Canadian banks need to do more to stop abusive e-transfers, survivors say

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WARNING: This story contains details of abuse and may affect those who have experienced​ ​​​intimate partner violence or know someone who has.

Emma Parsons had blocked her ex-boyfriend on her phone and all of her social media apps after he inundated her with unwanted texts.

“They were very abusive messages,” the Ottawa nursing student said. “They were mean. They were trying to belittle me and bully me, you know, telling me how bad I was.”

He even used spoofed phone numbers to break through the wall she had tried to build for herself. That’s when she started getting e-transfers from him with nasty messages attached.

“The first one was $1, and then I think the other ones were less than $5,” she said. “I was so shocked. I was so surprised that he would send an e-transfer.”

Parsons says she felt too embarrassed and uncomfortable to report the e-transfers to the bank or police.

A woman with long blond hair sits at a dining table holding a smartphone as a woman with long dark hair and glasses sits next to her.
Emma Parsons scrolls through old messages on her phone that she received from an ex with her mother, Carmen. After the Ottawa nursing student blocked her ex on all platforms, she says he started contacting her by sending abusive messages attached to banking e-transfers. (Marc Robichaud/CBC)

“I don’t feel like they’d take me seriously enough,” she said. “The police would probably be like, ‘Oh, here’s your case number. See you in a few years.”

But when she and her mother, Carmen, heard how a woman in Sault Ste, Marie, Ont., had received a flurry of abusive and threatening e-transfers before her ex murdered her in October, they decided to speak out.

“People need to know that this happens and that maybe there’s things that we can do about it,” said Carmen.

Survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) say Canada’s banks need to step up and do more to protect victims from abuse through their platforms, as some other countries are doing. 

The Canadian Bankers Association says its members do have some policies in place to protect customers and said they are always exploring ways to combat abuse, but did not offer many details. 

Some survivors of IPV say with abusive messages like these getting through, banks aren’t doing nearly enough.

Australia sets an example

It’s a problem the banking industry in Australia decided to tackle head on after a shocking and high-profile domestic violence case in 2014 involving the murder of an 11-year-old boy by his father, a man with a long history of abusive behaviour.

“We just saw that and said, ‘We can’t look away. We need to make changes.’” said Catherine Fitzpatrick, a former banking executive with the country’s largest bank and a financial safety consultant.  “A lot of other sectors have followed suit.”

“What we decided in Australia was that it couldn’t be just one bank that moved on this. It needed to be everybody.”

Fitzpatrick’s data team at Commonwealth Bank analyzed 11 million transactions in a three-month period and found more than 8,000 customers who had experienced what she described as “abusive messages” through their bank accounts.

“I read one that was a series of 900 messages, one cent at a time, saying things like, ‘I want to kill you. I want to kill them all,’” Fitzpatrick said.

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Catherine Fitzpatrick, a former executive with Commonwealth Bank, Australia’s largest financial institution, helped spearhead many of the changes made in the industry to better prevent abuse on banking platforms there. (Catherine Fitzpatrick)

Australian banks have since implemented a number of measures to end the misuse of banking platforms by abusers, including introducing AI software that blocks messages containing abusive language and in-app self-reporting tools for survivors to flag abusive messages to banks as soon as they are received.

Two banks in particular sent warning letters to clients engaging in abusive behaviour. Fitzpatrick said in 90 per cent of those cases the abusive behaviour through banking platforms stopped.

Fourteen Australian banks also include financial abuse clauses in their terms and conditions clearly outlining that if a client engages in abuse through their platform it could result in account closures or suspensions. 

Many of Australian banks also created resource pages with extensive tools and tips for people experiencing different forms of IPV-related financial abuse, including counselling services.

“What’s really insidious about this form of tech facilitated abuse is it’s often the last resort,” Fitzpatrick said, noting that it’s on the industry to create safety tools.

“It shouldn’t be up to the user to keep themselves safe. So you need to take steps to design your platform with safety in mind.”

The measures undertaken in Australia have blocked more than a million abusive messages in real time since 2020, Fitzpatrick said.

It shouldn’t be up to the user to keep themselves safe. So you need to take steps to design your platform with safety in mind.– Catherine Fitzpatrick, former Australian banking executive

She shared the Australian banking industry’s experiences and solutions with the International Banking Federation at a meeting on Oct. 27, 2022, where she also outlined software used by a number of Australian banks to detect abusive messages. The Commonwealth Bank’s program that weeds out abusive words is now being shared for free with banks worldwide.

“I think every bank around the world should be implementing the blocks and certainly detecting the patterns and the abuse in bank accounts,” she said. “We have the technology and it is freely available now.” 

Fitzpatrick describes financial abuse as a powerful weapon used against survivors that businesses need to disrupt.

“I would really encourage every bank in Canada to look at the way the Australian banks, some of the U.K. and the New Zealand banks are starting to move on this problem,” she said.

Canadian banks respond

CBC News contacted five of Canada’s major banks, Scotiabank, the Bank of Montreal, CIBC, Toronto Dominion Bank and the Royal Bank of Canada asking if any of them had implemented measures to prevent this type of financial abuse. 

CBC News also asked the five major Canadian banks if they have added intimate partner clause clauses to their terms and conditions. They did not respond.

All five banks deferred to the Canadian Bankers Association (CBA), which represents more than 60 domestic and foreign banks operating in Canada. 

  • Have you been the target of abusive e-transfer messages? Contact Katie Nicholson at katie.nicholson@cbc.ca.

The CBA issued an email statement saying its members have policies and procedures in place to protect impacted customers from harassment and other forms of abuse.

The statement encourages clients experiencing abuse to report it to their bank and law enforcement and noted they can withdraw banking services from people engaging in abusive behaviour.

The CBA also said “banks are continuously exploring ways to combat any form of abuse, including technology-facilitated financial abuse, while managing legal, privacy and operational considerations.”

No other specifics were provided despite CBC News’s repeated requests for more details and clarity.

Interac also provided an email statement saying using its payment service to facilitate abuse and harassment is against its Terms of Use. The company said it is committed to enhancing its services to help customers but offered few specifics.

IPV survivor wants banks to be proactive

One IPV survivor in Quebec is frustrated that Canadian banks don’t seem to be doing more.

The woman, who CBC is not identifying due to concerns about her personal safety, would like to see banks here be more proactive by implementing programs like the one offered by Commonwealth Bank that blocks abusive messages.

“I’m highly disappointed,” she said. “It would frustrate me to think that banks are continuing to make profits, even in the economic state that we are currently in, and yet they would not deem it important enough to invest money in setting up some kind of a system like that.”

WATCH | What survivors of abuse via e-transfer want Canada’s banks to do: 

Intimate partner violence survivors want banks to do more to stem abusive e-transfers

Women who have received threatening and abusive e-transfers from their former partners say they want Canadian banks to do more to prevent misuse of banking applications.

The woman, who relies on alimony and child support payments from her ex, shared a series of e-transfers with CBC News in which her ex either insulted her or set up security questions that would require her to disparage herself in order to access the funds.

“When you are waiting for the money to pay for your bills, you can’t exactly say to the aggressive person ‘Please ask me a nice question,’ ” she said. “You kind of have to bend over and accept what is coming to you.”

Carmen and Emma Parsons are also disappointed that there doesn’t appear to be much movement on the issue from Canadian banks.

“Why do we wait until someone tells them they have to? Especially in this case where it’s doing good and would be useful and helpful,” Carmen said.


For anyone affected by family or intimate partner violence, there is support available through crisis lines and local support services. ​​If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.

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