Why Bank of America asked Kansas man for proof of citizenship — and may ask you, too

Josh Collins and wife Jessica Salazar Collins were mystified: Why would the Bank of America, where they’ve banked since the early 2000s, suddenly ask questions about Josh’s citizenship?

He was born in Wichita.

So this thoroughly American couple from Roeland Park ignored a form that the bank mailed them in June asking, among other things, whether Josh Collins was a citizen or could claim dual citizenship with another country.

Jessica said she tossed the letter because both she and her husband “thought it was a scam.”

Until the bank on July 24 cut off access to their money.

Bank of America said it was standard practice to ask about citizen status when opening a new account or updating customer information on an existing one.

“Like all financial institutions, we’re required by law to maintain complete and accurate records for all of our customers and may periodically request information, such as country of citizenship and proof of U.S. residency. This type of outreach is nothing new,” Bank of America said in a statement July 28. “This information must be up to date and therefore we periodically reach out to customers, which is what we did in this case.”

But according to the California Bankers Association, the largest state affiliate of the national association, questions of citizenship are not federally required. “Not to our knowledge,” said the spokeswoman, Beth Mills.

She said federal law requires banks must obtain and verify only four things about account holders: name, date of birth, residential address and Social Security number.

Other federally chartered banks, including Wells Fargo, ask citizenship questions when some new deposit accounts are opened. The U.S. Department of the Treasury increasingly is urging financial institutions to collect as much information on customers as possible, including citizenship status, and to update often. The department says stepped-up identification efforts are needed partly to ward against the laundering of money that flows through foreign countries.

As of May banks were required to have plans for implementing a phased-in initiative called the Customer Identification Program, which dates to a provision of the USA Patriot Act. The program allows each bank discretion to collect and verify information appropriate for its size and type of business.

Still, the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates national banks, says the information need not include account-holders’ countries of citizenship. Under federal regulation, bankers must “form a reasonable belief that it knows the true identity of each customer,” and have processes in place to develop a “customer risk profile,” according to an OCC statement to The Star.

Nothing about Josh or Jessica said foreign national, though Jessica is a Latina whose great-grandparents settled in Kansas.

After their check card was rejected, the couple contacted a Bank of America customer service center by phone, then showed up in person at a branch in Mission. A bank worker’s computer screen showed a little red flag near Josh’s name and the word “citizenship” beside the flag.

The bank asked Josh for his driver’s license and unfroze the account July 25.

Jessica Salazar Collins’ Facebook posts on the matter sparked dozens of angry comments about the policy, including from others who have been asked about their U.S. citizenship and whether they had dual citizenship.

In Seattle, an April report by the Spanish-language TV network Univision cited one such case and reported that Bank of America could not provide services to people known to still be citizens of countries under U.S. economic sanctions.

Bank of America spokeswoman Diane Wagner said unfortunate steps can be taken when customers, including some who haven’t walked into a bank for years, don’t respond to requests for updated information. In many cases, these requests are popping on home computers when account-holders log in.

“If we don’t hear from a customer in response to our outreach,” she said, “as a last resort, we may restrict the account until we can confirm it is in compliance with regulatory requirements” and safe from identity thieves.

Josh Collins wasn’t chosen for any particular reason, Wagner said: All Bank of America customers eventually will receive notices to update their personal information, including citizenship and dual citizenship.

Much of that information, the bank already had, Josh contends. And he puzzles over why no such notice went to his wife, if all customers were being contacted.

Good thing the Collinses, who live by their check card, chose not to travel to Minnesota this week to vacation with family, as planned.

“We would’ve found ourselves up there without money,” said Jessica. “No money for gas. No money to feed our kids. For a hotel. No money!”

She added they’ll be changing banks.