag banks to the fight against relentless financial abuse

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When Ella* left an abusive relationship, her partner cleared all their joint bank accounts, leaving her with no access to money.

She had no way to fill her car with petrol or to buy nappies and formula.

That was only the start of a financial nightmare that compounded the physical, emotional and psychological abuse she experienced during the relationship, something experts in the field say is all but universal among survivors.

Annabelle Daniel, the chair of Domestic Violence NSW, says: “I’m hard-pressed to think of a woman we’ve supported in our shelter network who hasn’t experienced financial abuse.”

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Ella was unaware that her former partner had set up their finances so that all the assets were in his name, while all the bills were in hers.

She had let him make the decisions because he persistently undermined her confidence in managing financial matters.

“Just constantly telling me ‘you don’t understand money. You don’t understand how the real world works. You’re not good with money’.’”

When they separated, he stopped paying the bills, racking up debt in her name for services in a home she was no longer living in.

“He forwarded them on quite a way down the track, so they were all long overdue and I just looked at them and thought: ‘I can’t afford to pay this. I don’t know what to do’. So I just ignored it.

Her partner also stopped paying the mortgage, so the significant amount the couple had saved up in a redraw facility had disappeared by the time they completed their property settlement.

It was only when debt collectors pressed her for the money that she “started to panic” and told her parents what was happening.

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Weaponisation of financial products

A report released by the Centre for Women’s Economic Safety (CWES) this week called for banks to redesign products to prevent financial abuse.

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It noted that more than 500,000 abusive transactions had been intercepted since real-time blocks on inappropriate language in the descriptions of bank transfers were introduced in 2020.

One woman received 900 messages in this form from her abuser in the space of a few days, attached to deposits of as little as one cent.

They included direct threats of physical violence (“I want to kill you. I want to kill them all”), warnings that she was under surveillance (“I can see you. I’m out the front”) and demands for online access (“Unblock me from Facebook”).

The interceptions have resulted in 3,000 customers being issued a warning letter, having their online banking suspended or accounts closed.

For the overwhelming majority (90%), a warning letter was enough to stop abuse via bank transactions.

The report’s author, Catherine Fitzpatrick, says it’s a first step towards shielding women from some elements of financial abuse.

“I’ve seen first-hand the progress Australian banks have made to improve support for customers who disclose domestic and family violence,” Fitzpatrick says.

But using payments as a messaging service is only one of the many ways she has witnessed financial products being weaponised while working as a banking executive.

Ella, who left her partner a few years ago, says she didn’t always recognise what happened to her as financial abuse, and when she did it was not a priority.

“The financial stuff was really the least of my worries when I was in the relationship.

“I was experiencing financial abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, social isolation, a lot of threats of suicide. There were so many elements to it.”

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But in hindsight, she could see how it began and was perpetuated.

“I would almost have to ask permission or say, ‘I need money for a doctor’s appointment,’ and he would say, ‘No, we can’t afford that’. So I wouldn’t do it.

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“I didn’t feel like at the time I had to ask permission, but the way it just sort of worked, I did, and he had the final say in what we did and didn’t spend money on.”

Their credit cards and bank accounts were held jointly, but he would cancel or drastically lower the limit without her consent.

“I’d be doing groceries with our young kids and go to pay at the checkout and the card would decline.”

When she left him, he continued working while loading her with debt from the unpaid mortgage.

“He essentially had all that time of earning a full-time income not having to pay the mortgage. Meanwhile, I didn’t have a job at the time of leaving, so I’d had to get on to Centrelink payments, and then get a part-time job. Our kids were quite young, so I couldn’t work full-time.

“I’d been out of the workforce for a little while with the kids. I hadn’t been able to build up my career because the focus has always been on his career. So yeah, it put me in a really bad financial situation.”

Banking not the only service platform open to misuse

The latest national plan to end violence against women and children, launched in October, identifies economic and financial abuse as a priority area and highlights the role business can play.

Fitzpatrick says more needs to be done to prevent abuse before it happens.

“Banking products can and should be redesigned so that couples who set up joint accounts have protections in place from the very beginning.”

The CWES report identifies joint banking products such as transaction accounts, credit cards, personal loans and mortgages as those most commonly implicated in financial abuse.

It recommends setting up every joint account with separate passwords, logins and portals for each person so it’s simpler and safer couples to separate if the relationship ends or is abusive. In Ella’s case the bank failed to enforce a provision for each account holder to authorise transactions, for which it later apologised.

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She says it was “incredibly humiliating” to ask her family to borrow money, but is grateful she had someone who could help.

“I know that many women in the same boat wouldn’t have someone to turn to,” she says.

Those women will often end up homeless, according to Karen Bentley, the chief executive of The Women’s Services Network (Wesnet), the national peak body for specialist women’s domestic and family violence services.

Domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness for Australian women.

Bentley says banking is the first industry to say it will stop offering its services to those who misuse its platforms.

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“We’re starting to see people understand that it’s not the technology that’s the problem – like we’re not going to ban the message field on the banking apps.

“But you can do something to try and hold to account the people who are using it for a purpose that it’s not intended for.”

Bentley says other services now need to follow the banks’ lead.

“We have so many essential services in Australia, be that government welfare payments, or the healthcare sector or the utilities or telecommunications or banking, where the whole model has been [designed] around trying to make it easier for a nuclear family.

“And unfortunately, they’re not set up for people moving in and out of relationships.”

Names have been changed.

In Australia, the national family violence counselling service is 1800 737 732.

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