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New rules target terrorists at banks

By Ed Brock

If not for the notice Heritage Bank Customer Service Representative Sandy Rieffel will give her new customers they would never know that anything has changed.

But starting Wednesday banks across the nation were required to meet new requirements under the USA Patriot Act of verifying the identity of new customers or to some extent existing customers who are making certain changes to their accounts. The information will be needed to report "suspicious activity" on the account to the federal government.

"We have different computer programs to verify the identification. Most of the time it checks out," said Rieffel, who works in the bank's Jonesboro branch. "It's all on the computer."

And it's not really different from what most banks did before, Rieffel said.

"You want to make sure you know who your customer is in front of you one way or another," Rieffel said.

After the new rules started Wednesday, by afternoon Rieffel had not yet opened a new account. However, she said she was sure that it would not hold up the processing time for opening an account and bank customers will not be required to bring in additional information to open an account.

"It's to protect the privacy of the customers," Rieffel said. "I think they'll appreciate that."

The U.S. Department of the Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) announced the procedures for verifying a person's identity using their driver's license and another form of identification such as a passport or alien registration card. While they are intended to track money laundering and terrorist financing, another benefit of the new rules will be further protection against identity fraud, said Joe Brannen, president of the Georgia Bankers Association.

The rules apply to anybody opening a new checking, savings or certificate of deposit account along with those who rent safety deposit boxes, extend a line of credit or who use cash management, custodial or trust services, Brannen said.

Periodically the banks receive a list of names from FinCEN. They are required to check those names against their list of customers and if a match occurs they are to report that to FinCEN.

"The banks are not allowed to tell the customer if they are on the list," Brannen said.

That practice isn't new, Brannen said. It's been in effect since President Bush signed the Patriot Act into law on Oct. 26, 2001, a little more than a month after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 of that year.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia is concerned about the Patriot Act in general, said ACLU of Georgia Executive Director Debbie Seagraves. Seagraves said she has not read these particular regulations but says they are part of "the same big fabric."

"We are moving into an area where so much information is being gathered and shared in ways that we as Americans have no control over," Seagraves said. "The accountability is being lost. It's happening so fast and the enormity of the amount of information that is being gathered cannot possibly be for protecting our freedom or our safety."