How to Overcome Financial Abuse

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You don't have to be a victim. Once you recognize financial abuse, you can learn to overcome it.

Financial abuse can be hard to identify, at least in the beginning. It's sometimes subtle enough to pass for caregiving or "being protective." However, when someone abuses you financially, not only do they hurt you monetarily, they also take control of your life. The first step to overcoming financial abuse is learning to recognize it.

What is financial abuse?

Financial abuse occurs when someone takes control of your financial resources or prevents you from working so they can control all the money. They may limit your access to your cash or ask you to account for every penny you spend.

Financial abusers sometimes tell you that they will "take care of everything" and act as though they're doing you a favor. In some cases, they can try to manipulate you until you become dependent upon them for financial survival. Once they have control, they may become more demanding and more intimidating. The goal is always the same -- to gain power in your relationship.  

Some financial abusers are less interested in controlling a relationship than they are in helping themselves to someone else's hard-earned money. These abusers will act like your best friend while cheating you out of cash. They'll use your credit card without your permission and promise to pay your bills, but pocket the money instead. This financial abuser may be a once-trusted partner, friend, roommate, or relative.

Financial abusers who target the elderly often play the long game, positioning themselves as caregivers until they have total financial control. It's not unusual for a person who has targeted a senior citizen to be named power of attorney so they can act on behalf of their victim in business, legal, and financial matters. The problem is, they're looking out for their own economic interest rather than their victim's.

Signs of financial abuse  

If you or someone you love is a victim of financial abuse, there is a good chance that someone has done one or more of the following:

  • Taken money from your bank account or used your credit cards
  • Signed your name to a loan, check, or other financial document
  • Made changes to your will or power of attorney without your permission
  • Promised to pay your bills, but never followed through
  • Taken control of your access to money
  • Damaged your credit score by running up bills and not paying them
  • Borrowed money from you without repaying it
  • Expected you to pay their bills or bail them out of trouble
  • Pressured you to quit a job or prevented you from going to work
  • Hidden funds from you
  • Insisted you share your income, but refused to share their own
  • Refused to work or contribute financially
  • Insisted that large, joint purchases be in their name only
  • Stolen your identity

How financial abuse hurts

Financial abusers want you to feel as though you have nowhere else to go and are reliant on your abuser. They want you to feel inadequate and unsure of yourself, to make you believe you can't make it on your own because your income is too low

Despite what they may say, financial abusers care nothing for their victims. They leave their victims ill-prepared for life outside the relationship. Whether you're in an abusive romantic relationship, being taken advantage of by someone who wants you to believe they're a friend, or being played by someone who claims to be your caregiver, your abuser is not thinking of you. Your job is to see the signs and to declare emotional and financial independence. You need to look after yourself because the other person is not going to. It may be the hardest thing you ever do, but you can do it. 

How to break free

Once you've recognized that you're in a financially abusive relationship, you've taken the first step. From there, you need to formulate a plan for getting out. Take steps to make sure you're ready. 

  • Tell someone. Whether it's a family member, friend, minister, or counselor, let someone know what you're going through. You're going to need emotional support as you make the break.
  • Gather paperwork and important documents, such as birth certificates, Social Security cards, bank statements, ownership documents, and marriage certificates. Store them in a safe deposit box or with a friend or family member. Abusers will often block access to these documents once they realize they are losing control.
  • Cancel joint bank and credit card accounts. Though your credit score will take a hit when you close your credit card accounts, it will stop the financial bleed. 
  • Change online passwords so your abuser no longer has access to your accounts.
  • Open a bank account in your name.
  • Check your credit report for any activity you don't recognize.
  • Get professional help. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233, chat with them online, or text LOVEIS to 22522. Even if your partner has never hit you, 99% of domestic violence cases include financial abuse, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline has dealt extensively with the problem.
  • Because financial abuse is a crime, you should also report it to your local police department. If you (or the person you're concerned about) are elderly, also report the situation to Adult Protective Services in your area.
  • Be safe. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers a comprehensive safety plan. Don't do anything until you can do it safely.
  • Hire an attorney. The American Bar Association (ABA) can help you find a lawyer free of charge. You may never recover any money, but you can prevent financial abuse from happening again.

Change can be scary, and leaving a situation that once felt comfortable is doubly so. But you deserve to feel safe and to be surrounded by people who care about you. You deserve to know what it's like to be able to take care of yourself without depending on a partner. And it's only when you're out of that situation that you will be able to take steps to rebuild both your credit and your financial stability. Don't let your fear of the unknown keep you in a bad situation.  

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