There's always someone who finds a way to put a useful facility to improper use. You or I may never have thought of it, but apparently there is growing use of digital payment channels to send abusive or threatening messages.
In mid-2020, the Commonwealth Bank revealed that more than 8000 of its customers had been harassed in this way, and that it had changed its acceptable use policy to prohibit such activities.
But according to Westpac's research, one in four (26%) Australians now admit to having used some form of inappropriate language in payment transactions.
So Westpac is introducing measures to help stamp out this practice.
A new tool will allow customers to report abuse and harassment via the description field when payments are made to their accounts. A click of a button is all that's needed to flag an offensive message for review and action by Westpac's dedicated team. Possible actions include warning the offending customer or notifying their financial institution.
A pilot program is underway, and the feature will be rolled out across Westpac's online and mobile banking services in the coming weeks.
Westpac has already gone live with a system for monitoring outgoing payments made through through its online and mobile banking platforms with a view to blocking those containing inappropriate or offensive language.
Customers will be told if their outgoing transaction contains blacklisted language, and it will not be processed until the language has been removed.
NAB introduced a similar block in January 2021, and at the time said it was working with its peers to agree on a suitable list of words and phrases. Last year, ANZ said swear words were automatically blocked from transaction descriptions, but the bank was not sure whether it was appropriate to monitor customer communications.
Commonwealth Bank group executive for human resources Sian Lewis said “Technology-facilitated abuse can have a long-term and damaging impact on victims. It’s our responsibility to make digital banking a safe place for our customers to conduct their daily activities without the fear of being threatened of harassed.
"Last year, we updated our acceptable use policy to address this issue and more recently we have implemented an automatic block on some of the most offensive and abusive language across our digital banking platforms, like the CommBank App, preventing a transaction from being processed if a customer attempts to use this language in a transaction description. It will take a whole of industry approach to properly address this issue so we’re pleased to see other banks starting to address the problem as well.”
Westpac general manager of customer solutions Lisa Pogonoski said "It's shocking that individuals are using real-time payment transactions to harass and threaten others, often circumventing blocks on other channels like SMS and social media to reach the recipient.
"In the past few months, we have detected more than 2,500 transactions containing terms that could be considered inappropriate, ranging from swear words through to domestic violence threats. These were often on low value amounts, with some individuals repeatedly targeted.
"The new self-reporting feature will give our customers a tool at their fingertips to flag abuse and threats received via payment transactions. We have established a dedicated team to review these messages, provide confidential support, and take action against abuse."
Westpac is also analysing inbound and outbound payments to help detect more subtle threats and patterns of abuse in messages, and then escalating such cases to the support team for response.
"We want to create a safer digital banking experience for our customers and send a clear signal that abusive messages in payment transactions will not be tolerated," added Pogonoski.
"While the vast majority of customers use our platforms respectfully, these steps will help provide more protection for customers sending and receiving payments through our online and mobile banking channels," she said.
Customers who fail to comply with Westpac's acceptable behaviour policy will be warned "and if necessary, exited from the bank," officials said.
"We want to be clear that we have zero tolerance for this behaviour and will continue to crack down on individuals who are not using our digital platforms appropriately, " said Pogonoski.
Information on the support available for Westpac customers experiencing abuse is available here.
Disclosure: The writer holds NAB shares.