‘Hidden epidemic’ of abuse

The Commonwealth Bank and advocacy group Good Shepherd are launching initiatives to help victims of financial abuse, as concern grows about rising rates of domestic violence during the coronavirus pandemic.

Chief executive of Good Shepherd Australia and New Zealand, Stella Avramopoulos, told Nine that financial abuse involved taking control of someone’s spending, stopping them from getting a job or forcing them into debt. Most cases were perpetrated by men against women, she said.

Nicole McMahon, 1800RESPECT general manager, told the ABC that financial abuse happened when someone was excluded from financial decision-making or restricted from accessing money that was rightfully theirs.

“It can also be forcing you to pay for things you don’t want or need, pressuring you to give money to someone, and controlling your benefits or pay,” Ms McMahon said.

“It can be stopping someone from studying or working. It can be someone forcing you to sign over assets or taking out loans in somebody else’s name.”

The Commonwealth Bank (CBA) has assembled a team of 15 staff trained in helping people experiencing family and domestic violence. Good Shepherd will provide financial coaching for financial abuse victims.

“Our frontline services see this every day. Women who end up with huge debts and bad credit records caused by abusive partners,” said Ms Avramopoulos.

The CBA-supported financial independence hub will be open to all Australian residents irrespective of where they do their banking.

“Over and over again, we see how financial abuse is forcing women to choose between poverty and violence. No one should ever have to face that choice,” Ms Avramopoulos said.

CBA chief executive Matt Comyn said financial abuse was a “hidden epidemic” trapping victims in situations of domestic violence. He said customers with debts from domestic violence situations would not have their credit history reported to a credit reporting agency. The CBA would also provide interest-free loans.

“We want to increase the support to not only get through that emergency phase, but also to try to achieve long-term financial independence,” Mr Comyn said.

The bank surveyed 10,000 people and more than one in four adults said they had experienced some form of financial abuse.

Taking control of a partner’s wage for household expenses, hiding assets, or refusing to contribute financially to a household were the most common behaviours of financial abuse.

Ms McMahon said it often took victims of financial abuse a long time to seek help as they were unable to see a way out.

“The most important thing is to understand it is really quite common and there is support available. There is no shame in seeking assistance,” she says.

In March, the federal government announced a $150 million package to respond to domestic violence during the pandemic.

In June, a Monash University study revealed that in the early days of the coronavirus lockdown, almost 60 per cent of  family violence victim support practitioners said the pandemic had increased the frequency of violence against women; half of respondents said the severity of violence had increased; and the number of first-time family violence reports had gone up for 42 per cent of practitioners surveyed.

Financially abusive behaviours include:

Controlling a family member’s money:

  • taking control of someone else’s finances (e.g. overseeing all the household income and paying the other person an allowance)
  • controlling how all the household income is spent
  • forcing a family member to claim social security benefits like Centrelink
  • making a family member go guarantor on a loan or take a loan out in their name
  • making a family member take out a second credit card
  • forcing a family member to work in a family business without being paid
  • filing fraudulent insurance claims
  • forging a family member’s signature on financial documents
  • taking money out of a family member’s pension
  • selling a family member’s possessions without permission
  • misusing an Enduring Power of Attorney
  • forcing a family member to change their will.

Stopping a family member from earning their own money:

  • stopping a family member from getting a job or going to work
  • stopping a family member from going to work or important meetings by keeping them up all night or physically hurting them
  • stopping a family member from studying
  • stalking or harassing a family member’s colleagues.

Limiting a family member’s access to money:

  • not giving a family member access to bank accounts
  • denying a family member access to money so they can’t afford basic expenses such as food or medicine
  • destroying, damaging, or stealing property
  • racking up debt on shared accounts or joint credit cards
  • withholding financial support such as child support payments
  • refusing to work or contribute anything to the household income
  • gambling away a family member’s money or shared money.


1800RESPECT reports that those who have experienced financial abuse say:

  • they were fearful of the other person
  • financial abuse was experienced with other forms of abuse
  • there were subtle changes in the other person’s behaviour, and it then progressed over time
  • they were made to feel ‘stupid’ or incompetent
  • loans, mortgages, credit cards and accounts were only in one person’s name, and this made them feel powerless and trapped
  • there were no discussions about finance, income, and budgets. Decisions were made without their input.

The National Debt Helpline offers free financial counselling. For assistance, call Safe Steps on 1800 015 188, national domestic violence helpline1800 RESPECT or the Men’s Referral Service 1300 766 491. In case of emergency, call 000.

Do you know someone who is experiencing financial abuse? Do you believe abuse has spiked during the pandemic?

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Written by Will Brodie


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