protect yourself from financial abuseWe’ve all heard about the signs of financial abuse: your significant other starts adamantly pushing you to open multiple lines of credit, your son is hiding bank statements from you or a caretaker is strictly reducing your access to assets. For those who have experienced situations like this, these scenarios hit all too close to home. Financial abuse by someone close to you is something that can take its time to surface, but once it does, you can easily find yourself lost in the middle of a messy and monstrous ordeal. While it may not be possible to completely shield yourself from such situations, there are certain actions you can carry out to reduce its impacts if it does happen. As such, in this post, we’re covering four steps you can take to protect yourself from financial abuse.

What is financial abuse?

Before going over these preventive measures, it may be helpful to first define what we’re referring to when we mention financial abuse in this post. For the purposes of this guide, we’ll be interpreting financial abuse as something that occurs when a family member, significant other, friend or caretaker takes control of your finances without your consent. This can happen in the form of limiting your access to your money, hiding your financial information from you, manipulating your financial decisions, opening a credit card in your name and more. Abusers often employ these tactics to gain power and control the individual they’re abusing. Unfortunately, survivors of financial abuse may feel as if they can’t leave the situation because of finance-related fears, according to the Office on Women’s Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

As you can imagine, financial abuse results in many negative impacts on survivors, including bad credit health, anxiety and depression. All people, regardless of age and gender, can be subjected to financial abuse, which is why it’s important to find out what you can do to protect yourself from it.

Signs of financial abuse

Now that you know what financial abuse is, you should know how to identify signs that you may be a victim of financial abuse. There are a number of red flags for you to look out for, but here are some of the most common signs:

If someone is …

  • hiding or keeping financial documents
  • selling property that is yours
  • making changes with your financial accounts that you didn’t agree to
  • forcing you to open new credit cards or lines of credit
  • filing false insurance claims in your name
  • making financial decisions without checking with you
  • filing your tax return on your behalf (and not sharing the return with you)
  • giving you a very strict budget without explaining why that’s the case

We should note that if you think you may have fallen victim to financial abuse, you should follow the same steps you would if you fall victim to financial identity theft. Our guide to financial identity theft details everything you need to know.

How to protect yourself from financial abuse

While this kind of situation is fraught with difficulties, there are steps you can take to protect yourself from financial abuse. Here are four preventive measures:

Don’t share your personal information with others

Never give out personal information, including your passwords or PIN numbers. While it may be tempting to share everything with a loved one to show your trust in them, it may be best to refrain from doing so (especially if they’re not willing to share their information in return). After all, if you do share, it’s like giving them the key to your bank accounts, online accounts, payment cards and other information. As such, protect yourself by not giving out these “keys” in the first place.

Keep in mind, however, that even if you don’t share your information directly, it’s still possible for others to figure out your passwords if you leave them out in the open (having the password on a sticky note on your desktop or using Google’s saved passwords feature on a shared computer, for example). Along similar lines, while using auto sign-in could make life more convenient for you when you’re browsing the Internet, you’ll want to disable it to prevent others from getting easy access to your accounts. Instead, use a password manager to store your passwords in a secured place. If you do opt to share your password with someone you feel you can completely trust, turn on two-factor authentication or sign-in alerts, so you’ll know when they access the account. Keep in mind that since they’ll have the password, they will be able to turn these security features/alerts off. As such, if you notice these alerts slow down or stop altogether, you’ll want to change your password.

Be careful about cosigning agreements

If you suspect that your loved one is showing signs of financially abusing you, you’ll want to stay on the safe side and refrain from cosigning anything with them, as it could lead to a messy ordeal that you may be on the hook for down the line. For example, let’s say that you cosign a loan with your cousin, then they default on their payments. If the bank or issuer is unable to collect from your cousin, you would be held responsible, which means you’d have to pay off their debt. Not only would this loan likely ruin your relationship with your cousin (or at least create some tension), but your credit would also take a hit from the default. As such, it’s better to think twice before you agree to cosign a loan or credit card.

Practice good security habits

We’ve briefly touched on this with the point about your passwords, but you’ll want to make sure that you’re storing your personal documents and checkbooks in a secure place as well. Make sure to change your passwords on a regular basis for your devices and online accounts, and keep your bank statements, bills and other sensitive documents and materials in a location that can’t be accessed by others (e.g., a locked filing cabinet). By doing so, you can prevent unauthorized people from getting their hands on your information.

You’ll also want to think about how you’ll dispose of documents that you no longer need. We suggest that you properly dispose of such materials by using a cross-cut or micro-cut shredder or by using a shredding service — something that we’ve covered in a previous post. While you’re at it, shred any documents, credit card offers and mail that contains any personal information.

Check your statements and credit reports

To catch early signs of financial abuse and protect yourself, it’s a good idea to check your bank and credit card statements. Be on the lookout for any suspicious or unfamiliar transactions, and if you spot any, report them to your bank or issuer immediately.

In addition to that, you’ll want to check your credit reports and look for signs of fraudulent activity. Luckily, it’s easy to obtain all three of your credit reports through AnnualCreditReport.com, a website authorized by federal law that allows U.S. citizens to obtain one copy of each credit report (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) for free every 12 months. If you’ve already checked your credit reports through AnnualCreditReport.com in a 12-month period, there are some instances when you can get another copy for free. Alternatively, a credit monitoring service can help, as all of our top-rated services will provide you with your credit reports and scores upon signup. What’s more, the majority of these services offer free trials, which means you can test the service out before making a financial commitment.

Another thing to keep in mind

Financial abuse is a nightmare that no one should have to deal with. By taking these preventive steps, however, you can potentially decrease the severity of the problems if they come up. That said, remember that it’s important to reach out for support if you find yourself in such a situation, which you can read about in more depth on the HuffPost.

Now that you know more about what you can do to spot and protect yourself from financial abuse, you can learn more about other types of fraud and identity theft. Follow our identity theft blog to do exactly that.