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MoneyJune 24, 2021

How online bank transfers are being hijacked for harassment and abuse

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Photo: Getty Images

An unexpected loophole is being used to target and intimidate victims of domestic violence – one that has the banking industry scrambling to fight back. 

Writing a silly joke or lewd message in the odd online payment is nothing new, and – other than potentially jeopardising your chances of being approved for a home loan – is a relatively harmless way friends and family try and get a kick out of each other. But over the past year, a new and disturbing use of this feature has started to emerge: one in which banks across the region are only just starting to grapple. 

Last year, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) noticed a series of disturbing messages in the account of a customer experiencing domestic violence. When it decided to dig further, it found it wasn’t dealing with a rare, isolated incident, but that more than 8,000 customers had received online payments with abusive messages in the transaction description over a three-month period, often across multiple, low-value deposits amounting to as little as a few cents at a time. 

“We were horrified by both the scale and the nature of what we found,” said Catherine Fitzpatrick, CBA’s general manager of customer vulnerability. “I’ve seen 900 messages over a two-hour period saying things like ‘I want to kill you’. They’re blocked on Facebook so they’re using the app to send intimidating and harassing messages for one cent each.”

Since then, other banks have started to take notice and have made efforts to track down abuse on its platforms, including those in New Zealand. Last month, BNZ announced that it found approximately 2,000 monthly transactions over a six-month period containing problematic use of payment reference fields, mostly containing swear words or other abuse. In one instance, an individual made more than 40 transactions with messages begging their ex-partner to take them back. 

At Westpac NZ, whose Australian operation jumped on the issue at the start of this year, shocking levels of abuse were also found on its platform, according to general manager of consumer banking and wealth Gina Dellabarca. She says over a two-month period, the bank flagged more than 35,000 transactions by 13,000 customers as containing some type of bad language, and while the “absolute majority of that was banter”, a deep dive found at least 50 customers had been impacted in a harmful way. 

“Most of it was like a friend paying a friend after a night out or something, but when you drilled down further there were also some quite [abusive] comments, like death threats, manipulative comments and degrading language towards women.”

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“It’s something that I hadn’t heard of before, but I have to say I wasn’t surprised to hear that it was happening,” says Holly Carrington of domestic violence charity Shine, who found out about the issue at the start of this year. “Afterwards, I immediately checked in with our frontline advocates to see if they’d ever heard of this happening to our clients, and a few of our advocates at the time said they had.

“One specific instance an advocate told me about was just relentless messages. They’d say ‘I love you’, ‘I miss you’, ‘I want you back’ one minute, and then ‘I hate you’, swearing and threats the next.”

Carrington says it’s common for abusers to relentlessly pursue their partners and ex-partners through calls, texts and social media where they often end up being blocked. As a result, some have turned to online banking as a messaging tool instead. But unlike Facebook or Instagram, banks are finding that simply banning an account isn’t always going to be the best option.

“It’s a tricky one because you don’t want to inadvertently cause financial harm to the person who’s receiving the verbal abuse because they’re no longer able to receive payments from somebody who, for example, provides child support payments,” says Carrington. “But if the person on the receiving end of those abusive messages is the bank’s customer, I would think the best thing to do would be to contact that person and find out what they would like to happen.”

For Westpac, Dellabarca says the bank has taken Shine’s advice on dealing with the issue and is working “in the best interests of those being impacted”. However, she admits that because of privacy reasons, there’s limited scope to what it can do if the abuser is with a different bank. 

“If it’s a Westpac customer, we’ve got a framework we want to work to which is to advise the person that we understand they’ve been putting in derogatory comments and telling them not to do that,” she says. “But we have to be careful because we don’t want unintended consequences of that person taking a different course of action … so it’s a tricky one that we have to look at on a case-by-case basis.”

Elsewhere, New Zealand’s other major banks have taken a similar approach. BNZ general manager for customer assistance Martin King told RNZ it would contact customers with offers of help, such as the option to change bank accounts, while directing them to support agencies such as Shine, Good Shepherd and Women’s Refuge. Kiwibank, ASB and ANZ also told The Spinoff they are currently investigating the issue and are looking at preventative measures, such as technology that can screen transactions for offensive or inappropriate language. 

But banning specific words won’t be an instant fix. Dellabarca says Westpac currently has 1,200 words flagged as concerning but that detecting them can be difficult when, for example, letters are replaced with numbers or symbols instead.

Another issue is the fact that abusers can easily jump from bank to bank, prolonging any potential abuse or harassment. Carrington says industry-wide regulations and cooperation across the banking sector would help close this loophole and show “all New Zealanders that this is unacceptable behaviour and the banks won’t let them get away with it”.

“I hope that the people doing this realise that there’s likely to be recourse at their bank. I also hope that people who [are on the receiving end on this abuse] actually talk to their bank about what’s happening and see if they can get it stopped.”

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