‘A new frontier’: Westpac commits to Safety by Design for all products

Westpac Safety By Design

In a further bid to stamp out financial abuse, Westpac has declared its commitment to implementing the eSafety Commission’s ‘Safety by Design’ principles in the design of all products.

As part of its commitment, the bank has also pledged to conduct mandatory customer safety training for its more than 800 employees involved in product development.

While directed primarily at the technology sector, the Safety by Design principle, as noted by the eSafety Commission, encourages a “proactive and preventative approach” to minimise online threats by “anticipating, detecting and eliminating online harms before they occur”.

“It’s important that Safety by Design principles are understood across the organisation, allowing more robust discussions about safeguarding our customers’ interests and taking action to prevent harm or misuse,” said Tiffiny Lewin, Westpac’s head of customer excellence.

Westpac said it will also update its terms and conditions with a “zero tolerance policy” for customers who use the bank’s products and services to engage in financial abuse.

This follows announcements last month from CBA and NAB on their intentions to update their T&Cs on a range of bank products to address financial abuse.

“Three of Australia’s major banks have now signalled their intent to lift the bar on what is acceptable customer behaviour,” said Catherine Fitzpatrick, Adjunct Associate Professor at UNSW’s School of Social Sciences.

Westpac said that implementation of Safety by Design principles was informed, in part, by findings from the Centre for Women’s Economic Safety (CWES) Designed to Disrupt report [pdf], released in late 2022.

Authored by Fitzpatrick and backed by Westpac, the report called on all Australian banks to redesign products and update T&Cs to improve the financial safety of customers.

It urged banks to begin this process by updating their T&Cs to state, clearly, that financial abuse through customers’ bank accounts will not be tolerated and that action will be taken against customers – including de-banking as a final step – who misuse their products to cause harm.

In an examination of T&Cs of 20 Australian banks, the report found that not one had referenced financial abuse.

Further, only nine out of the 20 banks described the misuse of payment descriptions to send abuse as unacceptable behaviour.

“By declaring that financial abuse is among the reasons that customers will be warned, suspended or exited from the bank, they are challenging the condoning of violence against women – which Our Watch research shows is an essential action to end gendered violence,” Fitzpatrick said in a statement.

Rebecca Glenn, chief executive of CWES, a support and advocacy group support for women at risk of or recovering from financial abuse, praised Westpac for its commitment to the principles, welcoming the bank’s new design mandate as “a new frontier of innovation in the banking sector”.

She added: “[We’re] excited by the possibilities of rethinking products which are past their used-by date.”

“We are especially pleased to see a commitment to embedding safety into product design.

“Any steps banks can take to reduce that burden, mitigate harm and make it harder for perpetrators to misuse products is welcome news.”

Research by Deloitte and CBA found that around 40 per cent of the population has experienced financial abuse or knows someone who has. Of this figure, nearly one in two women (48 per cent) have reported being victims of financial abuse.

Westpac, alongside its big four peers, introduced a range of protections in 2021 to protect customers from financial abuse, including the ability to self-report abusive messages via online and mobile banking and proactively blocking inappropriate language from outgoing payments.

Lewin added that, since the introduction of the initiatives, more than “92 per cent of perpetrators discontinued abusive behaviour after receiving a warning letter from Westpac.” In some cases, perpetrators were de-banked by Westpac and/or reported to law enforcement.

Overall, from 2020, since the progressive introduction of real-time blocks on inappropriate language, Australia’s banks have intercepted upwards of 500,000 abusive transactions.