Secret financial escape plan for domestic violence victims

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6 steps to build a credit history, quietly, before getting out

Personal Finance Writer
Her work appears regularly in Reader’s Digest, Parents, Real Simple and more.


If
you’re a domestic violence victim, you may still be living with your abuser for
a simple reason: money.


It’s
common for abusers to keep victims in the dark about household finances and to
limit access to bank accounts, victims’ advocates say. Your abuser may force
you to stay on a strict budget and account for every penny you spend. If you
work, the abuser may make you turn over your paycheck immediately.


“Abusers
use finances as way to gain and maintain power and control over their partner,”
says Amanda Stylianou, associate vice president of quality and program development at Safe Horizon, a
domestic violence victims’ advocacy agency.
“We even see situations where the abuser may be doing things to purposely
hurt the victim’s credit, like opening credit cards in her name and running
them up.”


If
you can become more financially independent and establish a credit history while
you’re still living with your abuser, that can help give you the confidence and
security you need to escape, Stylianou says. But it’s important to do it carefully, without
raising flags for your abuser or putting your safety at risk.  


Below
are some steps Stylianou and other experts say domestic violence victims should
consider to secretly start building financial independence while they’re still in an abusive
relationship (keeping in mind that safety should always be the top priority):

1. Assess your
financial situation


If possible, start with a thorough
accounting of your household finances. What are the household assets, and how
much debt are you carrying? Which are joint accounts and which are just in one
person’s name? Whose names are on the mortgage? How much income is coming in?
“If there are safe ways for you to get that information, we want you to collect
it,” Stylianou says.


If you’re planning to leave, make
copies of important documents such as bank and brokerage statements, birth
certificates for you and your children, insurance inventories and policies,
recent tax returns and more. Keep the copies at the home of a trusted friend or
family member, or in a safe-deposit box your abuser doesn’t know about.

2. Set up a way to
communicate privately


You’ll need a safe way to correspond with
financial institutions, support groups and a divorce attorney if necessary, says
Jeffrey Landers, a divorce financial strategist who has worked with victims of
domestic violence. While your personal email may seem safe, experts say it’s
not unusual for suspicious spouses to install spyware or keystroke tracking
software on the home computer. Instead, set up a new, private email account
that you check only from computers outside your home. You can use a computer at
work, at a friend’s or relative’s home, at a local library or in a domestic
violence shelter. 


You also need a physical address to receive
mail, because you don’t want statements coming to the house. “A post office box
can work, but some financial institutions will want a physical address and not
a P.O. box,” Landers says. If that’s the
case, he recommends asking a family member or friend you trust if you can
receive mail at their address. 

3. Open a bank
account


To start building your financial safety net, open a checking
account at a different bank than the one where your spouse has an account. “Sometimes wires do get crossed, so I’d go to
a totally separate institution,” says Persis Yu, staff attorney for the
National Consumer Law Center, which advocates for the rights of domestic
violence victims. Use your new address for the account or request that all
communication from the bank be emailed to your secret email address.


Start squirrelling away any money you can in your new
account. Some victims take out extra cash each week when they buy groceries. Others
arrange to have any raises they get at work automatically deposited into their new
accounts. “Even if you save only a few
dollars a week, it’s a start,” Yu says.


In addition to providing emergency cash, the account will
give you a way to make monthly payments if you choose to open a credit card in
your name.


You want to have something on record that shows you’re capable of making timely payments, even if you’re just charging a $3 coffee at Starbucks a few times a month.

4. Pull your
credit report


Your
credit report can give you important information about your household finances,
from bank account balances to debt owed. More importantly, you can find out where you stand when it comes to your
credit history, since having good credit will make it easier for you to rent an
apartment, get a credit card and take other steps to start a new life.


You
can get a free copy of your credit report once a year from each of the three
biggest credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) at AnnualCreditReport.com. Use a
computer outside your home to request the reports and have them sent to your
new private email address. You can also request your reports by phone by calling 877-322-8228.


The
best-case scenario is you find you have more credit than you think. If you
have a joint mortgage or credit cards with your spouse, even if he made all the
payments, they will still show up on both of your reports and will boost your
credit score if payments were made on time.


Unfortunately,
it’s more common for domestic victims to find problems on their reports,
experts say. If your abuser isn’t giving you enough cash to live on, you may
have been forced to run up your credit card. If your spouse hasn’t made
payments on joint accounts in both your names, that hurts your score as well. You
may also find loans and credit cards your abuser took out in your name without
telling you. (If your abuser used your identity to rack up debt, it may be
considered identity theft, and you can dispute the charges once you feel it’s
safe to do so.)


“If
there’s any debt that’s just in your name, you can start to do some damage control
around that,” Stylianou says. “Call
the companies and say, ‘Here’s my situation. Can we work out some kind of payment
plan?’ Make sure they know to use your new private address and not to call you
on the home phone.”


Sometimes, Stylianou says, victims
learn that they have no credit at all. If that’s the case, you’ll need to build
your credit from scratch.

5. Start building
your credit history


Having
a credit card in your own name – and paying the balance in full and on time
each month – is the best way to start establishing a credit history. If you’re
not working, it may be easier to get a credit card in your name while you’re
still married, because issuers typically take into account household income
when making approval decisions. If
you’re denied, try a store or gas station card. Those often have looser credit
requirements.


If you’re
still turned down, consider a secured card. Designed to
help those with little or no credit history, they require you to make a deposit
with a bank or credit union; the bank then gives you a credit limit equal to
your deposit. Before you sign up, make
sure the fees are reasonable and that the bank will report your account history
to the credit bureaus. “You want to have
something on record that shows you’re capable of making timely payments,”
Landers says, “even if you’re just charging a $3 coffee at Starbucks a few
times a month.”


Again,
set up the account using a secret email and physical address.

6. Get help

If
you’re in a precarious financial situation or if you fear for your safety, you
don’t have to take these steps on your own, Stylianou says. Domestic violence organizations
can connect you with financial counselors who can help. They can also help you access financial
resources such as emergency assistance, utility assistance, public benefits,
legal aid and more.


“There are so many nonprofit organizations out
there to support you,” Stylianou says. “We can help
you create a plan to get you back on your feet and keep you and your children
safe.” To locate a program in your community,
contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-SAFE.


See related: Tips to protect yourself from financial abuse, coerced debt, domestic violence, coerced debt often go together, 9 signs your spouse is a financial bully

 




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