For most people, attempting to buy a car or a house is hard enough. But if your name happens to resemble that of a person on a government list of suspects, you could be turned away altogether.
Some ordinary consumers in California say that's exactly what's happened to them. And a civil rights group there is asking Congress to investigate.
The issue arose when people who have names similar to those of suspected terrorists or drug traffickers found it difficult to buy a car, get a mortgage, or purchase any number of services.
Often, customers' names are checked against the U.S. Treasury Department's list of known criminals and threats to national security, which restricts purchases. Some civil rights advocates say the list is being misused as a consumer screener, creating what amounts to a "No Buy" list.
Tony Kubbany is a Michigan-born former postal worker who lives in Arcata, a small city off the Northern California coast. Last year, he applied for a home loan and was told that there shouldn't be any problems.
But when Kubbany didn't hear back from the mortgage broker, he retrieved his application and discovered a stunning note on his credit report: There was a government alert tying him through his middle name to Saddam Hussein.
"My middle name is Hassan," Kubbany says. "Hahssan is the alias of the son of Saddam Hussein."
The alert came from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. It's a public document easily found on the Internet, with more than 6,000 names of suspected terrorists and drug traffickers. The list is intended to warn American banks and companies not to do business with the bad guys.
Like the government's famous "No Fly" list aimed at keeping terrorists off airliners, some say the Treasury document amounts to a "No Buy" list that's hurting innocent consumers.
In Kubbany's case, the list says the purported son of Sadam Hussein was born in either 1980 or 1983. Kubbany, who is of Syrian descent, was born in 1949. That discrepancy should have signaled a false match — but it didn't.
"It's so surreal, I still can't believe it now," Kubbany says. "It was devastating for my wife. She worried and worried and worried about it. It was a big shock."
In a report issued by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, the group says it has documented at least 12 cases like Kubbany's, in which Americans were denied home loans, car rentals, health insurance — even the most mundane purchases like a treadmill.
In many cases, the consumers merely shared a portion of a name on the terrorist watch list. The list includes very few Americans, but it contains many common Muslim, Middle-Eastern or Hispanic names, like Muhammed, Abdul, Diaz, and Lopez.
A spokeswoman for the Treasury Department declined to comment on the Kubbany case. But she issued a written statement, which said that there are a number of measures to help ensure accurate reporting and compliance with the terrorist watch list.
For example, the department hosts workshops for banks and businesses on how to use the list. And its Web site has a step-by-step tutorial on how to handle a potential match on the list.
Shirin Sinnar, of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, believes there are potentially hundreds of people who have been denied services as a result of a false match. But, he says, they have not come forward due to the stigma, or because they never learned they were linked to the list.
As for Tom Kubbany, the false match linking him to Saddam's son cost him and his wife the opportunity to buy the home they wanted. Months later, they are still working on getting a loan.