By now, we’ve all seen these stories. A slightly dimwitted, possibly drunk, prankster writes “I ISIS” in the memo line of a check or in the description field of an online payment service and then is shocked, shocked to learn his check or payment has not been processed. The prankster immediately takes to Twitter, swears on a stack of Marvel comic books that he’s not a terrorist, laments the utter stupidity of his bank or payment provider and then waits for a horde or reporters to gather on his steps. Within hours, reporters, bloggers and TV news crews have breathlessly reported the injustice of it all, with almost all of them saying (erroneously) that OFAC (rather than the bank) had seized the funds and with the prankster now lamenting that, as a result of this seizure, his third cousin in Venezuela will not be able to pay for the drug she needed to cure a rare river parasite infestation and would likely die in a matter of days, if not hours. Reddit then stirs up its gang of Internet trolls who vow revenge the minute they can take a break from playing Halo LVII.
It’s about time to step back from this wave of mass hysteria and take stock of what is going on here and how we got where we are. This excellent article in the Tampa Bay Tribune, besides quoting my friend Peter Quinter, sheds some light on what is going on. It starts with the story of a merchant who sells fedoras, guayaberas and other Cuban-style articles made wholly outside Cuba but sold through a site called MyCubanStore.com. Even though none of the merchandise sold is Cuban, customer payments, the merchant claims, are regularly seized or held up. The article notes that once OFAC whomped one payment service with a massive fine, the payment services and banks did what any sane business would do: they started erring on the other side, holding up, questioning or blocking anything vaguely suspicious.
Frankly, if you were in the bank or payment provider’s shoes, with OFAC standing behind you wielding an enormous hatchet and threatening mayhem if you clear as much as a nickel in error, wouldn’t you do the same thing? You want to call your store Havana Hats or Tehran Trinkets, then get used to some cash flow issues or pick another name. No one is going to risk a massive fine to clear a 50 cent fee on a $10 order from one of your customers. The answer here is not to shame the banks and the payment providers. Rather it is to insist that OFAC settle down and take a more measured approach to this issue, perhaps even issue some reassuring guidance assuring banks and others involved in clearing payments. Even that might not settle down a shell-shocked industry.
In the meantime, people, please find some other way to amuse yourselves besides seeing whether you can slip references to hardened terrorists past your local bank. Take a walk, read a poem, tutor a school kid, learn to speak Chinese, or listen to all the Shostakovich symphonies in order. If you want to play a prank, call up CVS and ask them if they have Prince Albert in a can.