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Program Tracks Overseas Money Transfers

National

A stack of bills is laid out. | Image by PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay.

Your international money transfers are not as covert as you might think. A secret surveillance program set up by the Arizona attorney general’s office allows U.S. law enforcement to access information about money transfers without a warrant, according to Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

The full names and amounts for larger transfers (above $500) sent between the U.S., Mexico, and over 20 other regions through services like Western Union, MoneyGram, and Viamericas are available in a database kept at a nonprofit organization called the Transaction Record Analysis Center (TRAC).

The Arizona state attorney general’s office originally set up TRAC in 2014 as part of a settlement reached with Western Union in an effort to fight the trafficking of people and drugs coming from Mexico. Since then, TRAC has expanded significantly, now allowing officials from more than 600 law-enforcement entities to monitor financial transactions between the U.S. and other countries.

“This unorthodox arrangement between state law enforcement, DHS, and DOJ agencies to collect bulk money-transfer data raises a number of concerns about surveillance disproportionately affecting low-income, minority, and immigrant communities,” Wyden wrote.

In addition to Ukraine, Canada, France, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Spain, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the program includes data for many Caribbean and Latin American nations. The data set also consists of some domestic transfers.

Unlike banks, transfer services are not required to know a customer’s name, so the program’s purpose is to assist agencies in gathering evidence of fraud and money laundering.

According to Wyden, data from money transfer apps like Zelle, Apple Cash, Cash App, PayPal, and Venmo have not been provided to TRAC.

The Director of TRAC, Rich Lebel, said that evidence gathering has resulted in the capture of drug cartels and other criminals, WSJ reported.

The $500 threshold was created to stop the system from gathering most information about immigrants sending money back home to their family members. However, Wyden argues that, despite the intended protection, those in the database are more likely to be minorities, immigrants, and low-income residents who already lack bank accounts and privacy protections.

The database can be accessed through a website by anyone in law enforcement with an active government email account.

One obvious concern is that officials might be able to obtain private transaction information without a court order or the customer’s consent. Untrustworthy officers might covertly monitor significant transfers.

Lebel said there were no known violations or instances of law enforcement abuse, WSJ reported.

Requests for comment from the Arizona attorney general’s office have gone unanswered. But Wyden is already working on legislation that would strengthen the privacy of money transfer services and essentially neutralize the database, WSJ reported.

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