...and banks keep getting us confused.
- By Jamila TrindleJamila Trindle is a senior reporter who covers finance, economics and business where they intersect with national security and foreign policy. Her beat spans everything from the economic underpinnings of conflict to sanctions, corruption and terror finance. Before coming to Foreign Policy magazine, Jamila reported for the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau, covering financial regulation and economics. She has also worked as a foreign correspondent in China, Indonesia and Turkey as a freelancer for NPR, Marketplace, The Guardian and others. She moved back to the U.S. to cover the post-crisis economy for PBS in 2009.
The U.S. sanctions blacklist is meant to stop terrorists, drug lords, and weapons traders from getting access to their money. Unfortunately, it also ensnares a lot of people who just happen to have the same name as one of those alleged criminals. Professor Stephen Law, who shares the name of a prominent Burmese heroin dealer, has discovered that firsthand.
The British Stephen Law is a soft-spoken professor at the University of London where he has taught philosophy for 17 years and plays the drums in a band called The Heavy Dexters. He’s also the author of books like Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole. The Burmese one is a wealthy drug kingpin who was sanctioned by the Treasury Department in 2008 and again in 2010 because of his ties to the country’s ruling junta. Treasury officials said Law’s company, Asia World, received lucrative government construction contracts because of his close ties to the regime. The second Law uses several aliases and is believed to split his time between Burma and Singapore.
The two Laws have little in common except their name, and the fact that it appears on the Treasury Department sanctions list has hit each of them hard. The British Law said that bank transfers from Europe take weeks to get to him and that packages from abroad often fail to arrive. When an American friend sent him a drum, it was held up at customs and then sent back to the United States. When he asked his bank why a travel reimbursement from Austria was held up, they wouldn’t tell him.
"I’ve been having these problems for years but I never understood what it was or why it was happening to me," Law said.
Law, who describes himself as a "fairly well-known atheist in the UK," first thought his religious views might have somehow landed him in hot water. But then someone on Twitter alerted him to the Treasury Department list, which includes the name Stephen Law.
Law recently wrote a letter to the Treasury Department complaining about his problems accessing his own money or receiving gifts from abroad, but the department has yet to respond or take steps to ensure he isn’t confused with the Burmese Law.
The British Law’s troubles are the inadvertent byproducts of the U.S. government’s ongoing push to cut off alleged drug kingpins, war criminals, and nuclear weapons proliferators from the international financial system. Washington uses targeted sanctions to single out individuals and companies and make it illegal for U.S. banks and companies to interact with them. While broad trade embargoes against countries like Cuba haven’t worked, freezing the assets of individuals has proven a successful tool for pressuring them into doing what the U.S. government wants, whether that’s ending support for terrorists or giving up ties to narcotics trafficking.
When the Treasury Department adds a new name to the list, it issues a press release that includes their reason for the new designation. Banks and companies are responsible for making sure they don’t do business with the sanctioned person. Because the fines can be so high — the Treasury Department raked in $137 million for sanctions violations in 2013 — companies are often extremely cautious about handling transactions for people whose names are at all similar to those on the list. Most major banks check transactions against rosters maintained by outside companies like Thomson Reuters. If a name is too similar to those on the sanctions list, the transactions will be held up while banks methodically check the person’s address and birthdate to make sure they’re not aiding an alleged wrongdoer.
Treasury officials declined to comment on Law’s case, but a spokeswoman said they "always endeavor to make public all available bio-identifier information — including addresses, dates of birth, places of birth, and passport numbers, among other information." Law, for his part, has taken to the Internet to express his exasperation.
"This has proved frustrating, time-consuming and also costly to me personally," Law wrote in a blog post. Its incredibly subtle title: "How the US Treasury imposes sanctions on me and every other ‘Stephen Law’ on the planet."