- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 5, 2014

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - A North Dakota bank is the latest financial institution in the United States and elsewhere that has decided to close the accounts of companies that transfer or convert money, a trend that has upset Somalis who want to send money home.

Officials with Fargo-based Bell State Bank say the federal government has called for stricter regulations for dealing with so-called cash-intensive money service businesses and they cannot risk massive fines. They say they don’t like to lose any business, but added that the bank has dropped all such transfer companies and the Somalia accounts were a small part of that sector.

“Fines can reach up to $50 million, depending on your organization,” said Matt Stenehjem, a Bell State Bank fraud and security officer who was hired by the company to deal with new federal and state regulations.

Messages left with a media relations spokeswoman with the U.S. Treasury Department were not returned.

Many banks dumped money service businesses after 9/11 over fears the money was going to terrorist groups. One of Britain’s largest banks, Barclays, decided recently to drop customers who were sending money to Somalia.

Scott Paul, senior humanitarian policy adviser for Oxfam America, would not comment specifically about the Bell State Bank decision, but said the Somali companies cannot afford to lose any more bank accounts.

“The Somali customers, people who are supporting their families, don’t have alternatives because there are no banks in Somalia linked to the international banking system and these companies are really the only financial lifeline that many Somali families have,” he said.

U.S. Census Bureau statistics from a three-year survey taken between 2010 and 2012 estimate that about 1,000 people with Somali ancestry live in North Dakota. Most of them are believed to be living in the Fargo area.

Aden Hassan, who runs the Twins Cities-based money service business Kaah Express, said he has worked with fellow Somalis in North Dakota through Bell State Bank.

“The problem lies with the federal government mainly, but I think the banks are overreacting,” Hassan said. “It’s difficult to explain the extent to which our communities rely on this service. We’re talking about people who won’t have bread on the table or shelter over their heads. It’s that dire.”

Robert Entringer, commissioner of the state Department of Financial Institutions, said he can understand the decision by Bell to dump money service businesses.

“Their costs of compliance with state and federal regulations, especially with the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act and all that is coming out of that legislation, have just dramatically increased,” he said.

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