Wednesday, 30 March 2016

How does your bank know your dog's not a terrorist?

I was interviewed by Monte Francis of KTVU (Channel 2) News last week to help make sense out of what happened to Bruce Francis, a disabled San Francisco man whose online request to send a check to pay the person who walks his service dog was refused by Chase Bank.

The memo line on the check read, “for Dash”, Dash being the name of Mr. Francis’ dog. Apparently the robots used by Chase to profile and score each transaction and decide whether to allow customers to make payments flagged the name of his dog as vaguely similar to “Daesh”, one of several English transliterations of a crude phonetic rendering of an Arabic acronym for a name sometimes applied to — although rejected and denounced by — one grouping of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

As Mr. Francis told KTVU, stopping payment of any check identified on the memo line as being “for ISIS” would amount to, “Stopping the world’s stupidest terrorist.”

But who knew that banks had such things as “robots used to profile and score each transaction and decide whether to allow customers to make payments”?

Mr. Francis’ rejected attempt to pay his dog-walker is only the tip of the iceberg of a larger problem of overreach and injustice by OFAC — one of the largest and least transparent or accountable Federal law enforcement agencies that most people in the USA have never heard of — and a yet larger problem of outsourced surveillance, algorithmic profiling, and control (like that of airline reservations and travel, but affecting other aspects of our lives) by what the ACLU has aptly labeled the “Surveillance-Industrial Complex” of private and commercial actors conscripted by government carrots and sticks.

What happened with Dash the dog was part of a familiar and problematic pattern. The only thing really unusual was that neither Mr. Francis not his dog-walker (nor Dash the dog, so far as I know) are Muslims. I’ve had to deal with OFAC myself, including when my bank account was (wrongly, and possibly illegally) frozen, and I couldn’t deposit my paychecks or pay my bills, after I tried to check my Schwab Bank balance for an IP address in Ssyria where I was (legally) travelling, and when OFAC prohibited customers of the travel agency where I was working from either using or obtaining refunds for tickets they had purchased on an airline in Peru, one of whose owners was later designated a “drug kingpin, thus effectively forcing these would-be travellers (who were never accused of any wrongdoing themselves) to forfeit the value of their tickets and allowing the alleged “drug kingpin” to keep their money as an OFAC windfall, without having to provide them with transportation.


Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 30 March 2016, 10:56 (10:56 AM)

"Your online payment might get blocked if you use a word like 'Iran' that raises an alert" (by Claes Bell,, 8 April 2016):

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 8 April 2016, 07:34 ( 7:34 AM)

More news about blocking of money transfers (and what you can do about it):

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 9 April 2016, 23:54 (11:54 PM)

"Dash" is, or at least was, slang in Nigeria for bribery. I don't know if that was a factor, but it couldn't have helped. Thanks for bringing OFAC out into a little light. It sounds as arbitrary as the moronic no-fly list, and just as difficult to get off of.

Posted by: Richard Weil, 12 April 2016, 04:49 ( 4:49 AM)

Sad! I always assume I'll be overcharged when I travel outside the US by BOTH my bank and every other financial institution I deal with. I also assume that, even when making hotel reservations for travel right here at home, I might have problems with bank security just BECAUSE. In at least one recent case, this meant I had to choose a different place to stay than the one I really wanted. I was hopping mad, but at times like these, I try my best to remember that the banks are trying to protect me, themselves and every other customer of every bank in the world from money transfers which are intended to finance terrorism. I'd rather make a quick call (even if it was also expensive) to clear things up than have no assistance at all from banks in this matter, so I can only allow myself to get SO ANGRY at behavior like this. It IS annoying as you-know-what, and we DO need to demand better from all banks. But it's an ongoing process, and we can't expect money people to also be linguistics experts (though we can certainly ask them to at least CONSULT with some).

Posted by: Ben Bangs, 12 April 2016, 07:30 ( 7:30 AM)
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