Monday 29 July 2019 6:03 am

What are the banks doing to help survivors of financial abuse?

Financial abuse rarely occurs in isolation, as perpetrators often use physical and emotional behaviour to reinforce it

Money ultimately brings us freedom, so what if your partner were to restrict access to your income or bank account?

It’s not uncommon for perpetrators of domestic abuse to manipulate their partners through money in this way – in fact, according to Women’s Aid, a third of survivors say that their access to cash during their relationship was controlled by their abuser. 

Now consider the fact that 26 per cent of women and 15 per cent of men in England and Wales experience domestic abuse at some point in their lifetime. And yet, the financial side of domestic abuse is deeply misunderstood, and for this reason, it can often go unreported. 

So what actually is it? According to the charity Surviving Economic Abuse, this behaviour is designed to reinforce or create economic instability. And in this way, it limits people’s choices and ability to access safety. 

While economic abuse can be broader than just limiting access to money, and includes efforts by abusers to deprive their partners of basic essentials like food, clothing or transport, financial abuse is a major factor. If people don’t have the financial means to be independent, it forces them to stay with abusive partners for longer. 

We hear from women on a weekly basis who are facing issues with their bank or building society around economic abuse

Financial abuse rarely occurs in isolation, as perpetrators often use physical and emotional behaviour to reinforce it. And despite perceptions, men and women at all income levels can be victims of abuse. In fact, individuals who don’t fit the victim stereotype – such as professionals in high income households – often feel like their experience is ignored. In many ways, this shows how stereotypes, particularly those about typical gender roles, can end up reinforcing abusive patterns.

Amid all of this is a glimmer of hope in the form of new legislation, which Theresa May pushed through parliament just days before handing over the keys to Downing Street last week. 

Introduced in parliament on 16 July, the Domestic Abuse Bill would offer more support to victims, while helping bring perpetrators to justice – and for the first time, the rules include emotional and economic abuse.

Victims have unique needs when it comes to separating and managing their finances, so the question is: what are banks doing to try to help? 

The Financial Abuse Code of Practice was launched in October last year, and since then, banks have been working with specialist domestic violence charities to make sure that they handle situations of coercive control appropriately. City A.M. spoke to the UK’s biggest banks, HSBC, Lloyds, Barclays, RBS, and Santander, to find out what they’re doing to help victims. 

Spot the signs

All five banks told us that they train staff to help them spot the signs of abuse and support suspected victims. 

HSBC outlined some of the warning signs, such as unusual account activity, unpaid bills, or an unexplained shortage of money. In more than half of cases, an abusive partner will take out loans and build up bad debts in the victim’s name, according to Women’s Aid. But signs of abuse can also be subtle and behavioural, such as nervousness when interacting with banking staff, while Santander points out that the perpetrator may give clues in their behaviour too.

Often it’s the frontline staff at banks who raise the alarm bells and support victims. In fact, a Women’s Aid survey found that 14.6 per cent of domestic abuse survivors had sought help from their bank. All the banks we spoke to said that suspected cases of financial abuse should be escalated to the bank’s specialist customer protection team, who assess the impact and look at the options for the victim going forward, such as opening a new account.

Nowadays, most banks have systems in place to flag a vulnerable customer when they walk into a branch or pick up the phone. Indeed, one bank said that, with the customer’s consent, staff can add confidential notes to their account to ensure that their colleagues are aware of the situation.

Escape plan

Even those who share joint accounts with their partners are not safe from financial abuse. Indeed, many victims don’t have access to the money within these accounts because their debit cards have been confiscated by their partners, while a third have their wages taken from them directly, according to Women’s Aid.

One way banks can help victims is to separate the joint account, removing additional cardholders to prevent further abuse. However, one barrier for victims is that both parties typically need to give permission for one of them to be removed from a joint account – and while they are able to do this separately, they are ultimately jointly liable for any debts on that account. Some banks are also able to protect funds in joint accounts by blocking transactions.

For survivors who have escaped abusive partners, there are various protective measures used by the big banks, such as moving to paperless billing, and resetting pins, passwords, and security details.

Some survivors might be worried that their branch details could reveal to their ex-partner where they are living. To avoid this risk, banks can arrange for customers to be given a non-geographical sort code (which is essentially a generic sort code not linked to a specific location), and can also allow vulnerable customers to transfer their existing account to a branch of their choice.

Outside the box

Banks often have to diverge from their usual protocols in order to protect their vulnerable customers. For example, new customers wanting to set up an account must provide documents to verify their identity, such as proof of address. But domestic abuse survivors may be living in temporary accommodation or simply be unable to provide the information needed. 

In this case, bank staff can consider whether an exemption to the rules might be appropriate, while arranging for any post to be sent to a safe address, such as a women’s refuge. Indeed, HSBC told us that it can accept a letter from a recognised charity or victim support organisation in order to continue to support the victim. 

And, of course, many victims who have suffered violence at the hands of their partners are distressed and possibly not in a frame of mind to deal with their finances properly. In such circumstances, banks like HSBC allow survivors to appoint a trusted representative to manage their money on their behalf until they feel strong enough to do it themselves.

Surviving to thriving

Unfortunately, a 2015 report from Women’s Aid found that the response from banks had often been poor. 

When City A.M. asked if enough was now being done to help victims, Christina Govier from Surviving Economic Abuse said encouraging steps have been taken within the industry since the code of conduct was launched nine months ago. 

However, she said that there has not been significant sector-wide change responding to the issue, adding: “We continue to hear from women on a weekly basis who are facing issues with their bank or building society around economic abuse.”

The abuse itself can be exacerbated by the way companies deal with situations, with some staff failing to respond to what they are told. Govier said banks should be responsive to a victim’s needs, taking action that is outside their normal procedure, such as offering a longer appointment or moving deadlines to allow more time to make any financial decisions.

Domestic abuse is always a complex issue, and it’s important that banks ­try to make the situation for survivors better, not worse.