Using Cash Can Trigger
'Suspicious Activities Report'
© The Virginian-Pilot

Usually, if you hear somebody say, "Your money's no good here, pal,'' it's a nice thing. It means the barkeep is buying you a drink, or some friend or business associate has decided to pick up the dinner tab.
Journalists seldom hear that phrase, and they speak it even less. Barkeeps know that we're always broke, and if you want to see a klatch of newspaper reporters disappear into the vapor, just toss a dinner check onto their table. It's like waving a cross in front of Dracula.
But a polite equivalent of ``Your money's no good here'' arrived in the mail the other day in the form of a note from the Saks department-store folks. (The only reason we have an account with them is that my wife once said she wanted to get more from Saks, and I heartily agreed -- only to learn that, as a mutant Midwesterner, I'd once again misinterpreted her soft Virginia accent.)
Anyway, the note from Saks said that, henceforth, it would not accept cash as a form of payment on store accounts in any amount over $350. Checks and money orders and online payments and such are fine, it said, but no bills or change totaling more than $350 in any one-month billing cycle. New federal government regulations, Saks said, made this necessary.
That aroused our curiosity, as no other company with which we do credit business had advised us of any such policy. Also, as far as we could tell, the currency that the government prints still says on it, "This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.''
A call to the hotline number that Saks provided resulted in one of those long, oily recorded messages in which the guy pretty much repeated what Saks already had said in the note that came in the mail. At the end of the recording it said I could "Push 1'' if I wanted to speak to a human about it. When I did, it said no humans were available and that I should call back during normal business hours. As it was 10 a.m., I'm now as confused about their definition of "normal'' as I am about their cash policies.
My best guess, from a day's research, is that Saks is referring to elements of the USA Patriot Act, which was passed in the wake of 9/11. Sections of that law provide new powers for tracking the flow of terrorists' money.
Under a little-discussed element of the USA Patriot Act, any business that accepts cash in the amount of $2,000 or more from a customer must file a "Suspicious Activities Report'' with the Treasury Department if the business suspects that the customer might be involved in some illegal activity. The definitions of ``suspicious'' and ``illegal'' are wildly, wondrously vague.
The business can also report you if you do multiple cash transactions on the same day that total more than $2,000. As someone who travels a good bit, I learned long ago that the best interpreter you can have while abroad is a fistful of crisp U.S. currency. Abroad, banks aren't always where you need them, and they are prone to give you large piles of colorful local bills rather than the greenbacks you're accustomed to. So it's not uncommon for me to board an aircraft, as I did just two weeks ago, with a couple of thousand dollars in cash stuffed into my nooks and crannies. (The nooks, mostly, as the crannies can be painful.)
But as someone who's short, stocky, swarthy, bearded and in possession of an oddly Middle Eastern-sounding name (it's actually Welsh), I didn't realize until now that a bank clerk might be compelled to send the Treasury Department a ``Suspicious Activities Report'' on me just for moving a mere $2,000 in cash into or out of my checking account. I suspect that Saks self-imposed a $350 cash-payment limit because it just doesn't want to get near the $2,000 limit at which someone must make a judgment as to whether the customer is a terrorist, or just a guy who prefers to deal in cash rather than paying the banks' interest charges and transaction fees.
I'm not one of those paranoids who see black helicopters in the night, or are prone to bore you with long explanations of the "real meaning'' of that "seeing-eye'' thingy that floats above the pyramid on our one-dollar bills. But some of the minor invasions we've accepted under the government's definition of the word ``patriot'' are downright spooky.
For decades, Second Amendment enthusiasts sported bumper-stickers that said, "When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.'' I wonder how long it will be until we see stickers that say, "When cash is outlawed, only outlaws will have cash.''
© 2003



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