Ever So Tweetly

    follow me on Twitter

    Wednesday, July 12, 2006

    Newswire: Western Union blocks Arab cash transfers

    By ANJAN SUNDARAM, Associated Press Writer

    DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Money transfer agencies have delayed
    or blocked thousands of cash deliveries on suspicion of terrorist
    connections simply because senders or recipients have names like
    Mohammed or Ahmed, company officials said.

    In one example, an Indian driver here said Western Union prevented
    him from sending $120 to a friend at home last month because the
    recipient's name was Mohammed.

    "Western Union told me that if I send money to Sahir Mohammed, the
    money will be blocked because of his name," said 36-year-old Abdul
    Rahman Maruthayil, who later sent the money through UAE Exchange, a
    Dubai-based money transfer service.

    In a similar case, Pakistani Qadir Khan said Western Union blocked
    his attempt this month to wire money to his brother Mohammed for a
    cataract operation.

    "Every Mohammed is a terrorist now?" Khan asked.

    Dubai-based representatives from Western Union Financial Services,
    an American company based in Colorado, and Minnesota-based MoneyGram
    International, said their clerks are simply following U.S.
    Treasury Department guidelines that scrutinize cash flows for
    terrorist links. Most of the flagged transactions are delayed for a
    few hours. Some are blocked entirely.

    In many cases, would-be customers like Maruthayil simply find
    another way to send the funds — often through informal exchanges
    with less stringent monitoring.

    Critics say the screening is far too broad. The number of people
    inconvenienced in the Emirates alone, which closely cooperates with
    U.S. counterterror operations, is thought to be in the tens of
    thousands. One Western Union clerk said about 300 money transfers
    from a single Dubai franchise were blocked or delayed each day —
    none of which has turned up a terrorist link.

    In Washington, U.S. Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said
    foreign banks have used the department's list of terrorist names to
    freeze $150 million in assets since Sept. 11. Millerwise didn't know
    the value of money transfers blocked using the list, but said
    frustrations endured were regrettable but necessary.

    "We have an obligation to do all we can to keep money out of the
    hands of terrorists," Millerwise said.

    The list of names, available on the Treasury's Office of Foreign
    Assets Control Web site, contains hundreds of Mohammeds.

    Inconveniences from the screening go far beyond money transfers in
    the Middle East.

    In the United States, banks, car dealers, title companies,
    landlords, and employers have used the list to unjustly block scores
    of ordinary transactions, said Shirin Sinnar, a San Francisco
    attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.

    In one case, a couple in Sacramento, Calif. was thwarted from
    purchasing a treadmill on a financing plan, simply because the
    husband's first name was Hussein, Sinnar said in an e-mail interview.

    Western Union's caution is perhaps understandable. Sept. 11 hijacker
    Mohammed Atta sent money from two Western Union agencies in Maryland
    before boarding a plane he helped crash into New York's World Trade

    The money transfer crackdown comes amid revelations that the U.S.
    Treasury and CIA have tracked millions of confidential transactions
    handled by the Belgium-based Society for Worldwide Interbank
    Financial Telecommunication.

    In Dubai, a Western Union branch manager said he was forced to obey
    U.S. rules he and others consider too broad.

    "Mohammed and Ahmed have become problematic names because they are
    so common on the list of terrorists," said Nixon Baby, who runs a
    Western Union franchise in Bur Dubai, a neighborhood packed with
    South Asian businesses. "These are regulations that Western Union is
    required to obey. We have no control."

    At another Western Union office, an executive who deals with
    security measures said about 1 percent of the store's 30,000 daily
    money transfers — about 300 a day — are delayed or blocked because
    of suspected terrorist links. Thus far, all have proven false, the
    executive said on condition of anonymity, because she wasn't
    permitted to speak to a reporter.

    Western Union routinely delays or blocks transfers between customers
    whose names even partially match names on the Treasury list. The
    money is usually released once suspects show identity documents that
    prove they are not on the list, the executive said.

    Bernie Rabina, a representative at Dubai airport's MoneyGram outlet,
    said her company follows a similar process. Rabina didn't know what
    percentage of her franchise's daily transactions were blocked.

    The U.S. regulations apply to Western Union money transfers made
    anywhere, said Marc Aubry, the company's Dubai-based Mideast
    marketing director.

    But the United Arab Emirates, where Dubai is one of seven city-
    states, is especially susceptible to the Treasury's restrictions
    because it is home to more than a million foreign laborers who sent
    home a collective $14 billion last year, according to a government

    The Emirates government has cooperated with the U.S. Treasury in
    tightening oversight after a 2004 U.S. investigation found that
    Emirates banks handled most of the $400,000 spent on the Sept. 11

    Dubai expatriates like Khan and Maruthayil say Western Union, which
    earns about $3 billion annually from operations in 200 countries,
    has no valid basis for delaying cash meant for their families.

    They say Treasury guidelines are sending more people to informal
    money transfer networks called "hundis" or "hawalas" that have been
    used by gangsters and terrorists because they circumvent such

    "Sending money by hawala is cheaper and it does not get checked by
    banks, so it is quicker," said a Pakistani taxi driver who called
    himself Munir Ahmed. "They say it is not legal, but it is a reliable
    alternative to Western Union."

    At the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington,
    spokesman Corey Saylor said Treasury needs to reform its rules.

    "The Treasury program interferes with even the most innocent
    transactions," Saylor said. "Just because Ahmed is a common name on
    their list, everyone with that name is suddenly stuck."

    No comments: