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What is financial abuse and how to recognise it

James Daley - Fairer Finance founder and Managing Director.

James Daley

Money expert and Founder of Fairer Finance

Last updated 21st January 2021

7 min read

Financial abuse – or economic abuse – generally refers to someone exercising control over a person they are in a relationship with, by restricting their financial freedom. This may be by refusing to let the victim open a bank account or by controlling how they use any income or benefits they receive.

It can also include using a partner’s money – or taking out credit in their name - without their consent. And it can extend to putting contracts in their partner’s name, or even gambling with family assets.

At its worst, financial abuse can leave the victim with no access to food or clothing, and without any ability to lead an independent life.

The abuser is not always the partner of the victim. In some cases, it may be a parent or other relative. It may even be a friend, neighbour or carer.

This guide outlines exactly what financial abuse is, how to recognise it and how to get support if you you’re a victim.

Examples of financial abuse

Financial or economic abuse can manifest itself in a number of different ways. Here we list eight of the most common manifestations of financial abuse – as categorised by the Duluth Power and Control Wheel, which was invented in the US in the 1980s.

1. Using intimidation

This can include someone being threatened with physical harm if they don’t give their partner money, or withholding child support money.

2. Using emotional abuse

This can include someone making their partner feel worthless by making them account for every penny they spend. Or it may be someone denying their partner basic necessities and making them feel cheap.

3. Using isolation

This includes someone denying their partner access to any money, to prevent them from going out, socialising or buying anything for themselves. It can also include preventing a partner from using a telephone, or preventing them going to work or an educational establishment.

4. Minimising, denying and blaming

This is where someone blames their partner for their own misuse of money, or blames them for being the reason they do not give them financial independence.

5. Using children

This is where a partner keeps child related benefits for themselves, or refuses to pay child maintenance. It may also involve a partner stealing or destroying their children’s belongings.

6. Using male privilege

Most economic abuse is inflicted on women by men. In many cases, financial abuse is justified by a partner by claiming that they are the head of the household, and it is their right to make decisions for their partner. This may include preventing them from getting a job.

7. Using economic abuse

This includes someone making their partner ask for money, or giving them an allowance. It can also be taking a partner’s money without them knowing. And it may include someone preventing their partner from earning their own money.

8. Using coercion and threats

This is where someone threatens to withhold access to a telephone or a car from their partner if they do not give them money. Or they threaten to cut off their partner’s access to money if they don’t comply with their wishes.

The effects of financial abuse

Financial abuse can be very distressing for its victims. It can leave people feeling isolated and unable to escape their relationship.

It sometimes comes alongside physical abuse, and the use of financial abuse makes it harder for people to leave as they don’t have the money they need to make a fresh start on their own.

Where people do manage to leave an abusive relationship, they are often left with nothing and forced to start again. And in some cases, their abusive partners are able to continue to exercise control over their financial affairs even after there are no longer in a relationship together.

Getting support with financial abuse

If you think you’re a victim of financial abuse, there are lots of organisations that can offer you support and advice.

Local safeguarding adults board

Most local authorities have a safeguarding adults board, where you can report allegations of abuse. In Scotland, these are called Adult Protection Committees. Their websites also include information to help you understand how to end financial abuse. You can find a list of the Safeguarding Adults Boards and Adult Protection Committees on the Safer Communities for Everyone website.

National domestic violence helpline

The charity Refuge has a free domestic violence helpline which is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can call it on 0808 2000 247. Refuge also has lots of help and advice on its website.

Hourglass

This charity offers a free 24 hour helpline for elderly people who are suffering abuse. You can call on 0808 808 8141. Or you can visit their website at https://wearehourglass.org/ where you’ll find advice and information on abuse.

Scams: financial abuse by strangers

When people talk about financial abuse, they are usually referring to abusive behaviour in a relationship. But another increasingly common form of financial abuse are scams, where people are tricked into handing over their money to strangers.

Scams have become more sophisticated in the digital age, so it’s important to stay on top of the latest ploys and to keep on your guard.

The main types of financial abuse scams centre around someone trying to persuade you to send money to them. This in itself doesn’t sound like it would be difficult to spot. But the scammer will usually do a convincing job persuading you that they’re from your bank – or somewhere else official.

The largest sums of money tend to be lost to two types of common scams – Authorised Push Payment Scams, and Investment and Pension Scams.

Authorised Push Payment Scams typically work by someone pretending to be from your bank, and persuading you that there has been a fraud on your account. To fix the problem, you are told to transfer all your money into a new account – which is run by the fraudster.

These scams have become sophisticated in recent years. In some cases, scammers are able to tell you to hang up and ring your bank to prove that they are speaking to the right person. But they then manage to stay on the line and ensure that when you ring back, you end up talking to the scammers again.

Investment scams are generally investments that are either too good to be true – and are not worth what you are persuaded to pay for them – or investments that are don’t exist at all. If they’re targeting your pension, they may be trying to persuade you to move your money out of a good value final salary pension scheme into a less valuable contribution scheme.

In both these types of scams, it’s not uncommon for people to part with large sums of money – sometimes their entire life savings.

If you think you’ve been a victim of one of these scams, it’s important to act fast and report it to your bank and the police as quickly as possible. The sooner you act, the greater the chance you have of getting some of your money back. You can report a scam to the Police via Action Fraud at https://www.actionfraud.police.uk/. You’ll also find lots of advice about avoiding scams and how to protect yourself on their site.

Staying safe from scams

There are also some simple rules you can follow which increase your chances of staying safe from scams.

Never click on links in emails unless you are certain they come from a legitimate source

The best way to be sure is to click on the details of the sender and check where the email has come from. It may look legitimate, but often emails from Apple, Netflix, HMRC or your bank will be fake. By clicking on the links, you’ll be prompted to enter sensitive information that will go straight to scammers.

Be careful who you answer the phone to

If you get a call from someone who says they’re from your bank, don’t give them any personal details. If they say there’s an urgent reason why they need to speak to you, hang up and call them back. It’s best to either wait 5 minutes to ensure the fraudsters are not keeping the line open – and if possible, call them from another line. Use the number on the back of your card or on top of your statements. If their call is legitimate, then you’ll still be able to help them with the information they need. Fraudsters like to inject a sense of urgency into their calls. But it’s worth remembering that there’s very seldom any reason that your bank couldn’t wait an hour or even a day to speak to you.

Only invest using reputable brokers and platforms

If someone calls up with the “opportunity of a lifetime”, check to see if it’s available to buy through your regular investment platform. If you’re persuaded to change your pension arrangements, get a second opinion from a respected financial adviser such as a Chartered or Certified Financial Planner. And remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

You can read more about how to spot and protect yourself from scams in our guide.