How online bank transfers are hijacked for harassment and abuse
An unexpected loophole is being used to target and intimidate victims of domestic violence – a loophole that has the banking industry scrambling to fight back.
Writing a silly joke or an obscene message in the weird online payment is nothing new, and – apart potentially jeopardizing your chances to be approved for a home loan – is a relatively harmless way for friends and family to try to amuse each other. But over the past year, a worrying new use for this feature has begun to emerge: one that banks in the region are just beginning to struggle with.
Last year, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) noticed a series of disturbing messages in the account of a customer who had experienced domestic violence. When she decided to dig deeper, she found that this was not a rare and isolated incident, but that more than 8,000 customers had received online payments with abusive messages in the description of the transaction over a three-month period, often over multiple low-value deposits amounting to just pennies at a time.
“We were horrified by both the scale and the nature of what we found,” noted Catherine Fitzpatrick, Managing Director of Client Vulnerability at CBA. “I saw 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 bullying and harassing messages for a penny each.
Since then, other banks have started to take notice and have worked to track abuse on its platforms, including those in New Zealand. Last month, BNZ announced that it had discovered approximately 2,000 monthly transactions over a six-month period containing problematic use of payment reference fields, mostly containing profanity or other abuse. In one case, an individual made over 40 transactions with messages pleading with his ex-partner to take them over.
At Westpac NZ, of which The Australian operation jumped on the question Earlier this year, shocking levels of abuse were also seen on its platform, according to consumer and wealth banking chief executive Gina Dellabarca. She says that over a two-month period, the bank flagged more than 35,000 transactions by 13,000 customers as containing some type of foul language, and while “the absolute majority of that was banter,” a deep dive revealed that at least 50 customers had been affected in a harmful way.
“Most of the time it was like a friend paying a friend after a night out or something, but when you went deeper there were also [abusive] comments, such as death threats, manipulative comments and demeaning language towards women.
“It’s something I had never heard of before, but I have to say I wasn’t surprised to learn it was happening,” says Holly Carrington of the domestic violence charity. shine, which discovered the problem earlier this year. “Afterwards, I immediately checked with our frontline lawyers to see if they had heard of what was happening to our clients, and a few of our lawyers at the time said they had done it.
“One specific case a lawyer told me about was just incessant texting. They said ‘I love you’, ‘I miss you’, ‘I want you back’ for a minute, then ‘I hate you’ , swearing and threatening the next one.
Carrington says it’s common for abusers to relentlessly pursue partners and ex-partners through calls, texts and social media where they often end up blocked. As a result, some have instead turned to online banking as a messaging tool. But unlike Facebook or Instagram, banks are finding that simply banning an account won’t always be the best option.
“It’s tricky because you don’t want to inadvertently cause financial harm to the person experiencing the verbal abuse because they can no longer receive payments from someone who, for example, is paying child support. “, explains Carrington. “But if the person receiving these abusive messages is the bank’s customer, I 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 to address the issue and is working “in the best interests of those affected.” However, she admits that for privacy reasons there is limited scope to what he can do if the attacker is with another bank.
“If it’s a Westpac customer, we have a framework we want to work on, which is to tell the person we understand they made derogatory comments and tell them not to” , she says. “But we have to be careful because we don’t want that person to take a different course of action…so it’s a delicate matter that we have to look at on a case-by-case basis.”
Elsewhere, other major New Zealand banks have taken a similar approach. BNZ Managing Director for Martin King Customer Care Recount RNZ would contact clients with offers of help, such as the ability to switch 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 considering 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 being of concern, but detecting them can be difficult when, for example, letters are replaced with numbers or symbols.
Another problem is the fact that abusers can easily jump from one bank to another, prolonging any potential abuse or harassment. Carrington says industry-wide regulations and cooperation in the banking sector would help close this gap and show “all New Zealanders that this is unacceptable behavior and that banks won’t let them get away with it.”
“I hope that people who do this realize that there is a chance that there will be recourse with their bank. I also hope that people who [are on the receiving end on this abuse] in fact, talk to their bank about what’s going on and see if they can put a stop to it.