Guide to Understanding and Preventing Financial Abuse

Taking steps to stop domestic violence — whether it affects you or a loved one — is a difficult and unsettling experience. It can be especially challenging in cases of financial abuse, which may be hard to identify and address. Financial abuse impacts many people in dysfunctional relationships, having a severe impact on the mental and financial well-being of those affected.

How does financial abuse impact victims, and what can you do to address it? If you or a family member are being victimized by this type of abuse, read through this guide to grasp this complicated topic and understand your options for stopping it.

Understanding Financial Abuse

Financial abuse is all about control; it involves manipulating a victim’s capability to earn, keep, or spend money. This can mean preventing a victim from maintaining employment, having access to their own bank accounts, or from even purchasing basic necessities. The extent of this control can go far beyond this, encompassing countless other methods of abuse. Financial abuse can deteriorate relationships and damage the credit scores of victims. If you’re looking for access to your credit score, Experian offers FREE credit reports with no credit cards required. 

Also known as economic abuse, this is recognized as a form of domestic violence. It very often goes hand in hand with other forms of domestic violence; in fact, 99% of cases involving emotional, physical, or sexual abuse also involve financial abuse. Given that domestic violence is primarily about total control, this statistic is an unfortunate but not unexpected finding.

Facts About Financial Abuse: Why Is It a Problem?

Financial abuse is a major concern because it restricts a victim’s freedoms and ability to escape abusive situations. To understand the scope of this problem, consider the following statistics from the National Network to End Domestic Violence:

  • 78% of Americans do not recognize financial abuse as a form of domestic violence;
  • Victims of financial abuse cumulatively lose 8 million days of paid work each year;
  • 75% of domestic violence victims are forced to stay with abusers for economic reasons. 85% of victims who return to their abusers say they did so because they could not address their finances;
  • In a study, about 30% of domestic violence services indicated that over a quarter of their clients were unable to open a bank account or suffered a lowered credit score as a result of abuse. Fewer than 10% of these victims have access to a credit card, and 60% of these individuals stated that they were unable to open a credit account because their abuser withheld required documents from them.

It is clear that financial abuse is a widespread and prevalent concern. It has a severe impact on those affected, often rendering them incapable of getting out of harmful relationships. Without the ability to earn money or access financial services, victims are powerless to change matters for the better.

Financial Abuse Examples

While the above section provided a few examples of financial abuse, there are many other examples that can illustrate how it may look. If you’re unsure whether the behavior you’ve witnessed constitutes financial abuse, read through the examples below. If one or more examples is similar to what you’ve encountered, you’ve likely identified financial abuse in your life.

  • The abuser demanding receipts for purchases to an unreasonable extent;
  • All savings accounts or deeds are in the suspected abuser’s name;
  • The victim does not have access to their own checkbook or financial accounts;
  • Fraudulent accounts are opened in the victim’s name;
  • The victim is chronically unemployed, and the abuser prevents them from seeking employment.

Of course, this short list does not encompass every possible method of financial abuse. Note that the specific methods employed will vary based on the type of abuse — and that is largely defined by the nature of the relationship between the abuser and victim.

What Are the Types of Financial Abuse?

Financial abuse can come in many forms, affecting victims in a wide variety of relationship types. The most common scenarios include domestic violence in dysfunctional marriages, against seniors, and by parents against their children. Below, you can read more about each of these scenarios:

Financial Abuse in Marriage

There are many problematic methods of financial abuse that may occur within a marriage. An early warning sign of potential financial abuse in a marriage occurs when a spouse “takes charge” of the couple’s finances. It’s natural for newly married couples to change how they handle money, but financial abuse takes this notion to extreme, unhealthy lengths.

The abuser may make demands for their partner’s paycheck, then give them a small allowance. They’ll also frequently ensure that only their name appears on savings accounts, deeds, and any other major assets. In line with the examples in the above section, they may also file fraudulent documents or attempt to sabotage their partner’s career.

The net result of these methods is that the victim cannot reasonably leave the marriage due to financial reasons. These tactics enable the abuser to commit physical, psychological, and sexual assault against their partner while depriving them of any method of recourse or escape from the relationship.

Over time, this type of abuse can deteriorate a marriage and lead to severe short- and long-term effects on the victim:

  • Physical abuse in a marriage can lead to concussions, bruises, cuts, and broken bones. The controlling nature of the relationship can lead the abuser to prevent the victim from seeking adequate medical care, which can exacerbate such injuries. In severe cases, these injuries may be life-threatening.
  • Victims experience high levels of stress over a prolonged time, which can result in digestive problems, mental illness, and cardiovascular disease.
  • Children in families in which financial abuse (or other forms of domestic violence) is occurring are more likely to experience social and cognitive development issues.

Senior Financial Abuse

If a family member, friend, or caregiver makes efforts to control the finances of a senior — whether to inflict harm or personally profit — that behavior may be considered senior financial abuse. As they often live on a fixed income or may have impairments preventing them from identifying or stopping abusive behavior, seniors are a vulnerable population when it comes to scams.

There are many warning signs of potential senior financial abuse. When looking at bank account statements, you may see large or frequent charges that are unexplained. Further, there may be ATM withdrawals from a senior citizen who does not typically use a debit or ATM card. An abuser may open a joint account with the victim or open new credit cards or loans in their name. As a result of these methods, the senior may have unpaid bills or may be unable to pay for medical care.

Seniors can face a number of effects as a result of this type of abuse. This includes:

  • Mental illness, including depression and anxiety;
  • Intense feelings of shame, fear, or anger;
  • A loss of trust in friends and family;
  • Inadequate care resulting from limited finances;
  • Loss of transportation, utilities, or residence resulting from unpaid bills.

Financial Abuse by Parents

The final type of financial abuse we’ll discuss in this guide is of parents or guardians against their children. Because parents often have complete access to their child’s finances, they have many opportunities to exploit them for personal profit. This type of abuse can take several different forms:

  • A parent may cosign for a loan with their child for more than the child actually required. They may then take the difference for themselves;
  • The parent may open a credit card or loan in their child’s name without any intention of paying off the debt they’ve accrued;
  • In extreme cases, they may use the child’s information to apply for a mortgage on a home, putting them at considerable financial risk.

Warning signs of financial abuse by parents include inexplicable open accounts on credit reports, the concealment of letters or emails related to finances, or unexplained increases in wealth or spending sprees. These behaviors are often motivated by greed and, sometimes, a desire to exert control over children.

When parents profit off their children through fraud, it can severely strain familial relationships, ultimately rendering the family dysfunctional. This form of abuse may also have dire impacts on the financial health of a child. Because it can go on for so long undetected, parental financial abuse could severely restrict a child’s future opportunities. They’ll need to go through a laborious process that involves filing a police report, contacting credit bureaus, and identifying precisely what accounts were opened fraudulently.

How to Identify the Signs of Financial Abuse

You can read about the harm financial abuse causes, but how do you identify it? There are many signs of financial abuse, and they are generally related to the control of spending, sabotaging career opportunities, or ruining a victim’s credit. If you suspect you or a loved one are being targeted by financial abuse, look through the signs below to determine if it is occurring.

Control of Spending

If a person is hypervigilant about knowing precisely how much someone else is spending, that may be a sign of potential financial abuse. They may demand to see receipts to account for spending or thoroughly scan bank account statements to analyze purchases.

An abuser might exert an unreasonable level of control over a victim’s finances, prohibiting a victim from having access to money or credit/debit cards. While disputes over unnecessary spending are not necessarily a sign of abuse, problems arise when someone refuses to let another person purchase basic necessities or pay bills. This is often done to make the victim financially dependent on the abuser.

If you suspect a friend or loved one is experiencing financial abuse of this nature, look for signs that their finances are under strict control by the suspected abuser. The victim may be unwilling to join you in going to events or going shopping, and they may come up with a variety of excuses for being unable to do so. In extreme cases, they may ask you for financial help when it comes to affording basic necessities, as this may be one of the only methods they have of spending money without being monitored.

Sabotaging and Controlling Your Career

As an extension of controlling a victim’s access to money, abusers may sabotage a victim’s career. This could include hindering their ability to get to work or making manipulative calls to their employer, among other behaviors. They may outright prohibit their victim from keeping a job, seeking work, attending interviews, or getting a promotion. An abuser may force a victim to work for them, or a family business, without compensation — a violation of minimum wage laws.

The intent of these actions is often to get the victim fired from their job, keeping them financially dependent on the abuser. Even if the abuser depends on their victim’s earnings to pay for day-to-day expenses, they may prefer to go into debt if it means exerting control. This demonstrates the extent to which relationships can become dysfunctional in situations involving financial abuse.

To identify these signs, examine whether the victim in question is able to keep employment. If not, why? If you discover a pattern in which an individual is pestering employers, preventing the victim from getting to work, or otherwise hindering their professional development, you may be witnessing financial abuse.

Ruining Your Credit

In addition to strictly controlling the finances of a victim, an abuser may take out loans or open new credit cards in their name, borrow money from their friends or family without intending to pay it back, or force them to file their taxes fraudulently. They may also commit fraud by writing fraudulent checks, using the victim’s accounts and name.

Each of these methods runs up debts that the victim is responsible for without their consent, frequently resulting in accounts being sent to debt collections. In each scenario, the abuser is seeking to exploit the victim for their own financial gain. This can have a disastrous effect on an individual’s credit score, impacting their future opportunities.

To determine if someone is being victimized in this manner, the investigator must pull a credit report, making sure to identify any unusual or unexplained open accounts. If you decide to investigate further, contact the lenders involved and determine when and why the account was opened. If you determine that a friend or family member is the one responsible, this may be a case of financial abuse.

Seeking Help With Financial Abuse

If you or a loved one is experiencing financial abuse, there are steps to follow and resources to access so that you can stop it, report it, and recover from it. Read the following advice to begin addressing this difficult issue.

10 Steps to Stopping Financial Abuse

How can you stop financial abuse? While every situation is unique, there are some general steps to follow that can help you get out of this situation and begin recovering:

  1. Acknowledge the problem: Before action can be taken to address financial abuse, the behavior must be recognized as a problem. Rationally assess the situation to determine if it meets the criteria of financial abuse. If a loved one is being victimized, you can help them by directing them toward professional resources. Know that victims may be unwilling to reach out to law enforcement, so advise them to talk to a trusted individual, such as a counselor, if they express reluctance.
  2. Document the situation: Take thorough notes on incidents involving potential financial abuse. Note the date, time, and location of any specific incidents of abuse you’ve witnessed, as well as unusual behaviors or statements from the abuser or victim. The National Domestic Violence Hotline recommends gathering photos, medical reports, voicemails from the abuser, and verbal testimonies from witnesses. This will help victims take legal action against their abusers. If you’ve identified a case of ongoing financial abuse, report it to your state attorney general’s office as soon as possible.
  3. Seek mediation (if appropriate): It is vital to seek help if you are being victimized. If you detect early warning signs of financial abuse, consider seeking mediation from a third party who is impartial about the situation. However, keep in mind that mediation may not be a reasonable option in situations involving domestic violence.
  4. Keep copies of important personal and financial documents: Abusers often keep tight control of personal and financial documents in order to prevent victims from opening new accounts or seeking financial assistance. If possible, keep copies of such documents. This will help you apply for aid and prove that the abuser committed fraud.
  5. Transfer your assets into separate accounts: Protect your assets by moving them into separate accounts that the abuser does not have access to and is not aware of. If possible, get a lawyer’s advice on how to handle assets in joint accounts. If you do not have legal counsel, a safe bet is to withdraw as little as needed for basic expenses, then track those costs thoroughly. Be wary of doing this if the abuser examines bank transactions closely, as this may spark violent episodes.
  6. Change your PINs and passwords: Keep the abuser out of your bank accounts and credit cards by changing the PINs and passwords for all of your accounts. This is a fairly straightforward process, and most providers will allow you to change your PIN either online or over the phone. Be cautious about making such changes to accounts the abuser may have access to, as this may cause conflict — only do so when you are in a safe environment.
  7. Remove your name from joint accounts: Once you’ve determined how you will handle assets in joint accounts and have carried it out, you should remove your name from them. Note that you may be unable to remove your name from joint credit cards if they have a balance on them — even if the cards are closed. If the card was opened fraudulently, you may have legal recourse in regard to handling that balance.
  8. Set a fraud alert and send a letter to lenders and credit reporting agencies explaining delinquent debt: Contact all three credit reporting bureaus to set up fraud alerts. This is a guaranteed protection provided by the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act. Then, write a letter to each lender and all three credit reporting agencies explaining the nature and scope of the financial abuse you’ve undergone. Include any relevant details about how you are handling the case legally.
  9. Get a restraining order: A restraining order can protect you from further financial abuse. The exact process for getting a restraining order varies from state to state. Look up your state’s website for more details on this process.
  10. Begin the credit recovery process: Once you’ve completed the above steps, you’re ready to begin the credit recovery process. This involves seeking legal recourse for fraudulent actions from your abuser, setting up a personal budget, and paying down debt.

Resources for Recovering From Economic Abuse

If you need access to support, tools, or further information on financial abuse, check out the following resources:

  • – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families: Once you get out of an abusive relationship, caring for your family can be difficult. Single-parent families often struggle with affording basic needs. If you are pregnant or have a child under the age of 19, you may be eligible for benefits. Explore what support you qualify for here.
  • Victims of domestic violence can use this site to find help and information. Learn more about the motivations behind abuse, as well as what you can do when you encounter it. Users may also use this site to locate nearby domestic violence programs and shelters.
  • Feeding America – Find Your Local Food Bank: Victims of financial abuse are often deprived of the resources they need to afford basic necessities, including food. This site helps users find a local food bank and address this concern.
  • FTC Consumer Information – Free Credit Reports: If you’ve experienced fraud at the hands of a friend or family member, you’ll need to review your credit report to understand the extent of the financial abuse, as well as to remedy the situation. This site provides details on how you can get free credit reports to do so.
  • – The Children’s Health Insurance Program: Parents without adequate financial resources to afford healthcare for their children — a common outcome of scenarios involving financial abuse — should check if they are eligible to receive benefits from the CHIP program. This site provides details on these benefits.
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: People experiencing domestic violence can reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 to receive guidance on handling the situation. This site delves into the specifics of the hotline’s service. It also provides a link to a live chat feature, if you’d prefer to discuss your concerns online instead of making a call.
  • USDA – Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children: Parents seeking help affording food should check their eligibility for the WIC program. You can learn more about this program — which seeks to provide women and children in need with access to adequate nutrition — at this website.
  • – Resources by state on violence against women: There are many state resources and programs to help women who have experienced domestic violence. This page can help you find such resources.
  • – Legal Information: On this page, you can click on your state to read about the laws regarding domestic abuse in your area in an easy-to-understand format. It will tell you vital information about custody, restraining orders, divorce, and suing an abuser, among other subjects.
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