Under the Patriot Act, banks are required to verify the identities of their customers and maintain accurate information on them. But my bank’s demand to know how I earn my income is an invasion of my privacy.
My credit card company seems to think I’m laundering money to finance terrorism.
At the end of November, Bank of America sent me an email demanding I tell them my occupation and source of income, and if I didn’t respond they might freeze or close my account.
“During a recent review, we discovered that some of your information is either missing or incomplete. Like all financial institutions, we’re required to maintain complete and accurate information about all our customers and may have to restrict or even close accounts that don’t have all the required data. Since this could affect all of your accounts. Please act quickly.
“Please note: Not providing the required information may be considered a request from you to close your account(s).”
Because I often write about scams and fraud for CreditCards.com, I immediately deleted the email, figuring it was a phishing scam from some fraudster trying to get their hands on my credit card information, or hoping to install malware on my computer.
After the email came a letter. Then phone calls. Then another email.
At that point I figured their demands were real – and ridiculous.
Taking ‘Know Your Customer’ too far?
To me it’s an invasion of privacy for Bank of America to demand to know my occupation and source of income.
Why is it any of their business what I do for a living – even though I regularly contact them for information for articles? Why do they need to know that I freelance rather than am on staff for CreditCards.com?
It’s not like I just opened the account. I’ve had this card since 1993, and have always paid my bills on time.
A Google search showed several articles recounting how Bank of America had demanded proof of citizenship from immigrants and froze or closed their accounts. A TV photojournalist, who is a Kansas native, even had his account frozen after the bank demanded his proof of citizenship.
I finally called the number Bank of America had provided. The customer service representative I spoke with could provide me with no helpful information as to why the bank wanted this information.
Then I emailed the bank and a nice, fairly knowledgeable customer service representative called me back, but couldn’t answer why the bank needed this information, other than to say it came under the “Know Your Customer” regulation.
It turns out Know Your Customer is part of the Patriot Act, which was put in place after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
I have credit cards and bank accounts with other financial institutions, and none has demanded new personal information.
So that put me on a quest, including contacting Bank of America’s media relations reps and the American Bankers Association, to try to figure out what was going on.
Even after all of that, this remains clear as mud to me.
See related: Wanted: Your personal data, and not just by Facebook
Bank of America: We’re just following the law
Bank of America spokeswoman Carla Molina told me all banks are required to follow the same regulations, and that Bank of America regularly reviews all of its accounts. She said in a written statement: “Banks are regularly required to verify that operation of their accounts is in compliance with U.S. laws and regulatory requirements. This may include outreach to some customers to ensure that records are complete and accurate.”
Blair Bernstein, a spokeswoman for the ABA, had something similar to say:
“Banks of all sizes are required to collect a range of information about their customers to comply with economic sanctions, the Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 and ‘Know Your Customer’ standards. Since 9/11, these strict regulatory requirements have steadily expanded to deter illicit activity within the U.S. financial system. As a result, banks are required to verify the identities of all customers and to maintain updated and accurate customer information. Federal regulators routinely examine banks for compliance.”
Bernstein sent me a link to the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council’s website. The council is charged with establishing uniform standards for the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the National Credit Union Administration, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
The council’s site includes information on due diligence policies for all customers, “particularly those that present a higher risk for money laundering and terrorist financing.”
I laughed out loud. Yes, I’m running around supporting terrorists and laundering cash with the boatloads of money I earn freelancing for various media outlets!
The council’s site also says a financial institution should “obtain information at account opening sufficient to develop an understanding of normal and expected activity for a customer’s occupation on business operations.”
So 25 years after I opened my credit card, Bank of America wants to understand my financial activity?
I haven’t yet decided whether I’ll bother to answer their requests to know my occupation and source of income, but there’s a good chance I’ll continue to ignore the demands and take my business elsewhere.