Not Funny: How The OFAC Is Outlawing Even The Lamest Attempts At Humor Over Terrorist Fears

from the humor-me dept

It’s only been a couple months since we discussed some of the problems stemming from the US Treasury Department’s terrorism scary names of brown people list, namely that non-scary people with names similar or identical to maybe actual scary people suddenly can’t seem to use online services. Some term this “Islamophobia”, whereas I prefer to mark it as the type of government laziness combined with carpet-bomb approaches to governance that is far too common. Add to that the fact that banking institutions are also suddenly being tasked with checking their payment services against this watchlist, nabbing all kinds of innocents in the process, and you have a process that could be funny if it weren’t so frustrating.

But, when it comes to terrorism, we’re legislating funny out of the equation altogether, it seems. For example, one man’s $42 payment to a friend to reimburse him for drinks has been held in limbo because he tried to get funny in the memo section of the payment.

Telling a friend you’re paying him back for “ISIS beer funds!!!” is not a particularly good joke. I knew this as I was typing it at 2am on a Sunday, but what I did not know is that it’s an even worse joke on Venmo because the federal government will detain your $42.

Almost immediately after I hit send, Venmo—you know, the app that allows people to send money to each other via their phones—blasted an e-mail into my inbox. The company wanted to “better understand a recent payment.”

Obviously this started because of some automatic flag on the word “ISIS.” And for that, one can hardly blame Venmo. Is it unlikely that a terrorist is going to send $42 to another terrorist to pay him back for alcohol, of all things, as part of their terrorist-y network? Sure, that’s unlikely. But do we want the financial system running some general check against common terror groups and references to make sure money isn’t falling into their hands? Of course.

But when Ben Guarino responded to Venmo to try to explain, choosing to call the whole thing a typo error instead of an admittedly lame joke, that meant that someone from Venmo was manually looking at the situation. And the result wasn’t any better.

Venmo wasn’t buying it. “Unfortunately,” wrote someone who signed the e-mail as Heather, “due to OFAC regulations, we are not allowed to give the funds back to you or issue a refund.” Because I don’t regularly bump into terrorists or sicarios at Whole Foods, I had no clue what an OFAC was. As it goes, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control is a decades-old institution, quietly working to keep money out of the hands of America’s enemies. In 1962, the Division of Foreign Assets Control—which President Harry Truman had used to block transfers destined for North Korea and China—metamorphosed into OFAC. This association now has to deal with tipsy hipsters grasping at wit through instant payment apps.

And that’s where this whole practice breaks down into the land of the dumb. Look, Guarino’s joke was both dumb and not particularly funny, by my estimation. But here’s the thing: if your terrorist money-traps are nabbing hipster dudes trading 42 whole dollars for drinks, with a full explanation of where the drinks were had as well, then the program is no longer serving its purpose. Instead, we should admit that we’ve let fear grip our government institutions to such a degree that those institutions are trying to pass off annoying our citizens as a necessary trade for our safety. If that isn’t the stated goal of terrorism, I don’t know what is.

As of this writing, the OFAC still has Guarino’s $42 sitting in limbo, having given him a case number for his request to have it released and nothing else. And America lived to see another day, I suppose.

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Comments on “Not Funny: How The OFAC Is Outlawing Even The Lamest Attempts At Humor Over Terrorist Fears”

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Anonymous Coward says:

An excellent reason NOT to use traceable payment methods

If he had paid his friend in cash, not only would he have avoided the opportunity to provoke this OFAC idiocy, but the government would not have stolen his money. There is just no reason to use fancy traceable surveilled payment methods when low tech alternatives work as well (or better) and have fewer failure modes.

Personally, I will be staying away from Venmo and similar entities until I see evidence that they are no longer subject to this type of stupidity. I am aware the linked article alleges that some bogus Federal law obligates them to engage in this stupidity. As a customer, I do not care why Venmo has failed at its sole task of transferring money from one law-abiding citizen to another. I care only that it has failed and that it has not shown any reason to believe it will not fail again.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The first is dead as a damn door nail.

We currently only have the liberties they are willing to allow us to have or for those with the money make them balk.

But at the end of the day, the government has already destroyed everything in the constitution without much challenge. Obama has already realized he can get by with a lot more than he originally thought when he first become president. I bet the only thing he and Bush are lamenting if the fact that they just did not do more when they could have.

Anonymous Coward says:


Yes. Also, there are serious due process concerns with civil asset forfeiture, but if you read Techdirt at all, you will see the government routinely gets away with stealing funds under that excuse. The courts should be a remedy for this, but they routinely accept the government’s excuses for why providing due process would be too much work or too advantageous to wrongdoers.

Anonymous Coward says:


The universal cure for Liberty!

If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.

~James Madison

The people that say that the Constitution was written for a different people in a different time.

Depart from the USA or be silent, for you are a fool deserving of none of the fruits this great nation may have produced or has yet to produce! You are the enemy of Liberty and a blight up on your fellow man, knowing nothing of truth and spurning wisdom as though it were poison!

This has been foretold, and despite this we learned nothing from history. But the politicians learned from history. They looked upon the quotes and writings of our founders and said. If we could make everyone only see the history of America through the lens of Slavery and Racism we can undo every last spec of the forefathers’ wisdom and writings… and when “The People” have forgotten their words and wisdom they will have assisted us with dismantling that which serves to protect them… after which we may swiftly apprehend their liberties before they have realized themselves that it is they whom have given it away!

The politicians themselves, upon stand and ceremony, asked for their appointments so that “The People” may receive their due protection from the state.

Mark Wing (user link) says:

It happens all the time. You go to make a payment to someone, it asks you to choose a payment category to better organize your bank account, and instead of choosing “beer fund” you pick “terror fund” by mistake, because you’re drunk and those two options are right next to each other on the drop down list of payment categories.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

What else might ISIS mean

Wikipedia has several references, each with a bit different listing, the ones I found for Goddess included: Isis, goddess of motherhood, magic, fertility, healing, marriage and perfection. Busy lady. Oh, and if as a goddess she has any mojo left, somebody better be lookin’ out.

Then there was this reference which lists a bunch of other ways Isis is used (make sure to look at the bottom of this page for a link to folks that have changed their name due to being embarrassed by that group in the Middle East).

Thing is, just what is the treasury afraid of? It is beginning to seem like the government isn’t looking to make US afraid, they are afraid…but of what?

John85851 (profile) says:

Re: So what does this mean for women named Isis?

Sorry, but the name “Isis” is no longer allowed, just like the name “Al” won’t be allowed any more because it could be short for “al-Queda”.

But, yes, everyone needs to keep up pressure on the government and Venmo. Common sense should tell people that terrorists:
1) Probably aren’t buying each other beers using an app since (like many people are saying), this leaves an electronic trail linking the Payment From person to the Payment To person.
2) Aren’t using an app with geo-location that can give away their location when they send the payment.
3) Aren’t going to sign a comment field saying it’s a payment for anything related to terrorism.

But, congrats, the government found the world’s dumbest terrorist… who happens to be a regular citizen with a poor sense of humor!

soillodge (profile) says:

This is plain idiocracy. Like a legit terrorist is going to send a payment over a phone and actually name the organization and purpose of the funds.

I agree with Tim. This is just corporate and governmental laziness and incompetence. This is a sad state of affairs when I cannot go to an Isis concert and later pay back someone for beers I consumed there. m/

Personanongrata says:

On Bended Knee

As of this writing, the OFAC still has Guarino’s $42 sitting in limbo, having given him a case number for his request to have it released and nothing else.

Dear Unaccountable Bureaucrat,

May I please have my money back pretty, pretty please. I promise to be a good and groveling serf genuflecting upon command from this point further.

Groveling Serf

Whatever (profile) says:

Dumb joke

There are things you learn in life not to do. If you are on an airplane and you see you friend Jack, you generally don’t yell “Hi Jack!” across the plane. Or in the middle of a big outdoor event, when you see your friend Bob Gundelson you don’t yell “HEY! GUN!”.

So writing “money for ISIS” in any form is just likely not a very good idea. It’s not a particularly funny joke and doesn’t gain you anything.

Stupid is as stupid does, the guy is lucky it cost him just a few bucks, and not much more.

I.T. Guy says:

Re: Dumb joke

Actually wiLLie it said “ISIS beer funds!!!” Not “Money for ISIS” Because ya know… all terrorists write checks and make sure to clearly put what it was for in the memo. And the brilliance in the algorithm that even looks for “ISIS” is stupidity exemplified… like your comment.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Dumb joke

It’s not a particularly funny joke and doesn’t gain you anything.

Really? Because I find the overboard, heavy-handed response fucking hilarious! You think someone supporting ISIS would actually write that on the check?

Face it, people at multiple levels got their asses trolled because they let zero tolerance replace critical thinking.

They look foolish, and frankly they deserve it.

Slinky (profile) says:


“ISIS beer fund” joke ?

In my country we have this ice-cream factory that suddenly in recent time, decided to change it´s brand name from ISIS to EASIS. In danish IS means ice, so ISIS would be something like ice-ice. Now the name EASIS totally ruins the meaning of the brand name. Check out the URL below..

Anonymous Coward says:


Wow, so we’re letting a bunch of bad apples ruin a word nowadays?
In fact IIRC from the news it’s not even spelled like that in arabic.

Bah! Who cares anyway? Anyone still remember that period when you’d be flagged for writing stuff like “That party last night was the bomb” because of the word “bomb” back in 2001-2003?

Violynne (profile) says:

But do we want the financial system running some general check against common terror groups and references to make sure money isn’t falling into their hands? Of course.
I laughed at this. Really, I did.

Because take out one word which separates people from common sense: “terror”.

Now, re-read it.

In case anyone doesn’t get the joke, search Panama Papers.

Iron Knee™ – It’s not just for breakfast, kids.

seedeevee (profile) says:

Watching your words, Tim?

I thought it was pretty funny, too.

I’m not too sure why Timothy Geigner needed to state – more than once – his disagreement with the funny.

Maybe his — “But do we want the financial system running some general check against common terror groups and references to make sure money isn’t falling into their hands? Of course” — general comfortableness with Big Brother watching our every word makes him a little more likely to watch his every word.

Porkpie (profile) says:

Looks like the terrorists won

We in the USA are out of control. Why not just wrap everyone in ballistic bubble-wrap?

Terrorists supposedly attacked us why? Because of our prosperity and freedoms, according to the last president. So what have we done since?

We have conditionalized most of the Bill of Rights. We have all but destroyed the 4th. Protesting and dissent is now equated with terrorism and treason. Police infiltrate citizens groups, privacy is a thing of the past, we have militarized domestic police- even local cops, we created a constitutionally illegal domestic military in Homeland Security which considers all US citizens- especially those who respect thew Constitution, as potential terrorists, we have executed US citizens without trial with drones, all over an attack which we still don not know all the facts about.

We have armed and trained “moderate” jihadists who used them to attacked us and our allies. We wage illegal wars and actions all over the world which creates more hates for our nation, more extremism, and more terrorism.

This combined with the surging fear of words and symbols- the confederate flag, and yes the swastika too.

For thousands of years the swastika was a symbol of luck and peace. Now, because what one madman did over the course of 12 years, we have turned it into what Hitler wanted all along- a symbol of hate.

We give the symbol power because we fear it. In this way, Hitler wins. And we give terrorists power because we FUNDAMENTALLY CHANGE OUR WAY OF LIFE to accommodate them. The terrorists have won. I never thought I would be ashamed of my country.

But I am.

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