Friday, March 03, 2006

Threat seen in paying down debt

Bob Kerr at the Providence Journal reports on how making a large payment on your credit card can set off alarms written into the so-called Patriot Act. You know, that act whose provisions were mostly made permanent by your representatives yesterday?

Here's the scoop. A couple in Rhode Island realized that their credit card debt had risen to an alarming level. To get things under control, the couple made a payment totaling more than $6,000. A few days later, the diligent couple checked to make certain that they payment was credited. Well, it was acknowledged, but the account balance hadn't changed. They then called the credit company to ask why.

They were told, as they moved up the managerial ladder at the call center, that the amount they had sent in was much larger than their normal monthly payment. And if the increase hits a certain percentage higher than that normal payment, Homeland Security has to be notified. And the money doesn't move until the threat alert is lifted.

Walter called television stations, the American Civil Liberties Union and me. And he went on the Internet to see what he could learn. He learned about changes in something called the Bank Privacy Act.

"The more I'm on, the scarier it gets," he said. "It's scary how easily someone in Homeland Security can get permission to spy."

Eventually, his and his wife's money was freed up. The Soehnges were apparently found not to be promoting global terrorism under the guise of paying a credit-card bill. They never did learn how a large credit card payment can pose a security threat.

But the experience has been a reminder that a small piece of privacy has been surrendered. Walter Soehnge, who says he holds solid, middle-of-the-road American beliefs, worries about rights being lost.

"If it can happen to me, it can happen to others," he said.

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