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Spotting warning signs of financial abuse and how to help

22 September 2021

What telltale warning signs of financial abuse do you know? We want to believe that if we suspected a friend was being financially abused and going through a tough time, we’d know about it. However, even with the very best of intentions, the realities of life make checking in on people difficult. Financial abuse - a form of coercive control – is also difficult to spot and then there are lockdown restrictions around COVID-19. These make checking on friends and family even more challenging. Online catchups and phone calls are not the best way to pick up on subtle changes in mood and personality.

Unfortunately, this means that cases of domestic abuse are going unnoticed. The good news is, by becoming aware of the subtle warning signs, you can learn to recognise when a loved one is being financially abused — even if you’re apart.

Here are some telltale signs of financial abuse.

Drastically changed financial situation

We all go through financial ups and downs. However, if your friend has gone from being in control of their finances to, for example, being severely in debt with no clear explanation, it may be cause for concern. It’s not uncommon in financially abusive situations for the perpetrator to take out a loan in their partner’s name, leaving them to saddle the debt. This can also occur with joint accounts or credit cards. Another warning sign might be if your friend mentions their partner has been spending excessively, such as on gambling, shopping or alcohol. Even if they appear to laugh it off, it’s a good opportunity to (gently and in private) ask if everything is alright financially. Simply asking the question may encourage your friend to share more information that helps you determine if they are in trouble.

Behaviour changes: more secretive or distant

Sudden changes in your friend’s behaviour or demeanour can be a telltale sign that something is wrong. Perhaps they have become more reclusive, anxious, or secretive. Maybe they have been reluctant to socialise (even online) especially if their partner is around or have been cancelling at the last minute. Of course, there are many other things that could be going on that aren’t necessarily abuse. However, simply privately checking on your friend and asking if they are okay is always a good idea. Best case scenario, they have been feeling a little down or are dealing with general life issues and are grateful to have someone to talk to. The worst case scenario is, they are in trouble, and you can support them in finding the right help.

Employment or study opportunities are restricted

Everyone — whether male or female — deserves the opportunity to follow their dreams. If it appears that your friend is being restricted from pursuing job and study opportunities, this can be a sign that something is wrong. Perhaps their dream role has come up, and their partner is discouraging them from applying because they need to stay home for the kids, or because they don’t ‘need’ to work.’ Maybe they are even frightened about their partner finding out they have applied.

Here, it’s important to distinguish between normal relationship discussions and controlling behaviour. After all, decisions about finances and childcare are important ones made in the family. However, if your friend appears frightened about how their partner will react if they pursue opportunities, this may indicate controlling behaviour.

Restricted access to their finances

Has your friend mentioned that they don’t have a bank account in their own name? Perhaps they don’t have access to their online banking and feel in the dark about what’s going on in their finances. While it can be easy to write this off as their partner simply being ‘better with money,’ there may be more than meets the eye. When someone does not have their own financial safety net, such as access to a bank account, it can make it far more difficult for them to leave an abusive relationship. If they fear being without a roof over their head or being able to provide for themselves and their children, leaving is hard.

Finances closely monitored by someone else

We’ve all heard ‘Oh, I better hide my shopping bags!’ jokes. But, if your friend seems genuinely concerned about their partner checking their receipts or bank accounts, it may be a red flag. Even if your friend has their own or joint bank account, a partner excessively monitoring their finances can be a way to exert control. They may appear to feel guilty or ashamed. However, the telltale sign to look out for is fear, as this suggests that your friend does not have the upper hand.

Controlling behaviour

Control is a hallmark of all types of abuse, and financial abuse is no exception. Has your friend indicated that their partner monitors their phone calls, social media accounts or email addresses? Do they have to ask for their partner’s permission before socialising with other people? Perhaps you’ve even witnessed their partner making excessive phone calls to check in on them, when you’ve been spending time with your friend? These behaviours can be signs of abuse, whether that’s financial, emotional or physical.

What to do if a friend is experiencing financial abuse

So, what should your next step be if you suspect a friend is experiencing financial abuse? It’s important to tread carefully, so as not to escalate the issue and put anyone including yourself in danger. The best place to start is to ask them if everything is okay, privately. This may begin a conversation about what’s going on. From here, you can let them know that help is available, and with their consent and if it’s safe to do so, you might consider sending them an article about the signs of financial abuse or where to get help.

By pointing them in the right direction and letting them know you are there for them, you can help.

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