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Nearly a third of people ages 18 to 35 have had a romantic partner act dishonestly or abusively with money, according to a new survey by financial wellness community CentSai.
About 30 percent of millennials surveyed said they've been the victim of financial abuse, defined as using money to assert power or control in a relationship — by cutting off access to a shared bank account, for example — or financial infidelity, such as concealing activities regarding joint funds.
The survey, which queried more than 2,000 respondents in May, did not specify how many people described themselves as victims of financial infidelity as opposed to abuse.
Financial abuse or deceit tends to go unpunished, the survey found. Nearly half of victims said their partner or former partner faced no consequences for their actions — and 55 percent answered "no" to the question "Do you know where to go for legal help?"
Slightly more men than women said that they had been wronged by a partner: 53 percent of the self-reported victims were male. And 65 percent of respondents said the perpetrator was, in their case, a man, according to the survey.
While it may be challenging to measure exactly how prevalent financial abuse is in the U.S., there is growing recognition of its connection to emotional and physical domestic violence: Domestic abusers tend to use money as a key weapon to control their partners, said Vicky Dinges, a senior vice president at Allstate, which has an financial education program for abuse victims.
"In 98 percent of domestic abuse cases there is some evidence of financial abuse," she said.
Abusers may hide passwords to shared accounts, force their partner to take out loans in their name and then steal the funds, harass them at work until they lose their jobs, and even cut off access to food and spending money, Dinges said. What's particularly insidious about financial abuse, she said, is that victims with destroyed credit scores and limited resources have no way to leave.
"If you're loaded with debt, you're not going to be able to rent that apartment or apply for and get that job," Dinges said.
Victims of financial abuse may believe they lack the means to become independent, said Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality at the National Women's Law Center. But even those who feel trapped should know they have options, she said.
"The first step is to make sure you and your family will be safe if you take steps to separate," Raghu said.
Often the most dangerous time for a victim of abuse is when he or she decides to leave, said Dinges. Anyone who believes they are in physical danger should call 911 if the threat is immediate, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline if they have more time.
Beyond that, victims can contact state social services organizations or groups like the National Women's Law Center to help connect them to legal help, Raghu said.
Though rules vary by state, a lawyer is often able to get a victim an order of protection, which could force the abuser to stay away, provide child support and even cover rent, she said. Other resources exist for victims looking to change their name or Social Security number.
"We always suggest speaking to an advocate who can talk through options and potential consequences," Raghu said.
Men and women who aren't victims of abuse but have had a partner lie to them about money should be vigilant, said Alexandra Levi, a managing partner at advisory firm Element Financial Group.
"You need to get informed about any account with your name on it," she said.
If you are on the hook for taxes or penalties because of an abusive or deceptive partner, the IRS has "innocent spouse " provisions that may help you, and other resources can guide you through the complex tax issues abuse victims may face.