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AUSTRAC unveils guide addressing tech-based abuse

A new supplement designed to raise awareness and action over technology-facilitated financial abuse has been released by the government agency.

The Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) has published a new resource intended to “help businesses understand, identify and report technology-facilitated abuse” through financial transaction payment text fields.

Technology-facilitated abuse is the instance of an offender utilising technology, including payment text fields, as a means to coerce, stalk, threaten or harass their victim. 

According to the report, utilising text-based harassment has been further enabled by almost real-time transactions and an increase to text character limits. 

Released to the public last Friday (19 November), the guide offers a collection of information, case studies, and support services to allow businesses to differentiate and action any text-based behaviour that may be threatening or abusive. 

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One key identifier, as referenced by AUSTRAC, for abuse is a high volume of low payments, such as $0.01, delivered to one person.

Citing data published by Westpac in February, more than half (51 per cent) of Australians are believed to have received some form of online abuse, including via email, mobile or social media channels. 

However, roughly one in every four Australians (26 per cent) admit they have used some form of inappropriate language in payment transactions. 

While exact figures of how many Australians are currently facing threats or abuse through financial transaction payment text fields, the prevalence of this phenomenon has been acknowledged by the industry as a concern for some time – AUSTRAC’s own Fintel Alliance stated that it has noticed an increase in the use of these fields to stalk, harass or threaten victims as a means to avoid law enforcement scrutiny.  

In May, Westpac confirmed that it had been tracking “disturbing” forms of abuse on its digital banking platform since its initial launch in 2018. 

Less than one month earlier, while speaking to the House of Representatives’ standing committee on economics, both Westpac and Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) confirmed that they had respectively blocked 4,700 and 162,000 abusive transactions in only three months.

That same month, the Australian Banking Association revealed it had updated its guidelines on financial abuse by the banking industry, partly intended to address this form of text-based harassment.  

In June 2020, CBA affirmed that it had begun steps to address this behaviour – the major bank then noting that, in a period of only three months, it identified more than 8,000 CBA customers who received low-value deposits with potentially abusive messages attached.  

Speaking of the findings, AUSTRAC chief executive Nicole Rose PSM said that she believed the financial sector held an important role in helping prevent and end this form of abuse.

“We are concerned about the increase in use of financial transaction text fields for the purposes of domestic and family violence and criminal activity,” she said.

“With our Fintel Alliance partners we are calling on the financial services sector to understand this emerging risk, and take action to protect their customers and the Australian community.”

White Ribbon Australia executive director Brad Chilcott added that he welcomed the release of the financial crime guide as a further step in recognising this form of behaviour. 

“The publication of this guide, and the work being done by AUSTRAC and their private sector partners aligns with our mission to end all forms of men’s violence and abuse against women,” Mr Chilcott said.

“Australians want perpetrators of coercive control held to account – and they want to stop more people from this kind of intimate abuse in the future.”

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing offensive or threatening messages through payment text fields, you can report the issue to your financial service provider or contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732. 

[Related: Concerns raised over joint account data sharing]

AUSTRAC unveils guide addressing tech-based abuse
mortgagebusiness

Sam Nichols

Sam Nichols is a journalist at The Adviser and Mortgage Business. His reporting has featured in a range of outlets including ABC News, SBS' The Feed, and VICE.

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