The major bank has said that abusive or threatening transactions stemmed from the new payments platform that was launched in 2018.
Westpac general manager, customer solutions, Lisa Pogonoski said in a Westpac In-Depth post that the bank uncovered a “disturbing” form of abuse on its digital banking platform around two years ago.
She said that about a year after its new payments platform went live in 2018 – which she said aimed to benefit customers – Westpac’s fraud team detected a considerable increase in “colourful” language in payment messages.
The centralised platform allows for real-time clearing and settlements of payments between participating Australian financial institutions.
Explaining further, she stated: “These abusers had worked out that one of the many features of Australia’s new industry-wide payment platform launched in 2018 – the ability to include messages with up to 280 characters to enhance a payment’s remittance information – enabled them to use transactions to send inappropriate messages to their victims.”
Ms Pogonoski said that while most of transactions contained banter or jokes between friends while paying each other, some transactions were considerably more sinister, with abusive, and sometimes violent, undertones.
These perpetrators were making low transactions (often as little as one cent) as a means to send abusive messages to their victims.
“From that moment, banks moved to deal with these unintended consequences – and have agreed as an industry to take action to address this new form of financial abuse,” she said.
Westpac immediately began manual detection escalation while developing an automated monitoring solution with data analytics since January 2021, she said.
Since then, more than 6,000 payments made by Westpac and St.George customers have been blocked in real time, while customers were notified because they included a message with words considered to be inappropriate or offensive.
“We took another major step last month, enabling customers who receive an abusive message to report it to us by clicking a report button, alerting a dedicated team,” Ms Pogonoski said.
She also stated that among the approximately a dozen customers who had reported abuse, many of them had informed the bank that the perpetrators had been blocked on traditional social media platforms and phones, sometimes due to having apprehended violence orders against them, but they had evaded the order by using the payments platform to harass the customers.
The major bank escalated the issue to the police in these circumstances and warned the sender’s financial institutions, Ms Pogonoski said.
Among customers whose transactions have been blocked, around 75 repeat offenders have been sent warning letters to cease the abusive messages, she said, while a handful of customers have been “unbanked” in extreme circumstances.
“A few have also warranted an ‘unusual matter report’ being lodged with the financial crime and intelligence agency AUSTRAC,” she said.
“On a positive note, since the introduction of our interventions, we’ve seen inappropriate messages fall, and we’d expect it will change perpetrator behaviour over time as they realise we just won’t tolerate it.”
Ms Pogonoski concluded that while this behaviour can be prevented when all industry players participate with blocks and reporting functionality, perpetrators would likely seek alternative avenues to harass and abuse others, including by manipulating technology.
“That puts the onus on us to be constantly vigilant to new behaviours and abuse of new technologies. If there’s one place where people should feel safe and spared from the abuse, it’s digital banking experiences – and we’re up for making that happen,” she said.
When appearing before the House of Representatives’ standing committee on economics for their review of four major banks, Westpac group executive of financial crime, compliance and conduct Leslie Wilson Vance said that since the bank had started blocking abusive transactions in January 2021, it had refused approximately 4,700 transactions from about 3,500 customers.
Malavika Santhebennur is the features editor on the mortgages titles at Momentum Media.
Before joining the team in 2019, Malavika held roles with Money Management and Benchmark Media. She has been writing about financial services for the past six years.
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