Stephen Law is a distinguished scholar, a philosopher and a senior lecturer at Heythrop College, University of London. Steven Law, on the other hand, is a Burmese man, also known as Tun Myint Naing, who helps to run his father’s drug trafficking empire as Managing Director of Asia World Co., Ltd. Guess which one of these men is on the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons? Guess which one on these men pays the price for this and is unable to conduct basic business transactions? If you guessed Steven and Stephen, respectively, then you were right.

Professor Stephen Law recounted his travails at the hands of OFAC in this recent blog post.

I have discovered that, as a result of this listing, US Customs block shipments of goods to me here in the UK. Also when people try to wire me money from abroad (not just from the US, but from anywhere), for e.g. occasional travel expenses for academic conference attendance, the payment is interrupted and various checks are made before the funds are released. This became so bad during one period (a series of payments every single one of which triggered a block) that I had to switch to a different bank account. At no point was I told why this was happening (i.e. that you, OFAC, are responsible). The banks concerned believe they must keep this information from me (I was told this by my bank branch). Hence it took me many months to figure out what the source of the problem was: OFAC/US Treasury.

Long-time readers will know that we’ve been highlighting for quite some time the injustice caused to innocent people by OFAC designations of similarly named individuals. Back in 2007, we described in one post cases of people who had mortgages and car loans denied, PayPal accounts closed, and basic consumer transactions refused because they had a name similar, in whole or in part, to someone else on the SDN list.

The irony, then and now, is that kingpin Steven Law, the narcotics trafficker, has a right to seek removal from the SDN List but that, according to OFAC, a non-designated individual, such as Professor Stephen Law, has no right to request any relief from OFAC, whether it be a clearance letter or the inclusion on some kind of white list. OFAC officials have said that the reason for not providing such documentation is that the person involved might later need to be designated, a foolish and unconvincing rationale at best.

Of course, there is a recent development that suggests that OFAC’s rule might not be so hard and fast with respect to collateral victims of OFAC designations. In June 2011, OFAC designated Tidewater Middle East Co., which is the company in charge of managing seven of Iran’s ports and which was accused by OFAC of facilitating Iran’s export and imports of arms and materiel. Oddly, however, the announcement designating Tidewater went out of its way to say this:

There is no relationship between today’s target, Tidewater Middle East Co., and Tidewater (US), an international shipping company headquartered in the United States, listed on the New York Stock Exchange as TDW.

It seems to me that OFAC’s special concession to a similarly named U.S. company erodes its already risible reason for not providing some assistance to collateral victims of the designation process and that if the innocent Stephen Law demanded that OFAC distinguish him from the other Steven Law, OFAC would find it harder to tell him to change his name if he didn’t like being treated like an SDN. This is not to say it wouldn’t do so, just that it would be even more shameless than it used to be and that such a position would possibly be more vulnerable now to challenge by litigation.