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Ordinary Customers Flagged as Terrorists

Saad Ali Muhammad is an African American who was born in Chicago and converted to Islam in 1980. When he tried to buy a used car from a Chevrolet dealership three years ago, a salesman ran his credit report and at the top saw a reference to "OFAC search," followed by the names of terrorists including Osama bin Laden. The only apparent connection was the name Muhammad. The credit report, also by TransUnion, did not explain what OFAC was or what the credit report user should do with the information. Muhammad wrote to TransUnion and filed a complaint with a state human rights agency, but the alert remains on his report, Sinnar said.

Colleen Tunney-Ryan, a TransUnion spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that clients using the firm's credit reports are solely responsible for any action required by federal law as a result of a potential match and that they must agree they will not take any adverse action against a consumer based solely on the report.

The lawyers' committee documented other cases, including that of a couple in Phoenix who were about to close on their first home, only to be told the sale could not proceed because the husband's first and last names -- common Hispanic names -- matched an entry on the OFAC list. The entry did not include a date or place of birth, which could have helped distinguish the individuals.

In another case, a Roseville, Calif., couple wanted to buy a treadmill from a home fitness store on a financing plan. A bank representative told the salesperson that because the husband's first name was Hussein, the couple would have to wait 72 hours while they were investigated. Though the couple eventually received the treadmill, they were so embarrassed by the incident they did not want their names in the report, Sinnar said.

James Maclin, a vice president at Mid-America Apartment Communities in Memphis, which owns 39,000 apartment units in the Southeast, said the screening has become "industry standard" in the apartment rental business. It began about three years ago, he said, spurred by banks that wanted companies they worked with to comply with the law.

David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor, has studied the list and at one point found only one U.S. citizen on it. "It sounds like overly cautious companies have started checking the list in situations where there's no obligation they do so and virtually no chance that anyone they deal with would actually be on the list," he said. "For all practical purposes, landlords do not need to check the list."

Still, Neil Leverenz, chief executive of Automotive Compliance Center in Phoenix, a firm that helps auto dealers comply with federal law, said he spoke to the general manager of a Tucson dealership who tearfully told him that if he had known to check the OFAC list in late summer of 2001, he would not have sold the car used by Mohamed Atta, who went on to fly a plane into the World Trade Center.

Staff researchers Bob Lyford and Richard Drezen contributed to this report.


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