Bank Of America Faces Backlash For Asking Customers Citizenship Status

by Bamidele Ogunberu Posted on August 7th, 2018

Charlotte, North Carolina based Bank of America is facing backlash for asking customers to reveal their citizenship status, a predicament that illustrates how banks’ efforts to comply with customer identification rules carry higher risk at a time when many immigrants feel threatened by President Trump.

The bank has been inquiring about account holders’ country of citizenship, as well as whether they hold dual citizenship. In one case that has garnered attention nationally, a Kansas couple that failed to provide the requested information said their account was temporarily frozen.

Bank of America’s questions are setting off alarm bells in Latino communities, where many people fear that any information that noncitizens provide to their banks could later be used against them. Those worries are particularly acute given the Trump administration’s hardline approach to immigration enforcement.

Hey @BankofAmerica if you keep harassing customers about their citizenship status I’m going to empty my accounts and switch to a credit union. What’s with that?

— John Corgi (@JawnCorgi) July 30, 2018

Time to #Boycott @BankofAmerica — Have YOU gotten a letter asking for verification of citizenship? https://t.co/10kAocIll1

— Left Of Main Street (@LeftOfMainSt) July 30, 2018

“You’re going into the bank to deposit your weekly earnings, and you could be a legal permanent resident, and you’re being asked to show your citizenship,” said Paulina Gonzalez, executive director of the California Reinvestment Coalition. “That’s concerning to us.”

Though worries about the citizenship questions only made headlines in recent months, as existing Bank of America customers have reported receiving notices for the first time, a bank spokesman said that the firm has been asking questions about citizenship status for many years.

A local Bank of America customer said he felt like both he and his wife were being targeted because of their ethnicity after an online profile update asked him if he had dual U.S. citizenship.

Mickey Citron, a Bank of America customer since 2005, said the questions went from routine to unsettling when the dual-citizenship inquiry popped up on the second page.

“I felt like I was being targeted because of us being Hispanic,” Citron said. “I felt attacked.”

Citron said the couple moved to Orlando from Brooklyn, New York 13 years ago, and opened accounts with a Bank of America Orlando branch.

“I’m like ‘What are they talking about?’” Cintron said. “I told my wife I refuse to answer the question.”

The Citrons said they will keep their accounts with the bank.

A Kansas City news photographer said his account was suspended until he told a bank representative he was a U.S. citizen.

Josh Collins was born in Kansas but he said his Bank of America account was frozen until he confirmed to a company representative he was a U.S. citizen.

The photojournalist said he received a letter from the bank in the mail asking for personal information that included his Social Security number and citizenship status. He ignored it because he thought it might be a scam. “I figured if it was legitimate there would some follow-up,” he told us by phone. “The second communication from them was freezing my bank account. It’s a great way to get my attention.”

Collins said his family first discovered their bank account was frozen during a week off they spent at home in Kansas City. On 24 July 2018, his wife Jessica tried to buy tacos for their children while they were en route to go swimming, but their debit card was declined for the purchase. They phoned the bank to inquire about the problem and learned their account had been frozen. Josh Collins said one of the first things the bank representative asked him was whether he was a U.S. citizen.

As a result of the incident, Collins said he and his wife and phasing out use of their Bank of America account and have opened one with a local credit union.

As immigration and citizenship have been topics of intense focus in recent months, Collins said he was not surprised that his story went viral. But he pointed out that although some reports said the bank “demanded” proof of citizenship, that is not true. Bank representatives asked him to confirm his citizenship status orally, and the only identification he was required to show in order to re-access his bank account was his driver’s license.

Bank of America, BofA, spokesman Christopher Feeney also noted that all banks are required to maintain complete and accurate records for all of their customers.

“Customers are asked to provide information banks need to meet a variety of requirements, including those related to economic sanctions, anti-money-laundering, and other programs administered by the U.S. Treasury and other government agencies,” Christopher Feeney said.

“One of the reasons we ask about country of citizenship is to ensure adherence to economic sanctions laws. Because banks must comply with sanctions that restrict or prohibit activity in or with certain sanctioned countries or persons, it is important for banks to know the country of citizenship of its customers,” Feeney added.

“Like all financial institutions, we’re required by law to maintain complete and accurate records for all of our customers and may periodically request information as required by law and regulation. This is not unique to Bank of America. This type of outreach is nothing new and the information must be up to date. Therefore we periodically reach out to customers, which is what we did in this case.

Over time, we reach out to all customers to verify their information, not only specific customers. If we don’t hear from a customer in response to our outreach, as a last resort, we may restrict the account until we can confirm it is in compliance with regulatory requirements.” Bank of America added.

Banks are not explicitly required under federal regulations to ask about their customers’ citizenship status, and it is unclear how common that particular question is.

A spokesman for Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network said that banks generally must collect their customers’ names, dates of birth, addresses and tax identification numbers, and that foreign passport numbers can be collected in lieu of a tax ID number.

“We would defer to financial institutions to discuss their specific compliance programs,” the spokesman said in an email.

Banks with large foreign operations may be more likely to ask customers about their citizenship status, due in part to the risks associated with providing banking services to citizens of countries that face U.S. sanctions.

The American Bankers Association confirmed the security protocols.

“Banks of all sizes are required to collect a range of information about their customers to comply with the Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 and ‘Know Your Customer’ standards,” ABA spokesperson Blair Bernstein said. “Since 9/11, these strict regulatory requirements have steadily expanded to deter illicit activity within the U.S. financial system.”

According to Bernstein, banks have been required to “verify the identities of all customers and maintain updated and accurate customer information.”

Erich Ferrari, a lawyer who represents financial institutions in connection with sanctions rules, argued that all U.S. banks should be asking their customers about their citizenship status.

As one example of why he believes banks should be asking the citizenship question, Ferrari noted that banks face certain restrictions on doing business with Cuban citizens, regardless of where those people live.

But what makes sense inside of a large financial institution may be hard to understand in an immigrant community. Undocumented immigrants are often fearful about their ability to remain in the U.S., and may be reluctant to provide information that they fear could be used against them.

And at least in some instances, BofA’s response to concerned customers has sown more distrust. Jessica Salazar Collins, the Kansas woman whose husband’s account was temporarily frozen, said that they still have not received an explanation from the bank about why it needs citizenship information.

“Not one person on the phone could get me a reason,” she said. “Nobody from Bank of America has contacted us to explain better why this happened to us.”

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Bamidele Ogunberu

Bamidele Ogunberu

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