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Abusers are using e-transfers to contact their victims. Who is responsible for stopping them?

WARNING: This story contains vulgar language and details of abuse and may affect those who have experienced​ ​​​intimate partner violence or know someone who has.

An hour before Bobbie Hallaert shot and killed Angie Sweeney last October, he sent her several e-transfers, including one for one cent. 

The amount of money wasn’t the point. Sweeney’s ex was using the e-transfer to contact her after she broke up with him and blocked him from all her social media and messaging apps because he was bombarding her with messages.

“You stupid bitch,” read part of the message he sent attached to the e-transfer for one cent. “You’re a shallow piece of shit, trying to lead me on like a f–king clown.”

An hour later, Hallaert shot and killed Sweeney through her daughter’s bedroom door as her daughter hid under the bed. Then he drove to another ex-partner’s home and shot that woman, critically wounding her. He also shot and killed their three children before turning the gun on himself.

Renee Buczel, one of Sweeney’s close friends in her home town of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., says she’s disturbed that her friend had to endure these hateful messages from the man who would kill her, and that he could contact her at all.

“She went out of her way to ensure all access to her was cut off from him,” Buczel told CBC.

WATCH | She was murdered by her ex. Friends say it could’ve been prevented: 

Murdered by her ex. How it could’ve been prevented

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This video contains distressing details | Angie Sweeney’s ex-boyfriend shot and killed her in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., shortly after she broke up with him last October. CBC’s Katie Nicholson breaks down what happened before her murder and what Sweeney’s friends, family and the police say could’ve helped prevent her death and help other victims of intimate partner violence.

Technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV) is widely recognized as a growing threat. At least 38 per cent of women globally have personally experienced online violence, and this rate is rising, according to a 2021 report by the United Nations Population Fund. 

According to Women’s Shelters Canada data from 2022, more than 95 per cent of domestic violence shelters in Canada served women who experienced TFGBV.

After seeing a rise in abusive e-transfers during the pandemic, banks in Australia cracked down by blocking certain transactions containing inappropriate or offensive language in real time. But in Canada, according to the banks who responded to CBC, the onus is on victims to report.

Legal experts and advocates say some abusers will go to any length to contact someone — and these tactics are increasing as different forms of technology emerge. 

“I never fail to be astonished, no matter how long I do this work, by the incredible ingenuity, I guess I’ll call it, that many of those who engage in abusive behaviour bring to their efforts,” said Pamela Cross, a lawyer and the advocacy director for Luke’s Place, a family law support centre for abused women in Oshawa, Ont.

A woman in a black jacket stands on a pedestrian street.
Pamela Cross, a lawyer and the advocacy director for Luke’s Place, a family law support centre for abused women in Oshawa, Ont., is pictured in Ottawa on Feb. 26. She says some abusers will go to any length to contact someone. (Felix Desroches/CBC)

Cross told CBC it’s both horrifying and discouraging that abusers can use this technology to reach victims, and said Canadian banks should take immediate steps to stop it. 

She says for all our embracing of technology, “we’re not paying enough attention to the ways in which it can be abused by somebody who wants to, rather than communicate in a constructive way, invoke fear in their former partner.”

A ‘big miss’

While a long-awaited online harms bill tabled Monday imposes new responsibilities for online platforms, including social media sites, live-streaming platforms and “user-uploaded adult content,” the legislation didn’t specifically address abusive messages in banking transactions.

That’s a “big miss,” said Rhiannon Wong, the Tech Safety Canada project manager with Women’s Shelters Canada.

WATCH | Australian banks cracked down on abusive e-transfer messages: 

Calls for banks to stop abusive messages sent by e-transfer

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There are calls for Canadian banks to crack down on abusive messages sent via e-transfers. A CBC News investigation into the murder of an Ontario woman uncovered that her ex sent her abusive messages using the service just before he killed her.

“Abusers are often looking for other ways in which they can continue the abuse or the threats and harassment, the gaslighting, the coercive control, of their partner or ex-partner,” Wong told CBC News.

“Preventing online abuse from happening on social media platforms is one step, but attempting to eliminate violence from social media does not prevent it from happening on other online spaces like through a bank’s e-transfer service and the physical world.” 

As part of her work, Wong looks at how people misuse technology to perpetrate violence against their partners or ex-partners across the country. The use of corporate technology like e-transfers often comes up in instances where court orders ban the perpetrator from contacting the victim, she said.

This form of abuse can also be particularly distressing for victims, because they may rely on e-transfers from ex-partners for things like child support and paying bills, Wong said. Many have also experienced financial or economic abuse —when a domestic partner interferes with their access to money — and may be struggling to make ends meet.

A woman in a black shirt looks out a window while sitting at a desk
Rhiannon Wong, the Tech Safety Canada project manager with Women’s Shelters Canada, is pictured in her office in downtown Vancouver on Tuesday. She says e-transfer messaging abuse can be particularly complex and distressing for victims. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Because of this, she said, they may not report when money comes via e-transfer and contains an abusive message. 

“My guess is that oftentimes people take that abuse and harassment because they need that money to be able to survive.”

CBC has reached out to every major banking company in Canada, as well as the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada. In an email statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for the Department of Finance said, “Anyone who feels threatened online or in person, should report these incidents to their local police.”

As for the banks, as of Wednesday, only TD Bank and Interac had responded. Both said anyone experiencing abuse should notify their financial institution. An Interac spokesperson said that when they’re made aware of any abusive messages sent via their service, they notify the sender’s financial institution.

“We are appalled and heartbroken to learn of this outcome and the behaviour the customer had to endure,” a spokesperson from TD Bank said in an email statement, referring to Angie Sweeney. “This situation, to our knowledge, is a rare situation.”

The spokesperson noted that a recipient financial institution does not have a way to block certain users from sending money to a customer’s email address or mobile number.

Who is responsible?

Australian banks took a more direct approach after noticing an uptick in abusive e-transfers during the pandemic.

In 2023, NAB bank said it had blocked 200,000 abusive transactions in the past year using technology that searches for key words and phrases. Commonwealth Bank implemented abusive transaction monitoring in June 2020, and said last year that it blocks 400,000 transactions annually with an automatic filter, and uses AI to identify about 1,500 perpetrators each year.

In November, Commonwealth Bank announced it was making the technology available for free, to any bank in the world.

“By sharing our source code and model … it will help financial institutions have better visibility of technology-facilitated abuse. This can help to inform action the bank may choose to take to help protect customers,” CBA Group Customer Advocate Angela MacMillan said in a news release.

During lockdown, perpetrators who weren’t able to be abusive or threatening in person started using banking transfers as a way of reaching victims, and the banks identified this as an increasing area of concern, said Anastasia Powell, an associate professor of family and sexual violence at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. 

A selfie of a woman standing in front of a brick wall
Anastasia Powell, an associate professor of family and sexual violence at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, says banks in that country recognized abusive e-transfers as a growing problem and took action. (Submitted by Anastasia Powell)

But Powell says the onus also needs to be on police to be aware that technology-based abuse is serious and can cause harm. 

“Often, when there’s tech abuse present, there’s also other forms of abuse from that same abusive partner,” she said, noting police should be better trained to respond to tech abuse because it “could be putting women’s safety at risk.”

LISTEN | What’s being done in the aftermath of IPV murders in Sault Ste. Marie:

The Current19:46Addressing intimate partner violence after Sault Ste. Marie deaths

Last October, five people across two homes in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., were found dead, including Angie Sweeney and her ex — the man who pulled the trigger. Sweeney’s friends and family believe her death could have been prevented if recommendations from an inquest into a similar killing had been implemented. In her documentary Angie’s Angels, CBC’s Katie Nicholson visits Sault Ste. Marie to hear calls for changes to how cases of intimate partner violence are treated. 

For Angie Sweeney, there wasn’t enough time to report the abusive e-transfer messages before her ex shot and killed her last October. Buczel says she hates to think how her friend must have felt seeing those messages come through less than an hour before she died.

“She was probably thinking like, ‘Oh my God, I thought I had myself locked down and safe where there would be no more communication. And now he’s found this, like, new way of still attacking me,’ ” she said.

If there’s a way for banks to block messages like the ones Sweeney received, Buczel says they should do it — for everyone’s safety.

She says any kind of positive change that comes from her friend’s tragic death can bring comfort if it means “somebody else won’t have to go through something that she went through.”

A selfie of two smiling women with long hair
Renee Buczel, left, poses with her friend Angie Sweeney. Buczel thinks that if the technology makes it possible, banks should block abusive messages that can be sent as part of e-transfers. (Submitted by Renee Buczel)

For anyone affected by family or intimate partner violence, there is support available through crisis lines and local support services. ​​If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.

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