The Terrorist Threat of Paying Your Credit Card Balance
This article shows how badly terrorist profiling can go wrong:
They paid down some debt. The balance on their JCPenney Platinum MasterCard had gotten to an unhealthy level. So they sent in a large payment, a check for $6,522.
And an alarm went off. A red flag went up. The Soehnges’ behavior was found questionable.
And all they did was pay down their debt. They didn’t call a suspected terrorist on their cell phone. They didn’t try to sneak a machine gun through customs.
They just paid a hefty chunk of their credit card balance. And they learned how frighteningly wide the net of suspicion has been cast.
After sending in the check, they checked online to see if their account had been duly credited. They learned that the check had arrived, but the amount available for credit on their account hadn’t changed.
So Deana Soehnge called the credit-card company. Then Walter called.
“When you mess with my money, I want to know why,” he said.
They both learned the same astounding piece of information about the little things that can set the threat sensors to beeping and blinking.
They were told, as they moved up the managerial ladder at the call center, that the amount they had sent in was much larger than their normal monthly payment. And if the increase hits a certain percentage higher than that normal payment, Homeland Security has to be notified. And the money doesn’t move until the threat alert is lifted.
The article goes on to blame something called the Bank Privacy Act, but that’s not correct. The culprit here is the amendments made to the Bank Secrecy Act by the USA Patriot Act, Sections 351 and 352. There’s a general discussion here, and the Federal Register here.
There has been some rumbling on the net that this story is badly garbled — or even a hoax — but certainly this kind of thing is what financial institutions are required to report under the Patriot Act.
Remember, all the time spent chasing down silly false alarms is time wasted. Finding terrorist plots is a signal-to-noise problem, and stuff like this substantially decreases that ratio: it adds a lot of noise without adding enough signal. It makes us less safe, because it makes terrorist plots harder to find.