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Serena Williams on financial abuse: 'When you recognize the signs, you can change the pattern'

Serena Williams on October 03, 2019, in West Hollywood.
Joe Scarnici | Getty Images

In the United States, more than 10 million victims experience domestic violence annually from their intimate partner, which is an average of 20 people every minute, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. And up to 99% percent of survivors have also experienced financial abuse.

In honor of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month this October, the Allstate Foundation partnered with tennis star Serena Williams to raise awareness of financial abuse. "Not being able to use your credit cards, having to show receipts for every little dime that you spend, having freedom of choice taken away from you. Those are all signs," Williams told Woman's Day. "It's important to use my voice to shine a spotlight on the barriers women can face when they're trying to leave."

Abusers may try to control how the victim can access or use cash, bank accounts, or credit cards. They can also limit the victim's earning potential by preventing them from going to work or applying for a job.

"Financial abuse occurs in a relationship where your partner is withholding information about the finances to essentially keep the victim in the dark," says certified financial planner Stacy Francis, the president and chief executive of Francis Financial in New York.

The warning signs of financial abuse

"What's difficult is that financial abuse can take on many forms," says Francis. "Many people who actually are victims are unaware that this is a form of abuse."

Controlling behavior can start with one partner cutting the other off from financial matters and decisions and giving them less and less money to spend on themselves and the children.

"For example," Francis says, "a food allowance or clothing allowance that is just not doable. Then the victim has to come back to their partner and say, 'I don't have enough money for the kids' shoes for school, or for groceries for the week.' And it creates a power dynamic where the partner has the power. And they have the power because they control all the money."

Serena Williams and daughter Alexis Olympia during the S by Serena Williams Runway Show on September 10, 2019, in New York City.
Thomas Concordia | Getty Images

That dynamic also exists when the victim is belittled, manipulated, and made to feel less capable when it comes to money.

While cases of financial abuse frequently affect women, the elderly are also susceptible. The National Council on Aging reports that elder financial abuse and fraud costs its victims about $36.5 billion per year.

If you or a loved one are experiencing financial abuse, here are some tips to help you protect yourself:

Review a copy of your credit report

"Many times, individuals will find out later on that credit cards, other types of debts, and home equity lines of credit, have been taken out in their name by their abuser," Francis says.

Under federal law, you can obtain a free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three bureaus: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. Make sure you recognize all the debts listed. If you don't, dig further to find out how they got onto your card.

Many people who actually are victims are unaware that this is a form of abuse.
Stacy Francis
President and CEO of Francis Financial

Save and use cash

"Using a debit or credit card is going to allow your abuser to track you," says Francis. Going mostly or entirely cash-only allows you to operate in the world without leaving a trail.

Educate yourself about your income

Look for ways that you can learn more about your and your partner's finances. "Find out the value of your financial and investment accounts, the value of your property, and if there's any debt," Francis says. Then start discreetly tracking what you can.

Williams plans to educate her daughter about the signs of domestic and financial abuse early. "I hope she'll have an awareness of the issue as she starts to go through things in her own life," says Williams. "When you recognize the signs, you can change the pattern of abuse."

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