Consumer Rights Newsletter on Coerced Debt

Consumer Rights for Domestic & Sexual Violence Survivors Initiative
Newsletter on Coerced Debt – August 2023


CSAJ’s Consumer Rights Newsletters share multi-level strategies by and for the field on critical consumer and economic issues that impact survivors’ safety. In this edition, we are featuring foundational resources, emerging issues, an inside interview with an advocate, and policy and practice updates on coerced debt.

The Consumer Rights Newsletters are part of CSAJ’s Consumer Rights for Domestic and Sexual Violence Survivors Iniatitive, a national project that builds on the capacity of and builds partnerships between domestic violence and consumer (anti-poverty) lawyers and advocates. 

What is Coerced Debt?

“Research and practice with survivors of domestic or intimate partner violence show that coerced debt is a problem affecting many, with lasting and cascading impacts on financial security and safety.” – CSAJ Compendium on Coerced Debt, 2022


  • Coercive Control: The systematic, ongoing use of violence, intimidation, isolation, and control to restrict the survivor’s autonomy and liberty. Littwin, 2012; Stark, 2007
  • Economic Abuse: “Behaviors that control a person’s ability to acquire, use, and maintain economic resources, thus threatening their economic security and potential for self-sufficiency.” Adams, Sullivan, Bybee, & Greeson, 2008.

Coerced Debt: An abusive partner generates debt in their partner’s name through discrete transactions involving coercion or fraud and creates an environment in which refusing a demand or questioning their behavior is dangerous. Littwin, 2012; Stark, 2007

Did you know?

The Re-Authorized Violence Against Women Act in 2022 expanded the federal definition of domestic violence to include economic abuse, including coerced debt.


‘‘ ECONOMIC ABUSE.—The term ‘economic abuse’, in the context of domestic violence, dating violence, and abuse in later life, means behavior that  is coercive, deceptive, or unreasonably controls or restrains a person’s ability to acquire, use, or maintain economic resources to which they are entitled, including using coercion, fraud, or manipulation to—  

(A) restrict a person’s access to money,  assets, credit, or financial information;  (B) unfairly use a person’s personal economic resources, including money, assets, and credit, for one’s own advantage; or  

(C) exert undue influence over a person’s financial and economic behavior or decisions, including forcing default on joint or other financial obligations, exploiting powers of attorney, guardianship, or conservatorship, or failing or neglecting to act in the best interests of a person to whom one has a fiduciary duty.’’

Key Stats:

Nearly all survivors report experiencing economic abuse and coerced debt. 

As a result of coerced debt, survivors are not only saddled with large debt burdens, they also cannot access critical safety resources — housing, employment, utilities, cars, etc — because of damaged credit.

  • 50% of survivors have debt loads up to $20,000, 23% over $20,000, and 26% don’t know how much (CSAJ, 2019)
  • Survivors report incurring an average of $15,936 of coerced or fraudulent debt each year (FreeFrom, 2021)
  • 46% of survivors report their credit report or score was hurt by the actions of an abusive partner (Adams, Littwin, & Javorka, 2020)
  • 33% want help dealing with debt their partner put in their name (CSAJ, 2019)

Coerced debt compounds other financial hardships and can entangle survivors in lengthy, complicated, and costly legal cases.

  • 2-in-3 survivors only discover coerced debt through contact from a bill or debt collector, another 25% find rather than receive mail (Adams, Littwin, & Javorka, 2020). 
  • By the time unpaid debts are discovered, survivors may already have consumer debt judgments that may lead to wage garnishment and bank account restraint (Reinvesting in NYC Survivor Economic Equity, 2022). 
  • In a 2018 study of New York City Survivors, 30% of those seeking domestic violence-related legal services were found to also have a consumer debt issue (Denied, 2018).

Advocates working with survivors with multiply marginalized identities (ie. undocumented, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, rural) report additional harm imposed by financial, legal, government and service systems, including (CSAJ Compendium on Coerced Debt, Intersectional Perspective Supplement, 2022):

  • unique sources of debt, 
  • their debt is more onerous repay or relieve (thus more expensive), 
  • debts or financial insecurity is further exploited by predatory actors (from payday lenders to landlords),
  • are penalized or entangled in systems, rather than supported by them (ie. when public benefits fraud is part of coerced debt, child protection cases because they have to rent out rooms to make ends meet, criminalized for engaging in survival or informal economies from street vending to sex work).

Tools for Coerced Debt Advocacy

Coerced debt occurs when the abuser in an abusive relationship obtains credit in the survivor’s name via fraud or coercive control.

Why Screening for Coerced Debt Matters

Screening for coerced debt should be part of holistic, survivor centered economic advocacy. It can help advocates and attorneys get a fuller picture of what the client is experiencing, and how to support them.

Clients may:

  • Rarely self-identify or present  coerced debt
  • Little/no knowledge of debt
  • Have little/no access to financial information
  • May talk as though they “consented to” the debt

Advocate tips 

  • Screen for coerced debt with intentionality (Important!)( Screening for coerced debt most times requires deeper and specific questions about debt because of all the emotions that come with dealing with debt, clients may be afraid, stressed, ashamed or may want to procrastinate on confronting issues of debt and are also not used to talking about debt)
  • Acknowledge discomfort, & normalize challenges around money and debt, create and reassure survivors that they are in a safe space
  • Think about triggers/language
  • Ask screening questions
  • Ask open ended questions to get more of an understanding of what was happening in the relationship
  • Listen for “red flag” statements from survivors
  • Consider safety always

Tips for Starting the Conversation

  • Preface, acknowledge discomfort, & normalize:
    • Internally acknowledge your own discomfort with discussing this topic
    • “I know this is uncomfortable…”
    • “I know you’ve been asked a million difficult questions…”
    • “I know talking about money can be uncomfortable and may bring up a lot. I am here to support you & will not judge you.”
    • “I’m here to find out more about what happened and to support you in moving forward- whatever that looks like for you.”
    • Be clear about why you’re asking about money or debt (ie. “we often see it create barriers to…”)
    • Reframe debt as a systems failing, not the survivors’ failing (ie. “you are not your debt.” or “credit systems don’t protect us well and make it difficult to address debt – this is not your fault or problem, but may come up as you try to get/stay safe so it is important to talk about.”
  • Think about triggers/language:
    • Financial & consumer language is not very trauma informed or friendly: “forced to sign,” “you’re late/declined,” “overdue,” “insufficient,” etc.
    • Example: Many clients may have a reaction to the word “force” and will instantly say that they were not forced. Rather, use phrases like “did you feel like you couldn’t say no” or “felt pressured”.
  • Consider safety
    • If a survivor is worried about physical safety, consider using an address that is already known to the abuser when running the client’s credit rather than a new address, especially if the client is being stalked.

Screening Questions Examples

  • Does anyone have access to your personal information or your children’s information and possibly used it to obtain credit?
  • Has your partner ever hidden financial information from you or prevented you from having access to any of your financial information?
  • Have you ever felt like you couldn’t say no when your partner asked you to sign for credit and/or large purchases?
  • Have you ever had to give all or part of the money you earn directly to yourpartner/family member or had very little control over your own money?
  • Are you or have you ever been restricted from accessing your documents like your ID, passport, important documents, etc.?
  • Has your partner ever taken a credit card that belongs to you for his/her/their own use? (or a debit card)
  • Have you or your children ever been claimed on a tax return without permission?

Ask Open-Ended Questions

  • As far as you know, has anyone ever done something to impact your credit or debt? If so, can you tell me a little bit about what happened?
  • Tell me about your household’s financial situation. Who handles money matters? How often do you talk about finances? What are those conversations like?
  • Do you keep your address confidential for any reason? If so, can you let me know your reasons for doing so?
  • When you signed for that loan or credit card, what kind of information was shared with you about the process of paying it back? What were you feeling when you signed for it?
  • Have you ever suspected or been worried that someone opened or used an account in your name without your permission? If so, can you tell me more about that? What gave you the idea that this might be occurring?

Look for red flag statements from survivors

In addition to proactively starting the conversation, listen for cues from survivors that coerced debt may be a factor. Some sample statements advocates and attorneys often hear, include:

  • X handled all of the mail / I didn’t have access to the mail during that relationship.
  • I don’t want X to know where I live now.
  • The car loan is in my name, but I don’t have a license.
  • I can’t access my bank statement/tax returns/financial documents. X handles all of that.
  • I opened that account because X asked/told me to.
  • I guess X added himself/herself/themself on that account. I didn’t know.

Diving deeper into red flag statements

  • X handled all of the mail / I didn’t have access to the mail during the relationship.
    • How did this arrangement come to be in your relationship?
    • Were you comfortable with that arrangement?
  •  I don’t want X to know where I live now.
    • What are you concerned would happen if X knew your address?
    • Do you think X might hurt you if he/she found out where you lived?
  • The car loan is in my name, but I don’t have a license.
    • What were the circumstances that led to this happening?
    • Do you remember if you wanted to sign the loan?
    • Who made the payments?
  • I can’t access my bank statement/tax returns/financial documents. X handles all of that.
    • Could you access them if you wanted or needed to?
    • What would happen if you asked for those documents?
    • Is X secretive about that information?
  • I opened that account because X asked/told me to.
    • Did you feel like you had a choice?
    • What do you think would have happened if you hadn’t opened the account?
  •  I guess X added himself/herself on that account. I didn’t know.
    • Is this something that happened often in your relationship?
    • Do you know of any other financial actions by X that might impact you?
    • When/how did you find out he/she was using this account?

More Safety Considerations

When working with any client it can be important to check to see what feels safe for them and what doesn’t. Try keeping in mind these:

  • Is your client’s address confidential?
  • Is it safe to leave a voicemail? Send mail?
    • Need a safe address to receive mail
    • Address Confidentiality Program?
  • Financial actions can alert abusive person – will he/she/they retaliate?
  • Is a joint debt going to court?
    • Possibility that abusive person will be in court
  • Does your client need a safety plan- physical/financial?

Resources: Legal Strategies to Address Coerced Debt 

  • Coerced Debt listserv: This is a national listserv and community forum for anti-violence, consumer rights, and economic justice advocates to connect, problem solve, and organize around coerced debt facing survivors. This listserv is managed by CSAJ and the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC)
  • Coerced Debt Clearinghouse:  ( in development) an online repository of resources for attorneys and advocates related to coerced debt (to be known as the Coerced Debt Clearinghouse). The Clearinghouse will  ensure attorneys and advocates have a free online repository of the most current resources to guide attorneys and advocates in the area of coerced debt practice. Builds upon the Coerced Debt Compendium.

Advocacy Spotlight – Interview with Teal Inzunza

CSAJ had the pleasure of interviewing Teal Inzunza (she/her), Program Director of the Economic Empowerment Program at the Urban Resource Institute. Teal identifies herself as an advocate and has wide experience supporting survivors. The following interview shares her experience, advocacy tips, partnership-building and more that have helped Teal address coerced debt alongside survivors.  

Can you introduce yourself and provide your professional background?

“I am a licensed social worker, working and living in New York City. I have worked with folks experiencing homelessness and survivors for over 12 years, including LBGTQ survivors, around economic justice issues. I currently co-chair a citywide task force called the Domestic Violence and Economic Justice Taskforce, and co-wrote a report with other advocates and CSAJ entitled Reinvesting in Economic Justice, Equity, and Solidarity for Survivors in NYC. I am also a part of a collective of NYC advocates & attorneys who are currently pushing to pass State coerced debt legislation.”

What inspired you to become an advocate?

“Like many who are in this field, I have my own experiences that led to doing this work and experiencing what it is to live in poverty. I can see the effects money can have especially if you don’t have any. As a Mexican American, intergenerational wealth did not exist. I have seen the impacts of how poverty has impacted my community from generation to generation. Resources for our community are especially important. I have also seen the ways the women in my family have advocated for our community, and I think that was passed down to me. “

How did coerced debt come on your radar? Were there any particular client survivor stories or experiences that made you focus on this issue?

“When I worked in the New York City Anti-Violence Project, I started their Economic Empowerment Program because I saw the devastating effects of coerced debt facing LGBTQ survivors I worked with on a large scale. Many survivors who had suffered a large amount of economic abuse and, at that time, I did not know what to do about things like coerced debt. I saw the hopelessness that they felt, especially since these issues can take years, if not decades, to resolve and some may never be able to be. I felt that we needed to start organizing and mobilizing around this issue and that no one was really talking about it outside of CSAJ. It was often isolating and it was hard to find support in New York City. “

We often hear that advocates do not always know how to start the conversation about coerced debt,when to do it, and how to do it in a survivor centered way. What have you learned, what are important practices, tips, or considerations you would offer to start the economic conversation?

“When advocates tell me that they feel uncomfortable talking about coerced debt, I totally understand that.  It is incredibly difficult to talk about money with anyone! Part of our work is getting comfortable with talking about it, which is no small feat.  It’s not as if we as social service workers get paid the big bucks, but just like with all things, we don’t need to have it all figured out to support others in their process.  One tip:  If you are uncomfortable asking a question about money, first ask a client about the three top stresses at the moment.  I would bet that the majority of people will say money- who isn’t stressed about money?  That gives you an in point to ask more questions. Also note that language matters: There are certain words or phrases that I have found evoke a strong response from clients so I have tried to rephrase them or define them.  For example, I found that many clients had a strong reaction to the word “forced,” but when I rephrased it as “felt like you couldn’t say no” I got a very different response.  Restating things in an easier to understand way is often helpful to getting a more accurate answer.  “

A root cause issue with coerced debt is our deregulated consumer system (that puts the onus of debt on individual survivors), few legal t options to relieving debt (though that is changing in some states), and other built-in barriers to service and justice. What’s your approach to navigating structural inequities with survivors? How does this look different for survivors with multiply marginalized identities (ie. undocumented, LGBTQ+, formerly incarcerated)?

“As a baseline, I try to keep in mind that the communities that are marginalized have had to become the best at navigating these systems and I always try to take my lead from them. I remind myself that all of my clients have incredible skills and are simultaneously living in systems that are meant to hurt them. It’s important to reflect those strengths back to our clients. When I became a therapist, I had to learn how to sit with ambiguity and in advocacy work sometimes ambiguity is all there is.  It is often horribly difficult to sit with clients where you know there are not many good solutions and be fully present with them.  I have heard it said that “people can get through almost anything if they know they aren’t alone in it” and I hold that sentiment deeply.  Our role of advocates is to be there with our clients and walk alongside them through these difficult moments. It’s important that the person knows that they are not dealing with these issues alone, and that they have someone in their corner. More practically, I think when you are going into any system, giving your clients a heads-up is important. Providing clients with answers to what they can expect, what they can say if something goes wrong, and knowing their rights can be very powerful.” 

A big part of addressing coerced debt with survivors is partnership, like partnering with consumer attorneys. What has been most helpful to you in building partnerships? What do you think is important for attorneys to know/learn about working with survivors and advocates on issues of coerced debt?

“Good partnerships with attorneys are essential. They have been the most important relationships of my career. There is a benefit to being loud, trying to network and finding your people. I was lucky to find an attorney partnership that created a lot of support for my clients. I created an environment where the attorney would come onsite, having her come to our space was revolutionary. She would let me sit in on the sessions and if the client wanted,  I could help fill in parts of their story that they did not feel comfortable sharing aloud again. Attorneys have to be good listeners, they need to be flexible, they need to be supportive of the process, which I know is hard.  Lastly, I think it is important for attorneys to know that survivors often have a large amount of shame when it comes to their finances. Having someone there with them that is not judgemental and supportive is essential. I feel grateful to have continued to work and advocate on a systems level with some amazing attorneys that truly have survivor’s needs at the forefront of their minds and hearts.  I couldn’t do this work without them. “

Spotlight on Emerging Issues & Policy

Below are highlights on emerging issues, what issues federal consumer agencies are working, and state policy shifts on coerced debt from CSAJ’s Coerced Debt Working Group, and what we are hearing from the field. All have implications for survivors or may offer practical tips or strategies to inform your advocacy.

CSAJ also hosts a national email listserv, “Talk Coerced Debt,” where advocates and attorneys from across the country can get peer support, problem-solving, and helpful advocacy strategies on coerced debt issues happening in real-time. Contact us to join the listserv!

During the second quarter of 2023, the Working Group subcommittees reported on the following:

  • Emerging Issues:
    • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and Fair Trade Commission (FTC) are seeking information regarding tenant screening and the impact on survivors.  
    • The White House released the first-ever National Action Plan on Gender Based Violence, which includes pillars on Economic Security that offer helpful guidance and strategy to advocates. 
  • City/State Policy:
    • NYC has passed the first ever coerced debt legislation in NYC, and advocates are currently advocating for coerced debt protections before the NY State Assembly.  
    • DC is advocating for family law protections that would allow for exclusive use of the home regardless of ownership as well as consideration of coerced debt in dissolution of property.   
    • The state subcommittee has created a state coerced debt tracker, and invites advocates to update the information here. 
  • Model Policy:
    • The CDWG will review and contribute to a draft model coerced debt policy in the coming months. This will distill helpful coerced debt protections from various state which can inform legal and non-legal advocacy strategies in your own state. 
  • National Clearinghouse:
    • CSAJ is creating an online clearinghouse of information, research, and governing law to guide advocates in their efforts to advance coerced debt advocacy.  If you have advocacy tools, best-practices, or other resources you think would help other advocates and attorneys, please share them with us at

This project is supported all or in part by Grant No. 15JOVW-22-GK-04011-MUMU awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in the publication/program/exhibition are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women.