Australian banks, telcos, energy providers and insurance companies have introduced policies to better protect vulnerable customers who have been subjected to economic abuse.
A range of voluntary codes, guidelines, and in some cases legal requirements were introduced, mainly in response to the recommendations made by the Andrews Government’s Victorian royal commission into domestic violence in 2015.
Carolyn Bond, project manager for the Economic Abuse Reference Group, said the industries had done considerable work to improve services for survivors of family violence including those suffering economic abuse.
This included training staff to better identify vulnerable customers, blocking internet access to accounts, and reducing or waiving debts.
“The Australian Bankers Association, Insurance Council of Australia, Communications Alliance (the telco industry body) all have guidance for these businesses,” Ms Bond said.
“One extreme example of abuse is where a perpetrator damages property, including setting fire to a jointly-owned home. While the parties usually have joint insurance and therefore the insurer can deny such a claim, we are finding that insurers are increasingly considering making some payment in these cases, and one major insurer now refers to this in their policies.”
Energy providers are now required by law in Victoria to take into account the particular circumstances of family-violence affected customers or face big fines.
Australian Bankers Association chief executive officer Anna Bligh said financial abuse was an enabler for keeping women trapped in abusive and often dangerous relationships.
“Banks therefore take their role in supporting customers impacted by financial abuse extremely seriously,” Ms Bligh said.
“Banks are in a unique position in our society to do something about it because they have a relationship with millions of Australians all across the country.
“Today, thousands of bank staff across Australia are trained to be aware of the signs of financial abuse and the many examples of it that they might see, and they are trained to make appropriate referrals and assist their customers where they can.
“The sorts of signs that they are trained to look for include someone taking control of a partner’s wage or restricting access to it, hiding assets and misappropriating money from a joint account.”
ANZ customer advocate Jo McKinstray said the bank had teams trained to assist customers experiencing family violence, and to safely refer them to support services including 1800 RESPECT.
“If a customer appears to be at acute risk of harm we may offer to refer them to a service such as Uniting Care’s CareRing program, which provides holistic support, including financial counselling, psychological counselling, energy advice, family support, social worker assistance, access to a mental health specialist or housing support and in some instances ongoing case management by trained and skilled community service professionals,” Ms McKinstray said.
ANZ were also flexible when women were fleeing an abusive relationship and couldn’t access identification documents to open a new account, and also showed discretion in debt recovery when a customer was in financial hardship as a result of violence.
“While there is more work to be done, banks are committed to doing what they can to limit economic abuse and harm arising from family and domestic violence,” she said.
Financial abuse is a major factor in most domestic violence cases, and victims are being urged to seek support when preparing to leave an abusive partner.
A good escape plan can protect them from being further abused financially after they break free, according to financial counsellors and advisers.
They say many victims are “terrified” not only of their partner but also of being left destitute and potentially mired in debt.
“Part of the abuse is keeping the spouse in the dark when it comes to money, and making them feel like they have no other option and can’t leave,” JBS Financial Strategists CEO Jenny Brown said.
Here are the key steps in an escape plan.
1. OPEN A SEPARATE ACCOUNT
Abusers often exert power by controlling a couple’s finances and keeping all money and investments in their own name or joint accounts, with debts and bills held in the victim’s name.
Ms Brown said it was important to establish your own bank account.
“If everything is in a joint account the partner can freeze everything,” she says.
2. UNDERSTAND YOUR FINANCIAL SITUATION
Ms Brown said being fully prepared required detailed knowledge of debts and assets.
“Make sure you understand where the money is – where all the bank accounts are, where the investments are,” she said.
Solicitor Laura Bianchi, a team leader at Redfern Legal Centre’s Financial Abuse Service, said Australians could get a free copy of their credit report annually.
“If you find out you have debts in your name, seek free legal advice or financial counselling,” she said.
“Taking steps to reclaim your financial independence can provoke an abusive partner, so it is vital to be well supported, and to make a safety plan before leaving a financially abusive relationship.”
3. CONTACT THE BANK
Ms Bianchi said people had clear rights when finding out about finances.
“Even if it’s a joint credit card or loan with your partner, you don’t need to tell them or get their consent to contact your bank,” she said.
“Data from family violence services reveals that between 77 and 99 per cent of women presenting to Australian family violence services report a history of economic abuse.”
4. COPY ALL DOCUMENTS
Before leaving, make copies of everything that might be needed later.
Financial counsellor Lody Stewart from the Financial Rights Legal Centre said this should include bank accounts, identification, Tax File Numbers, Medicare details, passports and superannuation.
“Usually in abusive relationship they are being financially abused, which can mean household debts and accounts are in their name,” she said.
5. GET HELP
There’s a wide range of financial assistance and information available from welfare groups, free legal advice services, Centrelink, free financial counsellors and lenders’ hardship programs.
“If they want to talk about the financial side of things, call the National Debt Helpline on 1800 007 007,” Ms Stewart said.
Its website has a lot of information and an online chat feature.
“If someone is experiencing domestic violence there’s a quick exit button for safety reasons,” Ms Stewart said.
If you need help immediately please call:
*National Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence Counselling Service 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732
*24-hour Emergency Accommodation helpline on 1800 800 588
*Safe At Home helpline on 1800 633 937
*Family Violence Crisis and Support Service on 1800 608 122
*Bravehearts – Sexual Assault Support for Children on 1800 BRAVE 1
*Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491 or Don’t Become That Man on 1300 243 413
*Lifeline on 13 11 14
Women’s Legal Service Victoria – https://www.womenslegal.org.au/legal-services.html
Victoria Legal Aid – https://www.legalaid.vic.gov.au/get-legal-services-and-advice/free-legal-advice/get-help-over-phone
Good Shepherd – https://goodshep.org.au/services/financial-independence-fih/
Financial Counselling Australia – https://www.financialcounsellingaustralia.org.au/
Seniors Rights Victoria – https://seniorsrights.org.au/
Originally published as Five ways women can escape financial abuse