900 abusive messages in just two hours
It's a bizarre and "nasty" new form of psychological abuse and thousands of Australians are doing it every day.
Commonwealth Bank has said it uncovered at least 8000 separate individuals sending threatening and abusive messages to people via its apps and online banking systems.
In one instance, CBA's general manager of customer vulnerability Catherine Fitzpatrick told news.com.au, a single person sent their victim hundreds of abusive messages, one every few seconds, over a two-hour period.
"Who knew that someone would send multiple messages and write horrible, nasty threatening things through their bank account?"
Ms Fitzpatrick spoke to news.com.au at the launch of a new initiative launched by CommBank that aims to support people impacted by domestic and family violence, including financial abuse.
It's a problem that has only got worse during the pandemic.
As part of CBA's research prior to the program's launch it found a number of its customers were being harassed by people during the process of sending them low value online payments, often as low as one cent.
900 ABUSIVE MESSAGES IN TWO HOURS
Most of us move money around online, say if we owe a mate some cash or to pay a bill. When you do, you usually have to write a description of what the transaction is that goes onto the statement of the person receiving the money.
"I might write 'love mum' if I'm sending something to my children, but these people will send abusive messages," said Ms Fitzpatrick.
"We were horrified by both the scale and the nature of what we found.
"In a three-month period, we identified more than 8000 CBA customers who received multiple low-value deposits, often less than $1, with potentially abusive messages in the transaction description - in effect using them as a messaging service.
"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," she said.
CBA said this form of abuse was more prevalent among younger people.
Aside from the pain of receiving the message itself, some victims may, for example, need to rent a house and be forced to show a letting agency their bank statements meaning a complete stranger will see the messages.
"Its technology assisted abuse and it can be a precursor to financial abuse," Ms Fitzpatrick said.
'HIDDEN EPIDEMIC' IN AUSTRALIA
Cracking down on the ability for people to harass others through their IT systems is one part of Comm Bank's new family violence initiative called "Next Chapter".
The initial two elements of the program are launched this week.
The bank has set up a dedicated team that will be offer advice, including direct financial assistance in some cases, to customers who are suffering from domestic violence.
NEW SOUTH WALES DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SERVICES
There will also be a service, in partnership with the Good Shepherd family violence program, that will offer free access to specialised financial coaching and solutions to anyone impacted by domestic abuse no matter who they bank with. The aim is to help people become financially independent.
Commonwealth Bank chief executive officer Matt Comyn said research commissioned by the bank found 25 per cent of Australians had experienced some kind of financial abuse.
"Financial abuse is one of the most powerful ways to keep someone trapped in a domestic and family violence situation, causing victims and survivors serious financial stress both during the situation and for some time after they leave.
"It's a hidden epidemic in our country, that has directly affected one in four Australian adults, and we want to change that," he said.
Commonwealth Bank has not revealed how much it intends to invest in the program.
"BEGGING" A PARTNER FOR MONEY
The bank's research found the most common financial abuse behaviour was the victim being forced to spend all their income on household expenses while their partner used their own money almost exclusively on themselves.
Other behaviours included someone hiding their own income so their partner had no idea how much they earned, or one partner taking complete control of the other's finances.
CommBank has partnered with organisations including Domestic Violence New South Wales (DVNSW) and Our Watch which seeks to prevent family violence.
At an event last week, some of these organisations gave examples of financial abuse including having to "beg" a partner for an allowance or being forced to take out loans in your name which the partner will then use leaving you liable for the debt.
QUEENSLAND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SERVICES
WORSE DURING PANDEMIC
During the pandemic, there have been examples of some women being forced to take money out of their superannuation by their partner.
CBA couldn't say whether it had identified increasing signs of domestic violence occurring within its customer base since the pandemic began. Abuse is not even as obvious as abusive messages.
However, a report by the Australian Institute of Criminology found half of women who had experienced domestic violence said it had got worse since the COVID-19 crisis began. One in 10 women in a relationship said they have experienced some kind of partner abuse during the pandemic.
The Federal Government has provided millions towards counselling and support services for domestic violence victim during the crisis.
DVNSW's Jane Matts said many people who were being abused found it difficult to leave a relationship as they may have no savings or income to fall back on.
She said the use of technology, such as bank apps, to send abusive messages was a disturbing new trend.
"I've seen messages full of expletives or that say, for instance, how you'll never be rid of me.
"We don't think enough about how technology affects domestic violence survivors, whether it's to the person directly or messages to their family and friends."
Commonwealth Bank's Ms Fitzpatrick said the bank now auto screened all messages on their online payment systems to exclude certain words and phrases.
In addition, users now have to agree to an acceptable use policy when using the firm's apps and online banking which could seem them blocked if they use them as a device to abuse others.
"The message is simple: we can see you and we won't tolerate the use of our digital banking platforms to facilitate abuse."
firstname.lastname@example.org | @BenedictBrook