How to Stop Domestic Financial Abuse

How to prevent, and recover, from this type of dangerous behavior.

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Financial abuse occurs in 98 percent of abusive relationships, whether in the form of restricting access to a spouse’s credit, or draining assets once a victim attempts to leave. For spouses who see their options gradually dwindle, money may be the reason to stay in a relationship or come back after trying to get out. Of the seven in eight women who go back to an abusive partner after leaving, a significant portion attributes the return to financial pressures.

An abuser can control the victim’s financial freedom in a number of ways, both before and after she attempts to leave. We thank Rene Renick, Vice President of Economic Enterprises at the National Network to End Domestic Violence for her advice on financially protecting yourself from an abusive relationship. Note: throughout the article, we use a female pronoun for the victim and male for the batterer for simplicity, although of course men are also victims of domestic abuse.

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Opportunities for financial abuse

According to Renick, a batterer often runs up debt on his credit cards or doesn’t make his payments. If a victim has a joint account with the batterer, or he has signed her up for loans or credit cards without her knowledge, she could see her credit score decimated by his actions or even be held liable for his debts by credit card companies. Abusers sometimes take out credit cards in their children’s names, with themselves as the co-signers, saddling their kids with ruined credit scores before they are financially independent.

After a woman tries to leave, her abuser may use her credit card statements—particularly if they share an account—to track her down. Most injuries or homicides related to domestic violence occur when a victim is leaving or has left the relationship and many batterers try to stalk the women who manage to get away.

The effects of financial abuse

After a woman leaves a financially abusive relationship, she may find herself with severely limited resources. If her abuser ran up debt on a joint account, her credit score will be shot, and she won’t have access to any meaningful lines of credit. She may even have trouble renting an apartment, getting a cell phone or landing a job. If an abuser knows his victim’s personal information —such as her social security number or mother’s maiden name—he can track any inquiries into her credit score, and find her after she’s left.

Furthermore, even if a judge rules that her husband should pay for the debt he incurs, debt collection agencies may come after the victim if he is delinquent. The victim is liable for all the debt in a joint account, whether or not she is responsible for running it up.

Protect yourself before and after leaving

If you can safely do so, transfer your assets—paychecks, inheritance, spare change—into a separate bank account. Make inquiries as to where your household’s assets are, and how much debt you have.

Keep a copy of all your important papers, including bank statements, social security numbers, birth and marriage certificates and documentation of jointly held assets. It’s important to have a physical copy somewhere outside of the house.

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As soon as you leave, change all your PIN’s to codes that are not easily identifiable. Avoid using your or your children’s birthdays. Call the issuers of any joint accounts and have your name removed. It will not protect you from existing debt, but it will insulate you from having to pay for anything incurred after you leave.

If you do have a joint account, withdraw half of the assets. “Many women don’t want to do this. They say, ‘That will make me just as bad as he is. He wouldn’t ever do that to me,’” says Renick. “But then the abuser escalates his behavior in an effort to gain back control, and the woman tries to withdraw money only to find all assets have been drained.”

Getting back on your feet

If you are liable for any debts, send a copy of any court orders to the credit company explaining your situation. Also, send a letter to credit reporting agencies. Such extenuating circumstances may help you qualify for a credit card.

Work on rehabilitating your credit score. You may have to settle for a credit card with a high APR until enough time has passed. If you have assets stashed away, you can post collateral for a secured credit card, which extends you as much credit as the amount you’ve posted. Secured credit cards, unlike prepaid debit cards, help to raise your credit score.

Getting by on cash alone is extremely difficult. Everything from online purchases to gas is geared towards paying by plastic. If it is safe, you can get a checking account and a secured credit card. However, if you believe you are in danger if you use your social security number or trigger a credit inquiry, get a one-time-use prepaid debit card. You can buy prepaid cards at a CVS or Wal-Mart and load it up with as much money as you want for a small (usually $5 or less) fee. While it won’t help rehabilitate your credit score or earn interest, it is perfectly anonymous.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence’s website offers more resources, as does the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE).

Tim Chen is chief rewards credit card analyst at NerdWallet.com.