(EDITOR’S NOTE, 8/31/18, 5:28 PM ET: This article was updated to include a statement from Bank of America spokesperson Christopher Feeney, and our headline was changed from “Bank of America Questioning Citizenship of Longtime Customers, Freezing Their Accounts” to “Bank of America Customers Reportedly Locked Out of Accounts Over Citizenship Questions.”)
Even though it’s not required to be a U.S. citizen to have a bank account, banks are apparently locking both citizens and non-citizens alike out of their accounts due to a lack of response over citizenship inquiries.
In a recent report, The Miami Herald talked to Bank of America customer Saeed Moshfegh, a 36-year-old Iranian man who is also a Ph.D candidate at the University of Miami, who recently married an American. Even though Moshfegh had been meeting the bank’s requirements that he show proof of legal residency every six months, his local branch recently decided that the documentation he typically provides was not enough.
While he had more than enough money in his account, the bank locked Moshdegh out after questioning his immigration status. Because he couldn’t access his account, Moshfegh was unable to pay rent and several credit card payments were subsequently declined. It was only after several conversations with bank employees that he was able to withdraw his funds, as the bank wouldn’t let him keep the account.
“This bank doesn’t know how the immigration system works, so they didn’t accept my document,” Moshfegh told the Herald. “It’s not the business of Bank of America to shut down someone’s account.”
“Immigration officers are different from Bank of America—with a bank, I would like to feel respect…[and be treated] how they treat other customers,” Moshfegh said. “But they treat me as an alien.”
The first notable cases of Bank of America customers being locked out of their accounts happened in late July, to Kansas couple Josh Collins and Jessica Salazar Collins. Both have been customers with the bank for more than a decade, and both are U.S. citizens. But when the two got a suspicious-looking piece of mail purportedly from Bank of America asking if they were citizens, they discarded it due to its questionable appearance.
“They know how to get a hold of us,” Jessica Collins told the Post, adding that the bank had their Social Security numbers and contact information on file.
However, when she tried using her debit card a few weeks later, the transaction was declined. When the couple called Bank of America, the company told them that while they still had money in their account, they had been locked out due to questions about their citizenship.
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency — the federal agency that oversees branch banking — told the Miami Herald that citizenship is not required to open a bank account. And Bank of America’s only requirements to open an account are a Social Security number, a date of birth, an email address and/or phone number, a valid U.S. address, and an initial deposit. U.S. immigration law stipulates that a non-citizen can obtain a Social Security number if they’ve been granted temporary worker status by the Department of Homeland Security.
So why is Bank of America denying account access due to citizenship?
Christopher Feeney, a spokesman for Bank of America, told Grit Post that the bank is required by law to keep up-to-date information on all of their customers, and that the bank only froze individual accounts if they failed to respond to inquiries about their citizenship status ahead of time.
Someone who is a citizen of a certain country that has been sanctioned by the U.S. (like Iran, for instance) is still able to have an account, provided they keep their visa up to date and provide the bank with all necessary documents.
“All banks are required to maintain complete and accurate records for all of their customers. This is not unique to Bank of America. This information is required in order to comply with laws and regulatory requirements, including those related to the U.S. Bank Secrecy Act or enforced by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC),” Feeney said. “The regulations are not meant to determine immigration status.”
“Citizenship status is not considered when it comes to establishing bank accounts and citizenship status of our customers is not shared with any other party,” he added.
Grit Post’s calls and text messages to Jessica Salazar Collins, as well as calls to the Office of Foreign Asset Control, were not returned as of this writing.
Logan Espinoza is a freelance contributor specializing in economic issues. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife and daughter. Contact him at logan DOT espinoza AT yahoo DOT com.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.