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“Dear Lawrence, I Know You Are Only Doing Your Job, and I Truly Wish I Could Help Assuage Paypal’s Concerns About My Donation to Syrian Refugees, But…”

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So this has happened since the last time I wrote a guest post here…

December 1, 2015:

Hi Friends and Family,

I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving, and are carrying the spirit forward today on Giving Tuesday. In that spirit, I wanted to see who wants to help out with donations to three great benefits that Liam and I are participating in this week! This would be a great gift to me for my birthday :)

1) The Habitat for Humanity Gingerbread Build. You send a donation to our team, we compete to build the best gingerbread house! This is Habitat’s biggest fundraiser of the year and we are hoping to be among those teams who collects the most in donations. They don’t have a donations page but you could donate using my email address at PayPal and I’ll cut them a check!

2) The Hot Chocolate Run to benefit Safe Passage, a local domestic violence shelter. We are signed up for the 5K run this Sunday, though we may do the 3K walk instead if my back doesn’t recover from the Thanksgiving day soccer game that has Garrett and I feeling as creaky as 80-year-olds! Either way, you can donate to the organization in support of our participation at this link.

3) Finally, some of my students associated with the Amnesty International chapter at UMass-Amherst are collecting donations to assist Syrian refugees at a benefit dinner on Sunday. If you send a donation by Paypal and tell me it’s earmarked for Syrian refugees, I’ll make sure it gets there!

Love and Hugs,
Charli

December 6, 2015:

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WHAT COULD GO WRONG?? 

December 24, 2015

Dear Charli Carpenter,

As part of our security measures, we regularly screen activity in the PayPal system. During a recent screening, PayPal’s Compliance Department reviewed your account and identified activity that may be in violation of United States regulations administered by the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

PayPal is committed to complying with and meeting its global regulatory obligations. One obligation is to ensure that our customers, merchants, and partners are also in compliance with applicable laws and regulations, including those set forth by OFAC, in their use of PayPal. To ensure that activity and transactions comply with current regulations, PayPal is requesting that you provide the following via email to [email protected]:

  • A subordination letter on official letterhead from Jusoor Syria signed by an officer/director/trustee of the parent organization clearly stating that you are an authorized subordinate organization on behalf of the parent organization.  As intended donation of funds on behalf of Jusoor Syria were attempted to be forwarded to you, this is being requested.

If we don’t hear from you by January 08, 2016, we will limit what you can do with your account until the issue is resolved.

Sincerely,
Lawrence
PayPal Compliance Department

December 28, 2015:

Dear Lawrence,

This email surprised and confused me. I cannot provide the documentation you’re seeking (or even fully understand why you’re seeking it as your email is very vague). I am not affiliated with the charitable organization Jusoor; I am a professor who attended a student-organized benefit dinner to raise money for Syrian refugees, and passed along a donation from my sister which she made in my honor (through Paypal) as a birthday gift to me on behalf of war-affected children.

It sounds as if you believe I or my sister may have violated US federal regulations by making a charitable donation. This is confusing because the Office of Foreign Assets Control is tasked with enforcing economic and trade sanctions against targeted foreign countries and regimes, terrorists, international narcotics traffickers, those engaged in activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other threats to the national security of the US. To my knowledge, Jusoor Syria (the organization my students were collecting money for and which I invited my sister to support) is a charitable organization registered with the IRS in Michigan, specializing in humanitarian and educational assistance to war-affected children.

I am not an expert in foreign assets control or security law, but I cannot see how this charity falls under any of the categories regulated by OFAC, as

  • Michigan is not a foreign country
  • Syrian individuals in Michigan are not targets of foreign sanctions and
  • Humanitarian aid is not synonymous with terrorism.

If you have information I don’t that leads you to think otherwise, please provide me some detail, including any information you may have on Jusoor Syria that would lead you to think they are anything other than a bona-fide US-based charity; and a copy of the OFAC regulations and/or statute you believe I may have inadvertently violated. Thereafter, I will do all I can to answer any specific questions you may have once I better understand the nature of any valid concern you may wish to bring to my attention.

Meanwhile, I understand that you removed the $50 my sister Ami mailed to my account. If it has not already been replaced, and unless you have evidence of malfeasance that would hold up in a court of law, please do so immediately.

I look forward to resolving this matter forthwith.

Sincerely,
Charli Carpenter

January 8, 2016

Hello Charli Carpenter,

We need your help resolving an issue with your account. To give us time to work together on this, we’ve temporarily limited what you can do with your account until the issue is resolved.

We understand it may be frustrating not to have full access to your PayPal account. We want to work with you to get your account back to normal as quickly as possible.

What’s the problem? You may be buying or selling goods or services that are regulated or prohibited by the U.S. government. We would like to learn more about your business and/or some of your recent transactions.

Case ID Number: PP-004-451-499-039

How you can help: It’s usually pretty easy to take care of things like this. Most of the time, we just need a little more information about your account or latest transactions.

To help us with this and to find out what you can and can’t do with your account until the issue is resolved, log in to your account and go to the Resolution Center.

January 8, 2016

Dear Lawrence,

This morning, I am informed you are limiting my account. I have no basis for understanding this decision, or knowing what more I am supposed to do about it beyond the detailed information I provided about this transaction in my previous letter. If you have a reply to my previous letter that you’d like to send to me, please do so right away.

Meanwhile I am documenting the actions of your company in this situation for my thousands of blog and Twitter followers in the national security and human rights community.

Sincerely,
Charli

January 8, 2016

Dear Charli Carpenter,

I will be more detailed as to why we request what we request.   It is a check and balance.  In this case, this is our way to verify that funds are validly being distributed for this type of aid as it is sanctioned.  The request for the subordination letter is not to confirmed that you are affiliated with the organization but to instead confirm that you are authorized to receive aid on their behalf and forward it to them.

Sincerely,
Lawrence
Paypal Compliance Department

January 10, 2016

Dear Lawrence,

Thank you for following up. I believe I already answered your question about my being an “authorized subordinate organization of Jusoor” in my last letter, when I stated that I am not affiliated with them in any way (including as an “authorized subordinate organization of Jusoor”, whatever that means) – I am simply a citizen who made a donation to a student group collecting money for refugees.

As to your question about whether I am “authorized to receive aid on their behalf and forward it to them” I simply don’t understand your question. Authorized by whom? Why would I need “authorization” from anyone to a) receive money from my sister through Paypal for my birthday and b) to donate that money to the charity of my choice? As far as I know, both actions are covered by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, and Paypal is specifically designed to allow the transfer of money between individuals. I feel that I must be missing something here.

Will you please clarify what specific federal regulations you believe I may have violated by collecting money from my sister and passing it along to a student group collecting donations for war-affected children? Are there any specific Paypal rules I may have inadvertently violated, and where I can find a copy of them? I think I could be more helpful to you if I understood your specific concern here.

The other reason I ask these questions is that I am preparing a written editorial about this incident for two major foreign policy blogs where I write on national security and human rights issues, and I’d like to make sure I have all the facts from your company that I can. That way, I can provide the most fair and balanced account possible, and make sure that other Paypal users have a clear understanding of rules regarding the collection of donations for Syrian refugees.

I’m sure you are aware that an entire generation of Syrian children are growing up displaced without access to schooling. Many Americans, including me and my students, are looking for ways to crowd-source money to support vulnerable Syrian families. More clearly understanding your policy in this regard would be helpful to me as an educator and political blogger specializing in these issues, and I’m sure would be of great interest to my readers.

Thank you,

Charli Carpenter

January 12, 2016

Dear Charli Carpenter,

I’d like to add clarity as I know this can be confusing.  You do not need to provide a letter stating that you are an affiliated member or operate on behalf of Jusoor Syria.  Specifically, we are just looking for a letter issued to you from Jusoor Syria stating that you can receive funds on their behalf.  You are not required to be a member of the organization or to be directly associated with them.  The letter is sufficient.

Sincerely,

Lawrence
Paypal Compliance Department

January 12, 2016

Lawrence,

If I’m understanding you correctly, what you want me to do is contact Jusoor Syria, an organization putting its effort toward getting humanitarian supplies to child victims of the war in Syria, and ask them to spend time, energy and letterhead confirming for you that I had the right, as a US citizen, to make a donation to them. Can you confirm that is what you are asking me to do in order to resolve this?

Charli Carpenter

February 9, 2016

Hi Charli.  Sorry for the delayed repsoned and you are indeed correct.  I just need a letter from Jusoor Syria stating that the receipt of donations on their behalf is ok.

Sincerely,

Lawrence
Paypal Compliance Department

So. About a week ago, I sent a letter back declining to cooperate with what seems to me a rather unethical request:

I realize you are only doing your job, Lawrence, and I truly wish I could help assuage your company’s concerns, but here’s the thing: I cannot in good conscience ask an organization, working to protect child victims of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, to take even a moment of its time and attention away from assisting refugees in order to address your policy.

Without further information or clarification from you, which I have requested, and to which requests you have been unresponsive, it looks to me like what Paypal is doing is a kind of racial profiling. This penalizes your customers for acts of charity toward war-affected civilians from Syria. I cannot and will not abet this behavior by going along with it, least of all for the short-term gain of having my account reactivated – since I very much doubt I will even want to continue doing business with a company that behaves this way…

I also asked “Lawrence” again (as well as the Paypal Help Center) to explain why the mere use of the word “Syria” in a transaction label had provided the kind of “reasonable suspicion” that would justify them freezing my account or seizing my assets.

No response as of yet.

Worth noting:  I am not the first Paypal customer who has been harassed after attempting to raise money to assist war-affected Syrians through legitimate non-profit groups. For example, Maclean’s reports a Paypal customer service representative told Clint LaLonde, whose daughter Maggie’s’ sixth grade fundraiser for Syrian refugees was targeted by Paypal, that “the word ‘Syria’ is flagged because… it’s potentially funding a terrorist organization.” Like me, Clint LaLonde’s Paypal account was suspended and his fundraiser compromised by Paypal’s actions – though they were raising funds for Syrian refugees, not for terrorists.

If the assumption that “all funds going toward Syrians may be going toward terrorists” is indeed the reason behind Paypal’s otherwise inexplicable requests, then that seems problematic to say the least. It is not yet clear to me what legal standing if any I or any Paypal user has to ask them to desist, as Paypal’s User Agreement includes an arbitration clause prohibiting lawsuits, and provides the company broad discretion to block accounts and even seize money if they have a “reasonable suspicion” of illicit activity.

So… some open questions for LGM readers who understand socio-legal issues better than I do as a political scientist, to strengthen my forthcoming media op-eds and articles on this issue:

  1. Can anyone help me understand (since Paypal will not) why Paypal might think it can comply with its federal obligations not to aid Syrian terrorists simply by having Jusoor Syria sign a paper saying I’m allowed to collect donations on its behalf? Since Jusoor a US charity, it’s not regulated by the relevant law (here) which prohibits US citizens from sending money to Syrian entities; if it were a Syrian organization, I can’t see how a letter from them would eliminate my culpability for violating US law on Syrian sanctions. If this is not about the sanctions regime but about something else (perhaps some technical distinction between making a donation oneself versus collecting money from friends and neighbors with the intention of donating later) then why wouldn’t Paypal be equally concerned about my collection of donations for Habitat for Humanity?
  2. Can Paypal’s “reasonable suspicion” clause “reasonably” be used to penalize its customers for humanitarian efforts, which are protected by the first amendment – especially after a user such as myself has provided information that ought to have cleared things up at once, such as the exact information about the US 501© status of the non-profit in question?
  3. Is there any valid reason why the use of the word “Syria” in any transaction to a non-Syrian entity should automatically be seen by Paypal as a “reasonable suspicion” that an individual is violating a sanctions regime or supporting terrorism? Or does this indeed constitute a kind of corporate racial profiling? Where does / should the burden of proof lie in cases like this? To what if anything is this situation analogous? More broadly, does anyone know of case law that settles the question of corporate power to regulate or police the private charitable donations of US citizens to one another, to be used on behalf of humanitarian relief to foreigners?
  4. Am I at all off-base in thinking that there are civil liberties issues at stake here? While I’m pretty certain I’m within my rights to notify the American Civil Liberties Union or Center for Constitutional Rights about what’s going on, neither organization can issue a class action suit against Paypal with myself or any Paypal user as plaintiff, because their User Agreement indemnifies them against class action suits. But could an organization like the ACLU perhaps do so on behalf of legitimate humanitarian organizations (or their beneficiaries) whose right to relief is being impeded by this behavior?
  5. If this behavior is permitted by some combination of contract, constitutional, administrative and/or national security law, what does that mean? And what is our best strategy as informed citizens to push back against it on behalf of Syrian refugees and in service of the wider right to humanitarian relief?* Ideas welcome!

Meanwhile, if you or others have fallen prey to Paypal’s anti-Syria actions, or know stories of those who have, please describe in comments, as I am developing a major editorial for the New York Times on these points and will also be contacting 60 Minutes, Democracy Now! and Last Week Tonight – Paypal’s User Agreement may prohibit lawsuits, but it does not prohibit making a stink!

__________________________
*At minimum, concerned citizens interested in contacting Paypal about suspending accounts of those openly collecting money for Syrian refugees can tweet to Dan Schulman, the Paypal CEO .

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