Customer safety
The customer is the best judge of whether making any changes might lead to further harm, and should only take the actions below if it is safe to do so. In an emergency, call 999.

Understanding and identifying economic abuse

For bank and building society staff

Access to and control over your own banking situation is critical to economic stability. Abusers often use tactics in relation to banking to create economic instability.  

If you work in a bank or building society, this information may help you to understand the ways in which abusers exert economic control through banking. It will also help you to identify the signs of economic abuse that you may notice through your interactions with customers.  

“The abuse started with how we organised our bank accounts when we first lived together. We opened a joint account for household bills but within a year, he had transferred all his own direct debits to the joint account.”

Economic abuse and banking 

Economic abuse is a legally recognised form of domestic abuse. It often occurs in the context of intimate partner violence, and involves the control of a partner or ex-partner’s money and finances, as well as the things that money can buy.  

There are many ways in which an abuser can exert economic control through banking.

An abuser might: 

  • restrict access to financial information, including changing passwords for online banking and mobile apps  
  • restrict access to a bank account, including confiscating debit or credit cards   
  • prevent the victim-survivor from having a bank account in their own name 
  • force the victim-survivor to make transactions or withdraw funds 
  • insist all bills are paid from the victim-survivor’s account  
  • insist all income is paid into an account that the victim-survivor can’t access  
  • insist all borrowing is in the victim-survivor’s name to avoid responsibility for the debt 
  • make applications for credit in the victim-survivor’s name.  

Lack of access to a bank account, or lack of control of the transactions that are made, can have serious consequences for a victim-survivor of economic abuse. They may be unable to pay for day-to-day essentials, and they may not have access to the funds needed to escape the abuser. 

Many victim-survivors of economic abuse face large amounts of debt and have poor credit ratings, affecting their long-term economic stability. An abuser may force the victim-survivor to make transactions that lead them into debt or may take out loans in their name – sometimes without their knowledge. This type of debt is known as coerced debt and is a common effect of economic abuse. 1 in 10 women has had debts put in her name and was afraid to say no. It is even more common among those who have experienced other forms of domestic abuse. 

Spot the signs of economic abuse

“He started using the joint account for cash withdrawals when it was supposed to be for bills. He then accused me of overspending.”

There are some key signs to look for that may help identify that a customer is experiencing economic abuse in relation to banking. There could be a number of reasons for any of the behaviours listed below and they do not necessarily indicate economic abuse. However, being aware of these signs can help you to build up a picture of the customer’s situation and to seek more information if you have concerns.  

Look out for customers who: 

  • remain silent while another party does all the talking 
  • instruct you to speak to their partner 
  • seem to be taking instructions from their partner 
  • appear withdrawn, fearful, distressed or scared 
  • do not understand or are not aware of recently completed transactions or loans in their name 
  • ask questions about the other account 
  • holder’s behaviour or activities 
  • have income paid into their partner’s account rather than their own 
  • have concerns about protecting their personal privacy or safety, or the security of their account/s 
  • withdraw a large, unusual or uncharacteristic amount of cash when accompanied by their partner 
  • want to close down a joint bank account, or close a personal account when opening a joint account 
  • ‘spoil’ an application form (perhaps for the opportunity for a call from the bank and a chance to say what is happening) 
  • indicate their mail is no longer being delivered to their home 
  • tell you about an intervention order or similar, and have safety concerns 

Also look out for third parties who present a form carrying the customer’s signature that is otherwise completed in different handwriting. 

What you can do 

“When I left the relationship, I realised he had taken out loans and credit cards in joint names I knew nothing about.”

Banks and building societies can be critical in supporting victim-survivors to reach economic safety and regain control of their finances. 

A customer may be unaware that they are experiencing economic abuse. By being aware of the signs to look out for, you can have a huge impact on the customer’s safety and economic stability. If you notice any signs and are concerned about a customer, see our information on talking to a customer about economic abuse. The resource suggests discussion prompts to find out more information about the customer’s situation.  

A customer may tell you that they are experiencing economic abuse. We also have information on responding to the customer and the support that you may be able to provide to help the victim-survivor reach economic safety.  

The steps that you can take to support a customer will depend on your bank’s policies. Some banks may be able to arrange repayment plans for financial products, or have the customer’s mail delivered to an alternative address, for example. If your bank has a specialist vulnerable customer team, speak to a colleague in the team to find out more about your bank’s own policies.  

A customer experiencing economic abuse may need specialist support from other organisations. We have information on other organisations that you may be able to signpost the customer to for further support. A customer who has experienced economic abuse may also be facing wider challenges, for example with mental health or their immigration status. In these cases, it may be helpful to signpost them to an organisation with a specialism in these areas. 

Your role 

It might be daunting to support a customer who has experienced economic abuse but remember that you aren’t there to solve everything. Your expertise is around financial services and is this where you can provide the most support. By simply talking to the customer, taking the time to listen, validate and believe them, you are playing a crucial role in helping them regain control of their economic situation.

Your support may also give the customer confidence to speak to someone else about the abuse they have experienced, and perhaps another organisation that can support them in a different way. The support you can offer to a customer draws on your existing skills of empathy and building rapport.   

If you want to learn more about economic abuse, we offer training on recognising and responding to economic abuse. We also offer specialist training for financial services and can tailor bespoke training to the needs of your organisation.   

We also recommend reading the FCA guidance on the fair treatment of vulnerable customers and the 2021 Financial Abuse Code for practical ways in which you can support customers who have experienced economic abuse.  

The Consumer Duty also sets higher standards of consumer protection across financial services. The Duty requires firms to put their consumers’ needs first, with a particular emphasis on treatment of consumers with characteristics of vulnerability or who may be at a greater risk of harm.

The Consumer Duty provides financial services firms with an opportunity to transform their response to economic abuse and SEA’s briefing paper, developed in partnership with the law firm Simmons & Simmons, offers practical advice to financial services firms when interpreting what good outcomes (Principle 12) look like for victim-survivors.  

How the Consumer Duty can transform responses to economic abuse
Click to show

Current responses to economic abuse predominantly focus on addressing negative outcomes for victim-survivors after things have already gone wrong. However, these outcomes could be prevented from happening and the impact on survivors minimised if an understanding of economic abuse was reflected within end-to-end product and service design.  

We have developed a briefing paper in partnership with the law firm Simmons & Simmons to help financial services firms consider economic abuse when interpreting what good outcomes (Principle 12) look like for victim-survivors.  

Examples from the briefing on how firms can help victim-survivors of economic abuse: 

  • Considering how accessible it is to obtain credit online with no human interaction and setting up extra security questions and safe words when there are known issues of domestic abuse.   
  • Considering ways to reduce perpetrators’ opportunities to exploit products like credit cards and loans. This might be through reviewing the account terms and conditions, restricting the option to add named card holders to credit cards and/ or applying positive friction when lending.  
  • Ensuring that there are specialist teams in place who can provide support to victim survivors and help them gain financial independence from the perpetrator.   
  • Ensuring staff have received the relevant training to identify economic abuse and respond adequately to disclosure – again eliminating any further harm.  
  • Ensuring that the financial business isn’t gaining financially as a result of economic abuse – for example, considering putting a freeze on interest or writing it off and removing fees and charges. 

For further guidance on the Consumer Duty, download ‘How the Consumer Duty can transform responses to economic abuse’

Your safety and wellbeing

Speaking about economic abuse can be difficult for you as well as for the customer. You may identify with an experience the customer mentions, or the customer’s story may have an emotional impact.  

It is important to seek support if you need to. Your employer may have a domestic abuse policy or an employee assistance programme, or it may help to speak to a manager or another colleague. If you have experienced abuse, there are domestic abuse helplines that you can call, many of which offer a 24-hour service.

If you are worried that a colleague, friend or family member may be experiencing economic abuse, we have information on spotting the signs of economic abuse.  

Updated July 2023

More information