For his nephew’s birthday last month, Ali did what he had done many times before — transferred money to his sister-in-law, Fatima*.
Ali sent $30 as a gift for his 9-year-old nephew, who is named Ibrahim* Muslim. He entered “Muslim BDAY” into the description field for the transfer.
Ali then received an email from St.George Bank, requesting he contact the bank’s economic and trade sanctions team to provide more information about the transfer to prevent it from being cancelled.
“Please confirm what Muslim refers to,” the email read.
“If [Muslim refers to] an individual please provide Full name, DOB and address.”
Muslim is a common given name among adherents of the Islamic faith.
As a Bank of Melbourne customer, Ali was confused to receive correspondence from St.George, and suspected it may be a hoax.
“St.George — a division of Westpac Banking Corporation (Westpac) have a statutory obligation to ensure that the transactions we process comply with various Australian and international laws including those relating to economic and trade sanctions,” the email read.
St.George and the Bank of Melbourne are part of Westpac Group, which also owns BankSA.
Ali and Fatima both live in Australia, so it was also unclear why the information was being requested by the economic and trade sanctions team.
“Please provide the abovementioned information … to avoid this transaction being cancelled or further delayed,” the email continued.
Ali reported the email to Westpac Group’s hoax reporting team, who confirmed the correspondence was indeed genuine.
“Why are they targeting a particular group of religious people? That was a bit upsetting,” he told the ABC.
“Christian, that’s a common name as well … say if it was like, ‘Christian’s birthday’, would they have stopped it as well?”
Still, Ali provided his nephew’s full name, date of birth and address to the bank as requested.
The bank later apologised to Ali, but in a statement to the ABC defended flagging the payment.
A St.George spokesperson said the bank “provides financial services to businesses and customers in accordance with our legal and regulatory requirements, including Australian sanction laws”.
“To ensure we meet these obligations, St.George will sometimes request more information from customers about certain transactions,” they added.
Angel Zhong, an associate professor of finance at RMIT University, said Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) imposed strict requirements on banks in relation to economic and trade sanctions.
She said it was likely that Ali’s bank transfer had been flagged under one of the sanction regimes to which Australia was party, such as the UN Security Council’s sanctions regime on counterterrorism.
“Australian sanctions laws apply to activities in Australia and to activities undertaken overseas by Australian citizens,” Dr Zhong said.
DFAT’s consolidated list of sanctioned entities contains 7,583 individuals and organisations, including actors associated with Islamic State and Al Qaeda, as well as the governments of Iran, Myanmar and Russia.
The ABC identified one individual named Muslim, a 48-year-old Russian national thought to be located in Syria, who has been sanctioned since 2015.
“Though $30 is a small amount, it appears to trigger a red flag due to payment description,” Dr Zhong of RMIT said.
“I urge banks to enhance their cultural sensitivity and their mechanisms in detecting potential transactions involving sanctions, instead of just relying on a list of keywords.”
Islamic Council demands apology from Westpac
Ali, who works in the finance sector himself, said he understood banks were under a lot of compliance requirements and must ensure “all the payments are legal”.
“[But] what other kinds of red flags would there be with this transaction? Because this is not the first time I’m transferring any amount to my sister-in-law,” he said.
“We regularly transfer amounts to each other, whether if it’s for sharing the bill for a meal, or something like that.
“What other red flags could there have been other than the name Muslim itself?”
Ali has filed a complaint with the Australian Financial Complaints Authority, which he said had yet to respond.
Deriya Iner, research coordinator at Charles Sturt University’s Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and a board member of the Islamophobia Register Australia, said cases like Ali’s needed to be handled with greater sensitivity.
“People are busy. Sometimes people put words into an email without knowing how it will impact the customer,” she said.
“For a $30 transaction for a present, it doesn’t make sense,” she added.
Adel Salman, president of the Islamic Council of Victoria, said while banks needed to have procedures in place against organised crime and terrorism, Westpac’s actions showed a “complete lack of common sense”.
“We do know that when Muslims send money within Australia or overseas, there is a greater level of scrutiny,” he said.
“If it was a white person, non-Muslim, I don’t think that they would have been asked that question.
“The customer should consider leaving Westpac.”
Mr Salman also called for Westpac Group to review its protocols to ensure other customers were not put in the same situation.
Ali said he was not pursuing financial compensation but he wanted to see change.
“It’s just about systematic improvement — what can be done to avoid something like this in the future,” he said.
DFAT was contacted for comment but did not respond by deadline.
*Some names have been changed to protect identity.