When Abdulhakim Hashi started his SeaTac-based money-transmitting company Hashi Money Wiring in 2000, it was easy to transfer money around the world. The business helped clientele in South King County’s East African community send money to relatives around Africa.
Hashi said his branches in Rainier Beach, Burien and Kent were popular among cabdrivers, airport employees and domestic care workers, some of whom had loved ones in refugee camps.
“They are the ones who are supporting them and send them money regularly because there is no work there in the refugee camps,” said Hashi.
Hashi Money Wiring was regularly inspected by Merchants Bank of California, said Hashi, until the institution closed his account in 2015. It marked the beginning of Hashi’s account closures with multiple banks, often for unknown reasons. A March 2016 letter to Hashi from Red Canoe Credit Union stated it would no longer maintain money service business accounts due to additional requirements needed to administer them. Letters to Hashi from Bank of America, Umpqua Bank and IBC Bank offered no explanation for the account closures, according to copies sent to The Seattle Times.
“Because of my name, because of my country of origin, because of the business I am in, all of that makes me suspicious,” said Hashi, a longtime Washington resident originally from Somalia.
Hashi is one of many account holders in the local East African and Muslim communities who believe financial institutions have closed their accounts due to discrimination. But the banking industry says the account closures are never for discriminatory reasons, and are often based on guidance from national security policy and sanctions.
Members of the East African community are now involved in a campaign to lobby local politicians and state legislators to protect immigrants from unexplained account closures. A resolution passed Monday by the Seattle City Council urged institutions including the state Senate’s Economic Development & Trade Committee and the House Consumer Protection & Business Committee to research bank “de-risking” policies and their impact on public safety as well as equal access to opportunities.
But the banking industry says it is following federal regulations when closing accounts. According to the Washington Bankers Association, banks are required to know their customers’ identities and the nature of their businesses.
“Especially right now during the pandemic, there’s been a really large increase in fraud, so it’s even more important that banks do everything they can to follow these regulations for the security and safety of their customers as well as themselves,” said Megan Managan, the Washington Bankers Association director of communications and government relations.
After the 9/11 attacks, the Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 — the primary anti-money laundering law — was amended to include provisions from the Patriot Act intended to deter and end terrorism financing networks. Under the federal regulations, banks were required to identify unusual or suspicious transactions, said Managan. A report would then need to be filed and sent to the federal Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN.
While Managan couldn’t speak to how individual banks deem an account high risk, “large cash transactions, or a high amount withdrawn or deposited … can sometimes trigger alerts,” said Managan.
Additionally, in recent years the federal Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has placed sanctions on certain countries known to have terrorist activity. A FinCEN advisory published Tuesday listed countries that are placed under increased monitoring: Yemen, Albania, Barbados, The Bahamas, Botswana, Cambodia, Burma (Myanmar), Ghana, Jamaica, Mauritius, Iceland, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Zimbabwe, Syria and Uganda.
Rob Rowe, who is vice president and senior counsel at American Bankers Association, said an account would not be closed due to its affiliations with the Muslim community: “If an account is being closed, it’s usually for some other reason, such as transactions are being sent to places that are considered risky.”
Still, the Right to Be Banked campaign, founded by Tukwila-based Roble Musse, believes that the “perceived risk” of money transmitters is higher than the actual risk.
While the issue is occurring nationwide, Musse said it’s especially relevant in King County, which boasts one of the largest East African communities in the country with a population of over 40,000 people.
When money transmitters are denied bank accounts, they’re left vulnerable to robberies, Musse said.
For instance, Hashi has to keep money in his office, which is then given to agents who board planes with briefcases of cash that they deliver to Africa. Since Hashi has solely operated with cash for the past few years, he said his office has been robbed twice.
For the local East African community, sending remittances to family back home through money transmitters is more appealing than transferring money to a foreign bank account because it avoids sometimes hefty financial institution charges, said Musse. The businesses offer culturally appropriate services; for example, the money transmitters send money to refugee camps. U.S. dollars are a portable currency for refugees who may need to flee or move across country borders, he added.
If the money transmitters have a bank account, the transfer usually happens through the banking system. But because many have lost their accounts, they have to physically send the cash abroad on planes.
It’s a legal process: The Washington State Department of Financial Institutions grants the money transmitters licenses after the businesses pass background checks and audits. According to Musse, over $10 million in cash is transferred out of Sea-Tac Airport through money transmitters every month.
Masih Fouladi, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Washington chapter, said the denial of bank accounts to businesses and individuals within the local Muslim community is a “phenomenon that has been occurring at a very high rate since the passage of the Patriot Act.” While most of the account closures have affected individuals and businesses over the past two decades, he said he’s seen an increase in banks closing the accounts of nonprofits that serve the Muslim community as well as mosques.
“This has had a huge impact on businesses that are focused on providing aid or assistance to those in need in foreign countries or families trying to send money to loved ones who are sick or without the ability to work overseas,” said Fouladi.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Hashi said he was rejected from the Payment Protection Program and was told by representatives that it was because he lacked a business relationship with a financial institution.
Tukwila’s Abu-Bakr Islamic Center also recently lost a relationship with its financial institution, said the mosque’s secretary of the board of trustees, Mohammed Jama. The mosque held an account with Wells Fargo for over 10 years, said Jama, but this spring he received a letter explaining that the account would close May 28. He said the bank wouldn’t give him any further information other than that the closure was a business decision.
“So basically, it was just get lost,” said Jama.
Musse, a U.S. citizen originally from Somalia, had received similar letters after he started his Seattle-based money-transferring company CoinFling in 2011. He quit his job at Microsoft to start the mobile-to-mobile money transferring app similar to Venmo that was inspired by his own need to send money to his dad in Kenya. He ultimately shut the company down in 2018 after struggling to secure a bank account for years.
Last year, Musse created the Right to Be Banked campaign to advocate for businesses that have been denied bank accounts. “This is really about economic opportunities. Why is it that these businesses that have been licensed are being denied the opportunity to fairly compete with Western Union?” Musse said.
Musse considers the denial of bank accounts to immigrant businesses that transmit money a form of “modern-day redlining by banks.”
The Right to Be Banked campaign’s first act is to introduce resolutions into city councils throughout King County where businesses have complained that banks closed their accounts. Musse updated the current resolution in the Seattle City Council after it was passed in 2015 and led to no results.
He ultimately hopes Washington will pass a law that makes the state Department of Financial Institutions require more transparency when accounts are closed.
“South Seattle is home to a large East African immigrant population who for years have faced the very real threat of having their bank accounts closed and their family members overseas cut off from the only financial support they know,” said Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales, who represents South Seattle and sponsored the Seattle resolution.
She said she hopes to bring “an immediate end to the cultural ‘norm’ that allows some of us to flourish while others are so obviously left to flounder.”
From the banks’ perspectives, all accounts are assessed for risk regardless of the customer’s religion or country of origin.
“We would not know the religious affiliation of an account holder and even if we did it would not be a factor in account opening or closing, and we strongly dispute the anecdotal assertion being made to say otherwise,” said a US Bank spokesperson, Evan A. Lapiska.
Wells Fargo, which was cited as a bank that closed the accounts of Abu-Bakr Islamic Center, Musse and Hashi, said it does not tolerate discrimination against any customer. However, the bank declined to share comments on the closure of specific accounts to protect customer privacy.
“Wells Fargo performs ongoing and customary reviews of our account relationships as part of our duty to manage risk, protect our customers from fraud, and to comply with applicable laws in our banking operations,” said Wells Fargo’s regional communications officer, David Kennedy. “As part of our reviews, an account may be closed for a number of reasons based on individual facts and circumstances.”
The ambiguity has become part of life for Hashi, who has continued to operate his business for years without a bank account.
“It’s very hard,” said Hashi. “We are struggling, but still we are going.”