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‘Are you a U.S. citizen?’ This question locked a Kansas couple out of a bank account.

Banks often ask customers about citizenship status as a way of building a backlog of data on their users. (Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg News)

To Josh Collins and his wife, Jessica Salazar Collins, something seemed off about the Bank of America mailer.

They had each banked with the company since the early 2000s, and the couple from outside Kansas City was surprised to find the letter from their bank four to six weeks ago. The font looked altered. The bank’s logo looked “weird.” The paper wasn’t glossy, but instead looked as if it had just come off a black-and-white photocopy machine.

Then there were the questions, addressed specifically to Josh. What’s your Social Security number? Your address? Do you have any offshore accounts?

And then: Are you a U.S. citizen? Do you have dual citizenship?

“I knew they already had my Social Security number and my address," said Josh Collins, 39, who is a photographer for a local news station. "But it was also asking things they’d never asked before, like if I was a citizen.”

The couple held onto the mailer for a few weeks, then decided it must have been spam. They said didn’t receive any other mailings or phone calls from Bank of America about the matter.

“We thought, we’re just going to throw it away," said Jessica, who works in health care marketing. "They know how to get a hold of us.”

Last Tuesday, Jessica went to buy tacos as her family headed for the pool. When her debit was declined, she opened her Bank of America app, which showed she had money in her checking account.

Jessica called the bank, which confirmed her account had been frozen. Then the operator asked to talk to her husband.

“I could hear them confirming that indeed it was him, and then right away he said, ‘what do you mean, am I a U.S. citizen?’ ” Jessica said.

Josh said the operator asked whether he’d received a mailer a few weeks before and then asked his citizenship status.

“At that point, I’m just dumbfounded as to why they’d frozen our assets, so I wasn’t thinking about the context of the question. Just give me my money,” Josh said. “So I said, ‘Of course I’m a U.S. citizen.’ I was born and raised in Kansas."

On its website, Bank of America says that to apply for a checking account, a person must provide the following: Social Security number and birth date; phone number and email address; physical U.S. address; and a debit card or other account information for the initial deposit in the new account.

Special circumstances, where a visit to a storefront would be required, included if a customer has limited credit history, issues with checking history or is making a deposit of more than $100,000.

On the application, it asks about citizenship. Questions about citizenship also appear on checking account applications with Chase, Citi and Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo’s application says it asks customers questions about their citizenship because the bank needs the information “to determine the eligibility and suitability of our products, and to comply with the USA PATRIOT Act,” which Congress passed in 2001 to strengthen security controls.

In a statement, Bank of America spokesman Christopher Feeney said that “all banks are required to maintain complete and accurate records for all their customers. This is not unique to Bank of America, and all customers are asked to provide the same information."

“Customers provide information banks need to meet a variety of requirements," Feeney said, “including anti-money laundering, economic sanctions restrictions and other programs administered by the U.S. Treasury and other government agencies.”

Blair Bernstein, a spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association, said in a statement that banks of all sizes are required to collect information about their customers to comply with the Bank Secrecy Act of 1970, which requires American financial institutions to help the government detect and prevent money laundering — and other “Know Your Customer” standards to ensure bank services are not misused. Since 9/11, strict regulatory requirements have expanded to deter illicit activity within the U.S. financial system, Bernstein said.

“As a result, banks are required to verify the identities of all customers and to maintain updated and accurate customer information,” she said. "Federal regulators routinely examine banks for compliance.”

Information that banks are required to collect about their customers include name, address and Social Security number, said Alma Angotti, an anti-money laundering expert at Navigant. There isn’t an explicit Treasury Department requirement for banks to ask about citizenship, but banks can decide what criteria they collect, including data that can help detect users who present risks of money laundering and terrorist financing.

For example, it may be helpful for a bank to know if a customer is a dual citizen of the United States and France if that customer regularly sends wires to Paris.

“Banks and financial institutions need to figure out ‘what information do we need to really understand this customer,’ ” Angotti said.

But questions about citizenship could still be a barrier, particularly for immigrant communities, to establishing trust with financial institutions, said Rachel Peric, executive director of Welcoming America, a nonprofit organization that works to build inclusive communities. Banks should consider how they can build trust with communities that may not have it in financial systems, she said.

“It’s important that financial institutions, and all institutions, take a good hard look at what they’re incentivizing because what they want to be incentivizing is inclusion,” Peric said.

On the phone, the bank operator told Josh the bank would unfreeze his money but that the account wouldn’t be accessible until 2 a.m. the next morning. Jessica said the couple had $12 in cash on them. It was noon.

The next day, Jessica tried to buy movie tickets and again had her card declined. She got back on the phone with the bank, which passed her among multiple people who couldn’t help. By then, her bill pay had been deactivated. So she and Josh went to a Bank of America storefront looking for help.

That’s where a service representative pulled up Josh’s customer profile.

“Right away, she turned the screen around and said, ‘Look, this is why your accounts are frozen,’ ” Jessica said. “There was a little flag above ‘citizenship.’ ”

Under the flag were the same questions that had appeared on the mailer. “Are you a U.S. citizen?” and “Do you have dual citizenship?”

Jessica and Josh said that the bank’s explanation was that it was updating its customer profiles and that all users would eventually be asked about their citizenship. But that didn’t answer why Josh had gotten the questions, and not Jessica, or why he had been asked after nearly 20 years banking with the company.

Since the story was reported in Kansas City, Jessica said she has been contacted by multiple people who described similar experiences. She shared some of those exchanges with The Washington Post, including messages from people who were locked out of their accounts — and blocked from accessing their money — for weeks.

Josh said he wondered why his bank needs to know whether he is a citizen. The bank isn’t a government or law-enforcement agency. He isn’t one of its employees.

“And I got to feel for somebody who does have dual citizenship, or someone who’s not a citizen, that still has a bank account. At what point are they going to remove themselves from the system?” Josh said. "What if? The ‘what ifs’ always come later.”

Jessica, who is Latina and is a fourth-generation American, said the questions stood out as particularly “unacceptable” given her family background and today’s charged political debates over citizenship and immigration.

“It’s really scary. Where does it end? Can other businesses start asking their customers this?” Jessica said. “I choose you as my bank; you don’t choose me as a customer.”

The couple stuck with Bank of America for nearly two decades. On Friday, they plan to go back and close their account.

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