Many countries recognize an individual's right to be considered innocent until proven guilty in court. This is known as the presumption of innocence, and is a fundamental tenet of law in many modern countries. However, as has been reported in many free-minded, libertarian-oriented publications and communities, this is changing.
Take the following case.
Wire Transfer = Terrorist?
An American citizen and acquaintance of mine, Jim* has lived as a PT (perpetual traveler) for many years, having sold a successful business and thus having the financial means to do as he pleases. While he has no wife or children, he returns to the US periodically to see his sister and other extended family. Jim has had an arrangement with his sister, Donna*, for several years, whereby she assists with his financial management. His funds are in the US, and he lives inexpensively overseas, so he keeps on hand just what he needs. When requested, Donna withdraws cash from his US bank account (she is, of course, authorized to do so), and sends the funds to him via Western Union - always less than $10,000. For some time this system has worked well for them with no complications ... until late last year.
The last time Donna went to Western Union to send her brother funds, she was unsuccessful. Upon entering all the data into the computer, the Western Union employee told Donna that her transaction was denied and would not be accepted. Furthermore, she was told, she would never again be permitted to use any Western Union office to send funds anywhere in the world. Why? Because she was summarily, on the spot, placed on a nationwide Terrorist Watch List. Just like that. It so happened that her grandson, Noah*, was with her, so she asked him to complete the transaction. Noah had never used the services of Western Union before. Nevertheless, when he attempted to complete the transaction the result was the same; another name added to the Terrorist Watch List.
Jim explained that he had tried to resolve the issue with Western Union by phoning them. It's nearly impossible to reach a person by phone, he said, but eventually he did correspond with them via email. They said they would arrange a phone interview with him, to give him an opportunity to explain his circumstances. He agreed to this, but has not had an interview, nor given a date for one.
Meanwhile, Donna was contacted via email by Western Union. They informed her, after apparently reviewing her record of transactions, that her monthly income was not sufficient to cover the sums that she was sending overseas. They wanted to know where the money came from, and were not satisfied when she explained the arrangement she had with her brother. They asked her to provide her financial records, bank statements and proof of income. Donna politely declined.
Consider the Implications
What are the possible implications of these events for Jim and his family? The issue remains unresolved, and, while he was permitted to fly out of the US, one wonders what will happen the next time Jim tries to enter the country. Since he was the intended recipient of the transferred funds, is he also a member of the (not too exclusive) Terrorist Watch List club? What will happen to him is anyone's guess.
Donna, still living in the US, may be subject to all manner of scrutiny. Everywhere she goes, everything she does, every financial transaction, phone call, and internet keystroke, may be recorded and stored for eternity, to potentially be used against her if she so much as jaywalks. She may be prevented from traveling outside the US, or detained upon reentry.
But the one who concerns me most is Noah, the grandson. In his early twenties, he has his whole adult life ahead of him, under the watchful eye of Big Brother. Consider how having his name on a Terrorist Watch List might affect him. Every school, every employer, and every professional or social organization that performs a background check on him, may learn his status. Any time he opens a bank account, applies for a loan or mortgage, buys a car, opens an investment account, or any number of other ordinary activities, a red flag may appear. Will Noah be permitted to obtain a passport if he does not yet have one? Will he be permitted to travel outside the US? Will his name be on the list indefinitely? Does he have any recourse to clear his name and have it removed from the list? To whom does he appeal?
Could you fall into the same trap?
While there does not seem to be much rhyme or reason to the way innocent people get snagged by the system, there are a couple of common sense lessons to be learned from this.
First, don't handle other people's money. If you must, send it through the banking system if possible. It certainly won't be as simple as Western Union, but it may help to avoid raising a red flag.
Second, if you are the PT living overseas, don't rely on a relative or friend to send you cash. Rather, set up multiple bank accounts in different places that you haunt regularly, along with a debit card for each account. That way, one or two systems can have hiccups without much effect on your life. Give some thought to using a global bank, like HSBC, that offer specific programs catering to Perpetual Travelers.
(It is worth mentioning that using large international banks is not done for asset diversification reasons. For that purpose, you want to choose a relatively well-insulated institution not exposed to the rigours of the worldwide banking system.)
While there may be no guaranteed way to avoid ending up on a Terrorist Watch List, avoiding practices that involve others can lower the risk - for ourselves and for them.
* For privacy reasons, names have been changed.