When Jana Katerinskaja attended a work meeting at the National Australia Bank about blocking family violence perpetrators from sending intimidating abuse in the payment descriptions on bank transfers, she decided to out herself.
As well as being able to advise on legal issues, the privacy lawyer said she could share her experience as a victim of exactly that type of abuse, where the perpetrator leaves menacing or intimidating messages with often, tiny bank transfers.
“I said: ‘When you look at the statistics, I won’t be the only survivor in this room.’ I outed myself and then several others outed themselves, too, and we ended up with a better project,” she said.
National Australia Bank is one of several banks that have moved to block words and phrases designed to scare or control victims.
This technique of getting to intended victims when other avenues have been closed has become so common that NAB stopped 10,000 such messages from 6800 customers in March.
It began intercepting them on internet transfers in November 2020, catching more than 6500 from 3075 customers between November 2021 and February 2022. Numbers jumped last month when blocking on the banking app was added. November 2020and February 2022. Numbers jumped last month when blocking on the banking app was added.
ESafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant said she was no longer surprised by the lengths people went to misuse technology to harm others.
“When internet banking systems and apps were created, I’m sure no one gave a second thought to how the short descriptions people provide on online bank transfers could be weaponised to abuse and intimidate someone else,” she said.
“But what we see, particularly in domestic violence situations, are examples of abusive partners making payments like child support payments but instead of one large payment, they might make 50 smaller ones, leaving a separate abusive or threatening message for their ex-partner on each one.”
The NAB system instantly recognises 1300 words and phrases – plus special characters substituted into banned words and phrases – and blocks the transaction.
Customers receive real-time messages advising them to change the wording if they wish the transaction to proceed.
Blocked transactions are reviewed and warnings issued in some cases.
Some messages are so menacing that NAB employees who read them have been referred for support.
“With people I know, as well as my own experience, it’s a bit like when you get nasty text messages – you feel sick and feel deeply unsafe in your own home,” Ms Katerinskaja said.
“Transaction messages are the last place you would expect it.”
NAB personal banking group executive Rachel Slade said transactions intended to transmit abuse were often for amounts as small as 1¢ or 5¢.
“It’s really not even about the money,” she said.
Other banks have similar programs. Appearing before a parliamentary hearing in September 2021, Westpac chief Peter King said his bank had blocked 21,000 such messages that year.
The bank had issued 767 warning letters and reported 54 customers to the police and the regulator, AUSTRAC.
In November, AUSTRAC chief executive Nicole Rose said the agency was concerned about the increase in the use of financial transaction fields for the purposes of domestic family violence and criminal activity.
Ms Slade said NAB customers had been referred for support, but the bank had not yet involved police.
“Victim-survivors’ feedback is reporting that behaviour can have really serious consequences for them ... Our job is to protect customers without giving them advice about what they should do,” she said.