Money transfer companies have delayed or blocked thousands of cash deliveries on suspicion of terrorist connections simply because senders or recipients have names like Mohammed or Ahmed, company officials have said.
Dubai-based representatives from Western Union Financial Services, an American company based in Colorado, and Minnesota-based MoneyGram International said their clerks are simply following U.S. Treasury Department guidelines that scrutinize cash flows for terrorist links.
"Mohammed and Ahmed have become problematic names because they are so common on the list of terrorists," said Nixon Baby, who runs a Western Union franchise in Bur Dubai, a neighborhood packed with South Asian businesses. "These are regulations that Western Union is required to obey. We have no control."
Most of the flagged transactions are delayed a few hours. Some are blocked entirely.
In one example, an Indian driver here said Western Union prevented him from sending $120 to a friend at home last month because the recipient's name was Mohammed.
"Western Union told me that if I send money to Sahir Mohammed, the money will be blocked because of his name," said 36-year-old Abdul Rahman Maruthayil, who later sent the money through UAE Exchange, a Dubai-based money transfer service.
In a similar case, Pakistani Qadir Khan said Western Union blocked his attempt this month to wire money to his brother Mohammed for a cataract operation.
"Every Mohammed is a terrorist now?" Khan asked.
In many cases, would-be customers like Maruthayil simply find another way to send the funds — often through informal exchanges with less stringent monitoring.
Critics say the screening is far too broad. The number of people inconvenienced in the Emirates alone, which closely cooperates with U.S. counterterror operations, is thought to be in the tens of thousands. One Western Union clerk said about 300 money transfers from a single Dubai franchise were blocked or delayed each day — none of which has turned up a terrorist link.
In Washington, U.S. Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said foreign banks have used the department's list of terrorist names to freeze $150 million in assets since Sept. 11. Millerwise didn't know the value of money transfers blocked using the list, but said frustrations endured were regrettable but necessary.
"We have an obligation to do all we can to keep money out of the hands of terrorists," Millerwise said.
The list of names, available on the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control Web site, contains hundreds of Mohammeds.
Inconveniences from the screening go far beyond money transfers in the Middle East.
In the United States, banks, car dealers, title companies, landlords, and employers have used the list to unjustly block scores of ordinary transactions, said Shirin Sinnar, a San Francisco attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.
In one case, a couple in Sacramento, Calif. was thwarted from purchasing a treadmill on a financing plan, simply because the husband's first name was Hussein, Sinnar said in an e-mail interview.
Western Union's caution is perhaps understandable. Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta sent money from two Western Union agencies in Maryland before boarding a plane he helped crash into New York's World Trade Center.
The money transfer crackdown comes amid revelations that the U.S. Treasury and CIA have tracked millions of confidential transactions handled by the Belgium-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication.
At another Western Union office, an executive who deals with security measures said about 1 percent of the store's 30,000 daily money transfers — about 300 a day — are delayed or blocked because of suspected terrorist links. Thus far, all have proven false, the executive said on condition of anonymity, because she wasn't permitted to speak to a reporter.
Western Union routinely delays or blocks transfers between customers whose names even partially match names on the Treasury list. The money is usually released once suspects show identity documents that prove they are not on the list, the executive said.
Bernie Rabina, a representative at Dubai airport's MoneyGram outlet, said her company follows a similar process. Rabina didn't know what percentage of her franchise's daily transactions were blocked.
The U.S. regulations apply to Western Union money transfers made anywhere, said Marc Aubry, the company's Dubai-based Mideast marketing director.
But the United Arab Emirates, where Dubai is one of seven city-states, is especially susceptible to the Treasury's restrictions because it is home to more than a million foreign laborers who sent home a collective $14 billion last year, according to a government report.
The Emirates government has cooperated with the U.S. Treasury in tightening oversight after a 2004 U.S. investigation found that Emirates banks handled most of the $400,000 spent on the Sept. 11 attacks.
Dubai expatriates like Khan and Maruthayil say Western Union, which earns about $3 billion annually from operations in 200 countries, has no valid basis for delaying cash meant for their families.
They say Treasury guidelines are sending more people to informal money transfer networks called "hundis" or "hawalas" that have been used by gangsters and terrorists because they circumvent such scrutiny.
"Sending money by hawala is cheaper and it does not get checked by banks, so it is quicker," said a Pakistani taxi driver who called himself Munir Ahmed. "They say it is not legal, but it is a reliable alternative to Western Union."
At the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, spokesman Corey Saylor said Treasury needs to reform its rules.
"The Treasury program interferes with even the most innocent transactions," Saylor said. "Just because Ahmed is a common name on their list, everyone with that name is suddenly stuck."