October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. People tend to associate domestic violence with physical abuse, but financial abuse can also be devastating.

A Center for Financial Security study showed that 99% of domestic violence survivors also experienced financial abuse in the relationship.

Financial abuse, also called economic abuse or financial exploitation, differs from financial infidelity. Financial infidelity involves actions such as hiding a credit card account or buying an expensive item without discussing it with a partner. These actions break trust, but couples can often get away with it.

But financial abuse goes far beyond lying about income or hiding credit card accounts.

Definition of financial abuse

Financial abuse occurs when one partner limits or prevents the other partner from accessing financial resources. The abuser then wields money as a weapon, such as limiting spending, ruining your credit, or preventing you from getting a job.

Signs of financial abuse

The goal of a financial abuser is to take control of the relationship. This type of abuse can make you feel like you couldn’t support yourself (or your children) if you left. Basically, the victim feels helpless and unable to escape the situation.

Certain signs can help you decide if you are in a financially abusive relationship or marriage.

  • Refuse to share financial information: Economic abusers often take control of family finances and take actions without your consent, such as opening new accounts or making large purchases without your knowledge.
  • Gets angry when you ask questions: The abuser gets angry quickly when you ask about family finances. This is an intimidation tactic to keep the victim unaware of the couple’s financial situation.
  • Limit your expenses: It is not uncommon for an abuser to award the victim an allowance. In extreme cases, the amount of the allowance decreases to the point where the victim is no longer able to meet basic needs, such as obtaining medical care and food.
  • Sabotages your career: The abuser discourages the victim from getting a job. If the victim has a job, the abuser may show up at the workplace and harass the victim or berate them before an important meeting so they don’t get off well. If the abuser is successful, the victim quits their job and becomes financially dependent on the abuser.
  • Ruins your credit: The abuser takes steps to destroy your good credit by making late payments – or not paying at all – on accounts in your name. Either the author commits identity theft by opening an account in your name only to destroy your credit.
  • Forces a proxy agreement: This allows the abuser to sign legal documents on your behalf. When this happens, you cannot stop the attacker from stealing your money or property.

Financial abuse can happen in any relationship, not just marriage. Sometimes family members are guilty of stealing or misusing funds from aging parents. Unfortunately, this also happens with paid caregivers.

Financial abuse of the elderly

I decided to highlight elder abuse because it is such a widespread problem. According to the National Council On Aging, older Americans can lose up to $36.5 billion a year due to financial abuse.

This type of abuse involves the misuse of funds, such as stealing or withholding money from accounts. The attacker can be a family member, spouse, caregiver, or anyone else with access to the victim’s accounts.

Here are the signs of elder financial abuse to watch out for:

  • Unpaid bills.
  • Unusual changes in spending habits.
  • Fraudulent signatures on financial documents.
  • Victim impact statements about stolen money.
  • Missing check book, credit cards and/or debit cards.
  • Misuse of proxy agreements.

If you suspect your loved one is a victim of financial abuse, there are steps you can take to protect the victim. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has instructions for documenting abuse and how to file a report with authorities.

How to escape a financially abusive relationship

Financial abuse erodes a person’s self-esteem and dignity, making it harder to escape. Depending on your situation, you may have to agree to leave without any financial resources. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get help or learn how to leave an abusive environment.

Focus on financial literacy

It may seem trivial compared to what you’ve been through, but increasing your knowledge about money will help you undo the damage when you leave the house.

One of the reasons so many people stay in a financially abusive relationship is because they see no way to support themselves. Learning how credit works, in particular, can help you plan your escape.

Check your credit report

You might find that your credit has been destroyed. As upsetting as it can be, you need to know your credit health. Read your credit report line by line and you will get a picture of what happened.

You can get your free annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com. You might find new accounts – credit cards or personal loans – opened in your name that have been collected for non-payment. For now, just focus on what has been done so that you are realistic about how to get out of the situation. You can always improve your credit once you enter a safe place.

If your credit is so bad that you can’t rent an apartment or you just can’t afford rent, you may need to start by staying in a shelter.

Find a safe place to stay

Many victims are often cut off from a support network. So your family and friends may not offer you a safe haven right away. Still, you have options.

Visit DomesticShelters.org to find homes in your area. All you have to do is type in your city or zip code to see a list. Also check out the Office of Women’s Health for advice on leaving an abusive relationship, including a safety list.

Ask for help

Talking to a therapist would help. But with limited (or no) funds, this could be difficult. One place to seek help is the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233. But I know picking up the phone can be difficult. You can also go to thehotline.org for more information on how to leave an abuser.

Be prepared to discuss the details of your situation so that the lawyer you speak to knows how best to help you.

Clear your browser history

Note that the Hotline offers to erase your browser history when you leave the site. It’s not uncommon for financial fraudsters to check your browser history to see what you’re looking for.

On some sites, you will even see a link to leave safely. I tested this, and it actually shows up in the browser history as a “closed link” and doesn’t give any details. It’s important to leave a financial abuser, but it’s more important that you leave safely, so you can start a new life without abuse.