Ordinary People Being Labeled as Terrorists
By law, every business has to check their customers against a list of “specially designated nationals,” and not do business with anyone on that list.
Of course, the list is riddled with bad names and many innocents get caught up in the net. And many businesses decide that it’s easier to turn away potential customers with whose name is on the list, creating—well—a shunned class:
Tom Kubbany is neither a terrorist nor a drug trafficker, has average credit and has owned homes in the past, so the Northern California mental-health worker was baffled when his mortgage broker said lenders were not interested in him. Reviewing his loan file, he discovered something shocking. At the top of his credit report was an OFAC alert provided by credit bureau TransUnion that showed that his middle name, Hassan, is an alias for Ali Saddam Hussein, purportedly a “son of Saddam Hussein.”
The record is not clear on whether Ali Saddam Hussein was a Hussein offspring, but the OFAC list stated he was born in 1980 or 1983. Kubbany was born in Detroit in 1949.
Under OFAC guidance, the date discrepancy signals a false match. Still, Kubbany said, the broker decided not to proceed. “She just talked with a bunch of lenders over the phone and they said, ‘No,’ ” he said. “So we said, ‘The heck with it. We’ll just go somewhere else.’ ”
Kubbany and his wife are applying for another loan, though he worries that the stigma lingers. “There’s a dark cloud over us,” he said. “We will never know if we had qualified for the mortgage last summer, then we might have been in a house now.”
Saad Ali Muhammad is an African American who was born in Chicago and converted to Islam in 1980. When he tried to buy a used car from a Chevrolet dealership three years ago, a salesman ran his credit report and at the top saw a reference to “OFAC search,” followed by the names of terrorists including Osama bin Laden. The only apparent connection was the name Muhammad. The credit report, also by TransUnion, did not explain what OFAC was or what the credit report user should do with the information. Muhammad wrote to TransUnion and filed a complaint with a state human rights agency, but the alert remains on his report, Sinnar said.
Colleen Tunney-Ryan, a TransUnion spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that clients using the firm’s credit reports are solely responsible for any action required by federal law as a result of a potential match and that they must agree they will not take any adverse action against a consumer based solely on the report.
The lawyers’ committee documented other cases, including that of a couple in Phoenix who were about to close on their first home, only to be told the sale could not proceed because the husband’s first and last names—common Hispanic names—matched an entry on the OFAC list. The entry did not include a date or place of birth, which could have helped distinguish the individuals.
In another case, a Roseville, Calif., couple wanted to buy a treadmill from a home fitness store on a financing plan. A bank representative told the salesperson that because the husband’s first name was Hussein, the couple would have to wait 72 hours while they were investigated. Though the couple eventually received the treadmill, they were so embarrassed by the incident they did not want their names in the report, Sinnar said.
This is the same problem as the no-fly list, only in a larger context. And it’s no way to combat terrorism. Thankfully, many businesses don’t know to check this list and people whose names are similar to suspected terrorists’ can still lead mostly normal lives. But the trend here is not good.