How the US Treasury imposes sanctions on me and every other "Stephen Law" on the planet - my letter to OFAC

Right, here's another thing I am getting off my chest - email letter to OFAC (edited slightly from version sent).


This correspondence is copied to my UK Member of Parliament The Right Hon. Andrew Smith. Please copy him into your reply.

My name is "Stephen Law". The name "Stephen Law" appear on OFAC's "specially designated nationals" list:

Here is the actual OFAC listing for "Stephen Law", alias of "Steven Law"

This person is Burmese and is suspected by US Treasury of drug trafficking. He is the son of Lo Hsing Han (dubbed by US Treasury as "The Godfather of Heroin") and has a Singaporean wife. His addresses, as listed by you, are all in Burma and Singapore. None are in the UK.

I have discovered that, as a result of this listing, US Customs block shipments of goods to me here in the UK. Also when people try to wire me money from abroad (not just from the US, but from anywhere), for e.g. occasional travel expenses for academic conference attendance, the payment is interrupted and various checks are made before the funds are released. This became so bad during one period (a series of payments every single one of which triggered a block) that I had to switch to a different bank account. At no point was I told why this was happening (i.e. that you, OFAC, are responsible). The banks concerned believe they must keep this information from me (I was told this by my bank branch). Hence it took me many months to figure out what the source of the problem was: OFAC/US Treasury.

It appears any "Stephen Law" anywhere in the world will suffer this same treatment, as indeed will anyone who merely happens to have the same name or alias as one of your "specially designated nationals". This has proved frustrating, time-consuming and also costly to me personally. E.g. I have  paid US$77 postage for goods it turns out I can never receive because they are returned by US customs to the US vendor because my name is listed. As a result of the OFAC listing, I cannot now order goods from - or receive gifts from friends and relatives in - the United States.

Can you inform me: given I am very obviously NOT the Burmese Stephen Law:

(i) how I can avoid having all goods shipped to me from the US to my UK address being blocked and returned to sender by US customs?

(ii) how I can avoid my own bank repeatedly asking me who I am (and requesting information including my DOB, which they already possess) before unblocking any payment from abroad?

My bank knows who I am, and they know I am not the Burmese "Stephen Law" on the specially designated nationals list, but still I have to go through this same rigmarole every single time money is wired to me. How do I avoid this please?

Yours faithfully

Stephen Law

PS Ofac-caused delays to payments to me can run into weeks. On one occasion I ran up overdraft charges as a result of not receiving funds blocked by OFAC.

PPS I was interviewed by Foreign Policy magazine about all this a short while ago.Also interviewed by News Hour on BBC World Service.

PPS OFAC just phoned me and suggested I have my DOB and passport number put on all parcels posted from US and all money transfers, plus a note to contact them in case of problems. It's worth a try....

PPPS Have tried doing as OFAC suggeted (though I won't put my passport number on packages because of the obvious risk of identity theft). Did not work. Parcels still blocked. A parcel was blocked that gave my full name, date of birth, information regarding OFAC listing and that I was obviously not the OFAC-listed person. Still blocked.


Miles Rind said…
Very sorry to hear about this. I had never even heard of OFAC before reading this, but it sounds as incompetent as our TSA with its "no-fly list," which makes travel difficult or impossible for everyone named "Robert Johnson."
Stephen Law said…
That looks even more annoying.
akronyiko said…
It would be great if all people on the OFAC list started using as aliases all names of all US congress members and military leaders, all names of all Forbes 500 companies' big wigs, all names of all European countries' ministers and members of parliament, all names of all big bankers worldwide - and all names of all of their husbands and wifes and children.

Only then something might change. But just for the people above of course.
Tony Lloyd said…
Preventing exports is one thing, but where do the US get off dictating bank transfers that have nothing to do with the US?

And why does the rest of the world put up with it?

Although I do love the irony in "Robert Johnson" having difficulty travelling. (The Robert Johnson wrote "Crossroads" ostensibly about failing to get a lift but allegedly about selling his soul to the devil in exchange for blues genius).
John Pieret said…
As a US citizen, I sincerly apologize for my government. We (a lot of us) thought we were going to do better when we voted for Obama but it did not work out that way. I'm afraid there is little prospect that we will get better in the immediate future.
Robert Waldrop said…
I would not assume that this is a mere artifact of the similarity of your names with the Burmese fellow. Looking at your list of books, I find one right up at the top that says "THINK!" followed immediately by one titled "BELIEVING BULLSHIT!" By advocating such radical ideas as THINKING and teaching people how to recognize BULLSHIT before they step in it. . . you are likely to be considered an enemy of the U.S. government. Perhaps if you write a book, "STOP THINKING -- BE STUPID -- DO WHAT THE AMERICANS WANT," and take your expose of BULLSHIT off the market, they will take you off the list. On the other hand, maybe they will worry even more about what you are up to and send a drone to spy on your neighborhood.
Philip Rand said…
I think Dr Law...instead of simply bringing attention to yourself in an attempt to gain approval from your audience (and to increase media coverage for your publishers), you should use this opportunity to:

1/ Philosophically examine the notion of personal identity in this you have been given a wonderful opportunity to do some real philosophy.

2/ Use "critical-thinking" to get around the problem, i.e. surely if you have a joint bank account with your wife you can use her name for all these financial transactions...I let my wife deal with all the finances..wives are very good at this kind of thing.
Luke said…
I wonder if changing your name would fix the problem
Anonymous said…
Have you tried conducting business with just your initials (first, middle, etc.) instead of your full first name?
Euro2cent said…
> I wonder if changing your name would fix the problem

Perhaps to Franz Kafka?

Anonymous said…
sounds you have a pretty good civil lawsuit on your hands...
Unknown said…
OFAC are the fine people in the Office of Foreign Assets Control, part of the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence in the U.S. Department of Treasury.

They are very concerned with the wrong people doing the wrong things. As this article shows they obviously have lists of suspicious names, but they are not stopping there: They find that entire countries are suspicious, and not just for transport of physical goods: Also for spreading knowledge more in general. For that latter reason they blocked access of the free academic courses from coursera to citizens accessing the internet from Iran, Syria etc.

I'm sure it's all for the greater good.
LRP said…
Dear Mr. Law,

Please be reasonable. Just think how hard it is to keep track of every single person on the planet. I mean database searches for a name alone my take forever. Then keeping track of all that meta data, all those transactions, and Internet keystrokes. Lordy! It would really help if we had universal ID cards with unique IDs for every person on earth. Then we wouldn't have problems with those pesky duplicate names.
Anonymous said…
This is going to be a shocker but OFAC doesn't give a shit.
Unknown said…
My name is also "Stephen Law". I, too, have had difficulties receiving goods from the US and my Paypal account was suspended some time ago, of course. My sister accidentally provided the solution for ordering from the US -- specify delivery to "Law Family" or some other string of characters that does not come up in the search. That will not help for cheques and transfers. As an economist I conjecture that the US companies must prefer the sense of security they get from the OFAC policy, however inefficient, to the revenues from my order and the other orders excluded by accidental name matches. And usually I am happy to order domestically (Canada) or from the UK. Stephen: best of luck with tilting at windmills in the bureaucracy of the OFAC.
Anonymous said…
I believe this is THE best scenario for using crypto-currency. Things like litecoin,bitcoin, (insert your preferred crypto-currency here) would completely avoid a lot of the issues you are experiencing. Mostly because it sits outside of the control the normal banking structure. The trade off is the the constantly fluctuating prices.
Stephen Law said…
Thanks Stephen Law - "Law family" is good (though is that really acceptable on the international declaration form that must be attached?). Might try though. The problem with false names is that you can't prove identity to pick up from post office when it can't be delivered. You lose the item. 2 out of three names is also a hit so adding a correct middle name does not work.
Philip Rand said…
Oh come on Dr were a postie (maybe you can't take the postie out of the philosopher) know how the system works when you pick up post...

Provide card...postie asks a simple question like your post-code...and parcel given to you...

Are you seriously saying that a postie would not give you your package if you did not have correct identity?

Is that really the ONLY variable that decides whether you get your post given to you or not?,i.e. is that the ONLY measurement that is used to determine if you get your post or not?

That is simply crazy...on account that the "empirical" evidence does not support your "critical-reasoning" used in your "pick-up-post-from-the-post-office" model...

Collecting post is a human to human interaction not a push-button interaction...Perhaps, your posties' don't like you...BUT, I know when I go to my main branch (CHIPPING NORTON)...I hand them the card and they give me my post no problem without questions....BUT, then I give my postie a very nice Christmas tip each year...Maybe, you should do that...though you know doubt would think that giving someone a monetary tip (like a postman) at Christmas would be somewhow counter you would not be able to "morally" do it...

I think your criticisms concerning the "identity" issue in the above response demonstartes the general "fundamental" problem in how you think both philosophically and let your own aspect-viewing of a problem get in the way of doing some work that leads somewhere...


On account that would undermine the publicity...and it is the publicity that is the point...not the solution...
Anonymous said…
In the US, it is legal to have a second identity. The intent must not be to defraud. It's quite simple and few know about it. Mostly used by those with awful credit histories. Perhaps the same is available to you. Good luck.
Anonymous said…
The comments here reek of idiocy and apologetic arrogance.
Pandab said…
Get in touch with the Burmese Stephen Law and ask him how he works around the restrictions (I'll bet he's not bothered the least by this).
Anonymous said…
I tried to read this post in a Costa coffee shop this afternoon. The wireless provided by O2 blocked it.
Anonymous said…
The only human construct more impenetrable to reason than religion / ideology is bureaucracy. That said, maybe you should adopt an alias -- I dunno, maybe Barack Hussein Obama?
John Peter said…
Preventing exports is one issue, however wherever do the US get off dictating bank transfers that don't have anything to try and do with the US?
Anonymous said…
"have my DOB and passport number put on all parcels posted from US"

What could possibly go wrong with that? Surely identity theft can't make it any worse.
alex said…
thank you very much for this post
Richard Weil said…
As I wrote on "The Practical Nomad" blog:

If these allegations are correct, and I’m sorry to say they wouldn’t surprise me, Mr. Law needs a friend who can order and receive goods for him. (This is so obvious a bright 6 year old could figure it out, and I can’t even begin to understand why the feds wouldn’t see their efforts as futile.) Anyway, I wonder if the US computers are smart enough to differentiate “Stephen Law” from “S. Law”, “S. (middle name) Law”, or some other variant–”Stephanie Law”, for that matter. (The article says they can pick up “similar to”, but there must be a limit. “Daniel Garcia” could morph into “D. Garcia” and he’s out of it, unless the feds want to check every Diego and Daniella Garcia in the world.)
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