I have the banking profile of an international terrorist

I’m currently reading (well, listening to) Super Freakonomics, the Gladwellian sequel to Freakonomics. It’s full of dinner conversation-friendly factoids like “more US military personnel died in the 1980s than in the 2000s”.

The authors discuss whether the same algorithms that banks use to find fraudsters could be used to uncover terrorists. They provide this profile of the 19 terrorists who participated in the September 11 attacks. To paraphrase the terrorists’ characteristics slightly:

  • Some of them regularly sent and received wire transfers to and from other countries.
  • They tended to make one large deposit and then withdrew cash in small amounts over time.
  • They typically used a P.O. box as an address, and the addresses changed frequently.
  • Their banking didn’t reflect normal living expenses like rent, utilities, auto payments, insurance and so on.
  • There was no typical monthly consistency in the timing of their deposits or withdrawals.
  • They didn’t use savings accounts or safe-deposit boxes.
  • The ratio of cash withdrawals to cheques written was unusually high.

Hmm…that feels a little too familiar.

Just last night, after buying some flights from a major airline, I received an automated call from the Royal Bank. I use a voice-to-text voicemail service, so here’s the transcript:

This call is for Darren Barefoot from the Royal Bank Security Department. In order to prevent possible difficulties using your card, it is important that you call us back immediately toll-free at 800-711-9946 to verify activity. You may call us back 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is important we speak with you. The number again is 800-711-9946. Thank you for choosing Royal Bank. Goodbye.

Side note: That’s one computer talking to another computer. The latter computer transcribed the call perfectly, including my name. Impressive, yet slightly creepy.

Not for the first time, I had to call the bank to confirm that I had, in fact, bought something online. On other occasions, I’ve had my bank card summarily deactivated by the bank, and been forced to go get a new card.

The bank, of course, claims that it’s entirely for my protection. I suspect that their actions are, in fact, much more in their own interests, and they’re happy to inconvenience me when an algorithm tells them to.

I appreciate that this is a very first world problem, but at least now I have a possible explanation: the Royal Bank thinks I’m a terrorist.


  1. I’ve been using a U.S. credit card in Canada for years, and every time I hire this same cleaning service, I get flagged as a security violation.

    Every. Single. Time.

    The. Same. Company.

    I’ve asked them to flag or unflag or note or do anything to stop this from happening, but apparently, their computers can’t be told that even though I buy the same thing from the same place over and over and have for years, it’s not suspicious.

    My bank: Bank of America.


  2. I’m prepared to blame the GOP and Fox News for this. The demand that things be immediately and definitively declared to be terrorist acts has clearly spilled over into the personal banking arena.

    I’m predicting the next to go will be golf: “But he double-bogeyed on the eighth hole, which was a naked act of terrorism.”

  3. My RBC visa card numbers were compromised somehow earlier this year. RBC noticed before I did, called me to ask about it, and reversed the bogus charges. So it can be a good system sometimes.

  4. I was taking photographs at a systems security conference and they had a fellow from the FBI talking about online fraud and just how much credit card theft there is. His contention was that it was WAY, WAY, WAY bigger than anyone could ever imagine (like well into the 9 figures) and the banks, in order to maintain confidence in the credit card system, had to cover all those losses. After I heard that it was no longer a surprise when I got calls from the bank when I was buying a new washer and dryer from Sears.

    Of course, when I was in Panama last week the $800 purchase at the hotel I stayed at barely raised an eyebrow…

  5. My credit card got flagged because I bought a tank of gas and hockey bag. Apparently people who steal credit cards often test it out at a pay-at-the-pump gas station so they can make sure it hasn’t been canceled without having to talk to an actual person and then buy stuff they can sell, like sports gear. Sure is a pain in the butt if you just happen to need gas on the way to buy a hockey bag though!

    On the plus side, my Vancity Visa number was somehow compromised recently and they caught and reversed a bunch of fraudulent charges – several tanks of gas in Merrit, Golden, Calgary, plus a Greyhound bus ticket (not sure why they needed a bus ticket when they clearly had a vehicle that they were filling with gas!). If only they’d tried to buy sports gear, the bank could have caught it sooner!

  6. What I find interesting, currently living the expat life in the Middle East, is that some of their list is also just a reflection of day-to-day life here. The standard format for any mailing address is a PO Box. And the only cheque you write is for the one annual rent payment, since it’s otherwise a cash culture and the penalties for bouncing cheques are so severe, i.e., jail, that it’s not worth it

  7. Their bank computer talking to your bank computer is fascinating.

    Do you think this inconvience could be a manifestation of new security measures put into place under the guise of the NDAA?

    or do you think it’s old PATRIOT stuff? Perhaps is just regular old civil rights violations?

    Interesting times….

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: