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November 5th, 2006

PayPal Thinks I'm a Terrorist

This has nothing to do with my books, or indeed any of the subjects that most of you guys are interesting in hearing about, but I feel a need to vent.

About a month ago, I discovered to my puzzlement and annoyance that my account at PayPal had been locked. I had no idea why. I've had a PayPal account for years, and never had a problem. In all that time, I was only involved in one dispute, and that was a case where I was the one filing the complaint. Besides, that was three years ago, at least. I use PayPal mainly for buying toy knights on ebay (these days, many sellers will accept only PayPal, money orders, or cashier's checks, and the latter two are just too much trouble), and for collecting payment when readers buy signed copies of my old books off my website. It's a convenient service, well worth the fees, and I've never had a problem with it.

Till now.

This turned out to be a big problem, though. My account was locked, with no explanation. I can't get into it, can't use it to pay, can't accept payments, can't access the money I have in the account. Why? I emailed PayPal's "Account Review Department," as instructed, to find out what had happened and get the account unlocked. My first two emails went unanswered. The third time proved to be the charm, and finally got me a reply. It said, in part:

"PayPal is a regulated financial services company required under law to
assess its customers against certain lists of individuals and entities
which have had sanctions imposed against them. Where a potential match is
identified, PayPal's policy is to lock the account and request further
identifying documentation. The decision to lock your account has been taken
solely by PayPal in line with its compliance policy."

This made no bloody sense to me, so I decided to phone PayPal and try and talk to an actual human being. That's not easy either, in this world we live in. I found the number, phoned, negotiated the usual infuriating Voice Mail maze of "press 1 for this, press 2 for that," and finally reached a customer "service" representative. She, of course, was no help whatsoever. She looked up my account and told me the same stuff that was in the email I'd received. In fact, I think she was reading from the email. When I asked her questions, she had no answers. So finally I asked to speak to a supervisor.

He, at least, gave me some meaningful information. Despite the hokeydoke in the letter about "the decision... has been taken solely by PayPal," the source of my trouble is actually the federal government. The reason my account was locked was because my name has turned up on a list out of the U.S. Treasury Department. Specifically, something called the "Office of Foreign Assets Control."

Why the hell I would be on this list, I have no idea. I have no "foreign assets" that I know of, aside from a long-moribund bank account in Poland from the days before the Berlin Wall went down, when the Poles could only pay you in soft zlotys that you had to go to Poland to spend. Or maybe it's because I have used PayPal to pay for toy soldiers from sellers in Germany, Australia, and the UK, or to accept payment for books from a dozen different foreign countries. Or... if you will allow me a moment of paranoia here... maybe someone in the Treasury Department didn't like some of the political views I've posted here, or my opinions about the TSA and the War on Terror.

Whatever the reason, I'm on the OFAC list, and unlike Santa's list, this one is just for the naughty, so PayPal has locked the accounts of everyone whose name appears there.

The most infuriating thing of all is that I have MONEY in that PayPal account. Money which PayPal flatly refuses to disburse to me.

"Can I close the account and withdraw my funds?" I asked them. "No," the supervisor said, "the account is locked." I accused him of stealing my funds, which he denied. They're still my funds, he insisted. It's just that they won't let me withdraw them, or use them to pay anyone, because, after all, the account is "locked." (How much you want to bet that after some period of "inactivity," they will start taking fees out of the account?) I did luck out in one respect, I suppose. At the moment, there's only about fifty bucks in that PayPal account. That hasn't always been the case. There have been times in the past when I've had as much as thousand bucks floating in my PayPal account. Believe me, if you think I'm honked off now, imagine how pissed I'd be if they were robbing me of a thousand bucks instead of fifty.

How do unlock the account? All I have to do is furnish PayPal with several different proofs of my identity. They already have a credit card number and a bank account number, mind you, but that's not sufficient, now they want copies of my passport, my birth certificate, and a utility bill.

A service like PayPal is supposed to make my life easier, to enable me to buy and sell with a click of my mouse, to spare me annoying trips to the bank to buy money orders and cashier's checks, to allow me to receive small payments from readers abroad who want signed copies of my books. CONVENIENCE is the reason I use PayPal. I don't have the time, the energy, or the inclination to jump through their hoops.

Right now I'm trying to finish A DANCE WITH DRAGONS, working on a breakdown of the contents and art required for THE WORLD OF ICE AND FIRE, editing the new Wild Cards book INSIDE STRAIGHT and writing my own story for same, beating out an outline for a comics project with John J. Miller, trying to stay on top of the various Ice & Fire spinoffs from Subterranean Press, Fantasy Flight Games, Testor's, DBPro, Avatar Comics, and several other licenses, dealing with the aftermath of the Byron Preiss bankruptcy auction, trying to extricate my RPG rights from the collapse of Guardians of Order, living through major home renovations. I do NOT have the time to take on PayPal and the U.S. Treasury as well.

So there you go. For the foreseeable future, my PayPal account will remain locked, I'm afraid. If you want to buy a signed book, you'll need to mail me a check or money order. And I guess I won't be bidding on nearly as many knights on ebay, since so many sellers "prefer PayPal."

If any of you are PayPal users, however, and are accustomed to allowing a significant amount of money to sit around in your account... take it out. Take it out NOW. Your name could turn up on a list as easily as mine did, and then, like me, you'll find yourself cut off from your money with no right of appeal.

I say it's spinach, and I say to hell with it.

End of rant.

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George R.R. Martin
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