Sunday, April 9, 2006
You know this is happening at the airports, where security pulls some guy out of the boarding line. You've heard about the feds being on the lookout for money launderers in high-stakes financial transactions. But a car dealership? Hey, how about the 7-Eleven? You might be surprised!
Alan Dessoff was. Just as Dessoff was about to sign on the dotted line for a new 2006 Toyota Camry XLE at Coleman Toyota in Bethesda, the sales manager glanced up from the printer and casually mentioned that Dessoff wasn't on "The List."
Dessoff gulped, "What list?"
The Bethesda communications consultant's thoughts suddenly shifted from that dreamy new-car smell to something fishy.
The sales manager told Dessoff that car dealers are required to check every would-be buyer's name against a computerized list of "thousands of names." If the name's on The List, no deal.
When Dessoff asked where The List and the requirement to check it came from, the manager, he says, took on a confidential tone as if passing along a state secret and said, "the government."
Dessoff thought he was kidding. Like maybe he had Jack Bauer on the brain, seen too many episodes of "24." But he was serious enough that he wouldn't say anything more about The List.
"I was so taken back," says Dessoff. "But is it so? Like the no-fly list? A hidden part of the Patriot Act?"
Actually not so hidden. The so-called "Bad Guy List" is hardly a secret. The U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control maintains its "Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List" to be easily accessible on its public Web site.
Wanna see it? Sure you do. Just key OFAC into your Web browser, and you'll find the 224-page document of the names of individuals, organizations, corporations and Web sites the feds suspect of terrorist or criminal activities and associations.
You might think Osama bin Laden should be at the top of The List, but it's alphabetized, so Public Enemy No. 1 is on Page 59 with a string of akas and spelling derivations filling most of the first column. If you're the brother, daughter, son or sister-in-law of Yugoslavian ex-president Slobodan Milosevic (who died in custody recently), you're named, too, so probably forget about picking up that lovely new Humvee on this side of the Atlantic. Same for Charles "Chuckie" Taylor, son of the recently arrested former president of Liberia (along with the deposed prez's wife and ex-wife).
The Bad Guy List's relevance to the average American consumer? What's not widely known about it is that by federal law, sellers are supposed to check it even in the most common and mundane marketplace transactions.
"The OFAC requirements apply to all U.S. citizens. The law prohibits anyone, not just car dealers, from doing business with anyone whose name appears on the Office of Foreign Assets Control's Specially Designated Nationals list," says Thomas B. Hudson, senior partner at Hudson Cook LLP, a law firm in Hanover, Md., and publisher of Carlaw and Spot Delivery, legal-compliance newsletters and services for car dealers and finance companies.
Hudson says that, according to the law, supermarkets, restaurants, pawnbrokers, real estate agents, everyone, even The Washington Post, is prohibited from doing business with anyone named on the list. "There is no minimum amount for the transactions covered by the OFAC requirement, so everyone The Post sells a paper to or a want ad to whose name appears on the SDN list is a violation," says Hudson, whose new book, "Carlaw -- A Southern Attorney Delivers Humorous Practical Legal Advice on Car Sales and Financing," comes out this month. "The law applies to you personally, as well."
But The Bad Guy List law (which predates the controversial Patriot Act) not only is "perfectly ridiculous," it's impractical, says Hudson. "I understand that 95 percent of the people whose names are on the list are not even in the United States. And if you were a bad guy planning bad acts, and you knew that your name was on a publicly available list that people were required to check in order to avoid violating the law, how dumb would you have to be to use your own name?"
Compliance is also a big problem. Think eBay sellers are checking the list for auction winners? Or that the supermarket checkout person is thanking you by name while scanning a copy of The List under the counter? Not likely.
Even most car dealerships come up short on compliance, despite harsh penalties that include 30 years in jail and fines up to $10 million against corporations, and $5 million against individuals, and civil penalties of up to $1 million per incident. "Laws like this that are so ridiculous that no one obeys them do nothing to inspire respect in our legal system," says Hudson.
But while admitting that compliance is "obviously a challenge," U.S. Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise says it is improving. "The financial institutions have really stepped up to the plate in combating illicit finances and checking the list," she says. "Other industries are following suit. . . . We expect U.S. businesses to do all they can to comply with the law, but we do recognize there are challenges in applying broad sanctions of this sort."
But if Bad Guy List compliance were to increase substantially, and if your name is similar to that of a suspect listed, wouldn't you risk running into all sorts of hassles buying anything from automobiles to washing machines?
"If you have a 16-year-old kid standing in front of you with his parents, and his name matches with a former foreign national born in 1932," says Millerwise, "that's obvious."
But still. FYI, as you're perusing The List to see if your name (or anything close) appears, be forewarned -- by going on the site you've consented that the feds can monitor your use of the site. Not that they'd do that. . . .
Tax Day Countdown
Normally the deadline for filing federal taxes is April 15. But this year, most of the nation gets a two-day reprieve -- and some taxpayers get three days extra.
That's because April 15 falls on a Saturday, and by law, the filing deadline is legally met if taxes are filed and paid by the next business day -- Monday, April 17. But D.C. and Maryland taxpayers (and those in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont) get until Tuesday, April 18, this year. Most of them file their returns to the IRS processing center in Andover, Mass. But Monday the 17th is Patriot's Day, a Massachusetts state holiday, so their deadline's pushed back another day. Really!
Got questions or comments? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details firstname.lastname@example.org write to Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Because of the volume of mail, personal replies are not always possible.