Western Union blocks Arab cash transfers
By ANJAN SUNDARAM, Associated Press Writer
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
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
"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
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
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
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 report.
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 scrutiny.
"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."
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
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