The 'reference' field of an online payment is usually just that - a reference to help track a payment - but some people use them to play pranks and, occasionally, they're used as a channel of abuse.
While Westpac NZ has been monitoring for abusive payments for some time, it has recently updated its terms and conditions to help protect customers from unwanted interactions via their banking.
Westpac Manager of Customer Vulnerability and Financial Inclusion Louisa Brock says the update makes it clear to customers that derogatory or abusive language won’t be tolerated.
“We often find this kind of offensive language on very small payments of one cent or one dollar," Brock said.
"The perpetrator may already be blocked from contacting their victim through social media or other channels, so they’re using payments to harass them.”
Brock said offensive messages were sometimes attached to child support payments.
Westpac identifies thousands of instances of offensive language each month, based on a wide range of trigger words, but many of these turn out to be joke messages between friends or family. Other messages, however, are clearly intended to be abusive.
In 2023, Westpac has found 115 instances of offensive language that required action.
The bank’s process is to contact the customer to ask them to stop sending inappropriate messages. If the behaviour continues, Westpac will take steps to close the customer’s account and cease providing them with banking services.
“We’re pleased that we haven’t yet had to exit any customers, which indicates that the warning system is working,” Brock said.
“While we’ve been taking action on these kinds of messages for some time, the update to our terms and conditions formalises our position. It’s now absolutely clear that this isn’t acceptable, and that we’ll exit customers if this behaviour continues.”
Westpac is a partner of Shine, the domestic violence support agency, and Brock said the bank works closely with Shine on its approach.
“We’re always reviewing our policies and procedures to ensure we’re doing everything we can to prevent any kind of abuse,” she said.
“We provide our customer-facing teams with specific education and resources to help them to identify instances of abuse, so that they’re aware of how best to support customers or escalate issues where required.”
If a member of the public has received an abusive message in a payment and wants to report it, they can get in touch with Westpac directly.