Banking app feature allows economic abuse survivors to mute malicious messages

Starling Bank has launched the new ‘hide references’ feature to help people mute unwelcome references from abusers that can accompany bank transfers.
Starling Bank has launched the new ‘hide references’ feature to help people mute unwelcome references from abusers that can accompany bank transfers.

Starling Bank has launched a feature in its app allowing customers to hide payment references, which could help survivors of economic abuse.

The “hide references” feature is designed to help people mute unwelcome or abusive references that can accompany bank transfers.

Payment references are generally simply intended to describe the nature of a payment, such as “rent”, “mum’s birthday gift” or “dinner”, for example.

But in cases of economic abuse, they can be misused, with the aim of upsetting or trying to manipulate the recipient.

An abusive former partner who has been blocked from other forms of contact, may, for example, send messages claiming they miss their ex, or even send insults or threats, Starling Bank said.

These references can be used as a way for an ex-partner to maintain some control and have a triggering impact on the recipient.

The bank said multiple messages may even be sent to accompany payments as small as 1p.

It has partnered with the charity Surviving Economic Abuse to launch the feature.

Economic abuse, which is often accompanied by other forms of abuse, can involve someone taking another person’s wages, stopping them from working, or intentionally putting them into debt.

While such abuse can happen within couples, it may sometimes take place within other types of relationships; for example, an adult child may abuse a frail and elderly parent, or a parent may abuse a child.

Abusive payment references are a key obstacle for economic abuse survivors to overcome, Starling Bank said.

Starling’s personal current account holders can use the feature by swiping up from the app home screen to pull up their transaction fee, tapping on a payment that has been received with an unwanted reference, and tapping the hide icon.

This will hide references from past or future payments made from that account.

Starling said the new feature will not stop money landing in a customer’s account – the recipient will simply not see any payment references that come from the sending account.

Customers can choose to unhide payment references in the app at any time.

Starling said one person had told the bank: “The ability to hide these references with a simple tap makes all the difference and I am so pleased that Starling has listened to my experience.”

Lauren Garrett, financial services manager at Surviving Economic Abuse, said: “Economic abuse can continue, increase, or even start long after a victim-survivor has separated from an abuser.

“Using online bank payment references to send intimidating or malicious messages is just one of the ways an abuser can maintain control from afar, leaving victims feeling helpless and highly vulnerable.

“We’re pleased to be working with Starling on this new feature and commend them for sharing what they are doing to give survivors the power to choose what payment references they see without having to relive traumatising experiences to customer services.

“This small in-app feature will make a huge difference to survivors’ ability to bank safely, and we’re proud to work alongside financial services who are listening to the voices of victim-survivors and encourage firms to continue closing down gaps in products and services which are being used to inadvertently facilitate abuse.”

Starling is a founding signatory in the UK Finance financial abuse code.

The hide references feature is part of the bank’s existing work supporting economic abuse survivors, which includes a dedicated vulnerable support team.

Charity Wood, head of customer experience at Starling Bank, said: “Anyone can experience economic abuse; they might not realise that it’s happening to them or how their bank can support.

“This feature shows just how powerful technology can be in making people’s lives easier, and is testament to Starling’s belief in doing the right thing.”