Our experience with Paypal and the system of racist behaviours it upholds as an orgainsation, and by some of its staff.
This is a fairly long read, for those who are not familiar with our work, I've given some background, otherwise skip to the story part. Its broken down into dates and key events, dealing with the problems of trying to sell a recipe book of Syrian food in aid of people affected by the conflict there.
My name is Phill Minns, I'm chair of a ‘non profit’ community organisation that works with musicians and communities who’ve come to the UK from around the World.
Work focuses on collaboration, and aims to help facilitate agency for the people we’re involved with, building connections with local music scenes. Sometimes I make mistakes and things can go wrong, but for the most part I am reasonably confident that friendships have developed from the work, and those friendships are built on mutual trust.
Of course there is also a serious side. Established in 2009 the organisation is governed by a constitution and a committee. There is a bank account, with the Coop, called a Community Direct Plus account. In the past we’ve had funding from the Arts Council England, National Lottery, local councils and the British Library. We’ve worked with organisations such as The South Bank Center, Glyndebourne Opera House, and various schools, colleges and universities. I’m saying this to give some indication that we are a legitimate organisation, with checks and measures in place, to make sure we are doing what we are meant to be doing, and not squirrelling away money or involved in anything morally dubious.
Of the people we work with, everyone has their own story. Some of those stories involve escaping conflict in places like Syria, which is the case in our recent entanglement with Paypal.
The right to claim asylum is protected by the 1951 UN Convention, of which Britain is a party to. This right should not be open to discussion by international finance organisations, or their employees, as has been the case with Paypal.
The Story: A cookbook of Syrian food, in aid of people affected by the conflict.
Earlier this year, a friend Manal, who is married to Alaa (one of the musicians we work with on a regular basis) came up with the idea of a cookbook of Syrian recipes. Manal and Alaa are family friends, we’ve known each other for a few years, and socialise together, as well as work.
It’s a straight forward idea, and we expected it to be a success and a bit of a learning curve, as its something none of us had done before. Manal has made food for some of our events, and is well known in the local community. She volunteers with local community groups. We all live in Sussex, and lots of people from all kinds of backgrounds here have been keen to help some of the recently arrived Syrian people feel welcomed to the area.
There is a general interest in Syrian food, and it always
goes down well when included at social events. We didn't discuss the minute detail of exactly how funds raised from the book would be distributed, but the general aim was that it would go to help people in Syria, with medical supplies. To clarify, this is not unusual. We’ve been involved with numerous fundraising events (usually music concerts) that have raised funds for people affected by conflict. The destructive nature of any major conflict means that often regional infrastructures are destroyed and the most effective way for small organisations to distribute funds to people affected are via local, family and friend connections, or small grass roots community organisations in the area (churches, schools, community support groups etc). It’s not possible to send money directly to Syria, but in the past we’ve sent money to refugee Syrian families or small organisations in Turkey and Lebanon. This is legal, and in my view an acceptable way to send funds - after all, who knows best what to do with financial support than the people directly affected by the conflict there.
We used a UK based online print company to manufacture the books. Called Instantprint, they’re based in Rotherham.
22nd March: The book goes on sale.
We put the books on sale via our website, and made posts on social media. As it was the easiest to set up, we used Paypal as a method to complete the sales. I already have an account with them, which is used for any music sales from our website. In 2 days we made roughly 20 online sales, so a good start. We're all excited and feel positive.
24th March: Paypal restricts our account, initial conversations.
Paypal restricted our account and rejected about half the sales we’d made.
We get an email via the Paypal ‘We Care’ team (email@example.com) asking to supply information on how we intended to send funds raised by the book to Syria. I called their customer support team, explained pretty much everything as above. The person I spoke with was actually quite helpful, they even took a look at our website, and complimented us on the work we do, before assuring us the issue would soon be resolved.
25th of March: Further emails from Paypal.
Two further emails came from Paypal - one congratulating us on setting up a ‘Paypal Checkout’ for the book they were stopping us selling, and a second more worrying one from the ‘We Care’ team informing us that ;
“PayPal's Compliance Department has reviewed your account and identified activity that is in violation of United States regulations.
U.S. regulations currently prohibit the purchase or sale of various goods and services originating from or being shipped to Syria. It has come to our attention that you are advertising PayPal as a method of payment for the sale of goods originating from the country or countries noted above”.
The obvious error here, is that we are not selling goods from the above country. This was something I'd made clear in the initial phone calls to Paypal, and the staff members I'd spoken with seemed happy with our response. However over the next few days, it became very clear that no one at Paypal, in any position of authority was actually going to listen to this.
A different email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) again asking how we intended to send money to the people the book was raising funds for. Again I called their UK customer support line and explained everything as above. The main concern raised in the phone call is Paypal think we are selling goods from Syria, which I again make clear we are not. I remove the book from sale.
27th March. Our Paypal account is restored.
Email from Paypal(email@example.com); the account was restored. Presuming this was a result of the previous positive phone calls I’d had with customer support, I put the book back on sale. There is no explanation or comment on any of their decisions, emails they sent or any response to anything we've sent them.
At no point did Paypal respond or comment in writing (via email, or their account message service) to any of my statements or any of the information I’d given them about the book. They sent multiple generic emails registering that I was not happy with the service and they were reviewing the situation.
29th March: Paypal make false allegations to people buying the book.
Paypal contacted people who tried to buy the book, with incorrect information and threats to close their accounts. This is after I have confirmed with the Paypal customer complaints team that the book is printed/manufactured in the UK.
Sales once more rejected by Paypal. Three people have since forward me the email they received from Paypal (firstname.lastname@example.org)
“It has come to our attention that you initiated a payment for the purchase of an item or items originating from Syria that is currently prohibited by U.S. regulations.
We kindly request that you do not attempt to resend this payment or similar payments using PayPal.
Please note that we reserve our right to close your PayPal account if we continue to identify activity that is in apparent violation of our regulatory obligations.”
30th March: Our Paypal account is restricted again.
Paypal restricted our account again and rejected most of the sales we’d made in the few days the book had been back on sale.
I called customer support again. This time they asked if I could send in proof that the book was made in the UK. I sent a PDF copy of the printing receipt and a photo of my hand, holding the book in front of a red double decker bus, with a McDonalds in the background. I asked why if the restrictions had been lifted once before, they were in place again, and why had no one responded to any of the information I'd supplied, or questions I’d asked. They are unable to comment.
In a few days Paypal customer support had gone from offering to help and assuring me this was a small misunderstanding, to being able to offer no information at all. I asked to speak with one of the complaints department managers and was promised I’d receive a call back either later that day or the next day on the 31st. No call came.
On the same day, the ‘We care’ team also sent multiple copies of the same email relating to their compliance department that they'd sent a few days earlier. I removed the book from sale again.
These images were sent to Paypal, at their request to prove the book is made in the UK. The 2nd image is from the print company invoice - I sent a copy of the full invoice file to Paypal. They have never responded to either.
31st March: Permanent account restrictions, and funds frozen.
Email from the We Care team, stating that the account is now permanently blocked, and we will not be able to access money in the account.
In 180 days I would be able to apply to have the money released to my bank account. £120 of which was from sales of the book, made before Paypal restricted us.
The same day multiple emails from email@example.com acknowledge my complaints to customer services. They are all the same generic email. No email responds to any of the issues I have raised.
1st April: 'The concern is what you might be funding...'
Whilst traveling to work, I called customer services again. First of all to ask why I hadn’t received the promised call from a manager. I was informed this would take up to 72 hours - different from the previous promise of the next day (in a later call this time frame shifted to a week).
I also asked if they could shed any light on the situation and received the following answer “the concern is you’re funding…’ they then stopped themselves. I asked if they could complete the sentence, but they wouldn't. I asked if they meant to say we’re funding something illegitimate, such as terrorism, again they wouldn't comment. I decided that from then on, I would record all future conversations.
Before ending the call, the staff member informed me that the customer complaints department was the wrong department to call, and I should ask to speak with ‘Limitations’. So after over a full week of almost daily calls with Paypal customer complaints, I am told that they are the wrong department to deal with the issue and I should ask to speak with someone else.
2nd April: 'Questionable transactions on you account' & 'These people are refugees why?'
Call to ask to be put through to Limitations department - after a lengthy explanation of the whole situation, the response is ‘Payments are coming from Syria’. This is especially frustrating as not only have I explained multiple times to Paypal staff that we are not receiving anything from Syria, but also have sent in evidence of the book being printed in the UK and sales are in the UK.
The same staff member also states there are questionable transactions on the account - he names one example. This turns out to be someone I know well, who works at a UK university and has sat on the board of several UK charities. The person in question later informs me he has had an email from Paypal, stating that he has tried to purchase goods from Syria (the same email as mentioned on 29th March) . When I asked the Paypal team member if he could explain what was questionable about the specific transaction, he changed the subject.
I ask to be connected with a manager, again after a lengthy explanation, 30 minutes into the conversation, I am asked to explain why people coming from Syria are refugees.
First part of the call to Paypal 'Limitations' department, in which they are clearly not listening. They don't answer the question and change the subject.
Second part, the same Paypal staff member singles out a particular transaction, of one person who tried to buy the book (He says the name, which I've blanked out). The person who tried to purchase the book received the same email from Paypal as the one documented above on March 29th. The staff member didn't answer what exactly was questionable and changed the subject.
Third part, with a manager from the same department, asking to clarify, why people are refugees.
Saturday 3rd: A call back from a Manager. 'Some of our staff are not from the EU'
Finally got the promised call back from a manager, as requested on the 30th March. It's not clear specifically which department they are from, but as the original call was to the general customer complaints department, I’m guessing they are from there. This is from one of their offices in Ireland (location is relevant here. I also later learn that the Limitations department is in the Philippines - again this is relevant to the story)
They know I have spoken to multiple departments, it is also becomes apparent that as a manager in the customer complaints department, they don’t actually have any power to make any changes on the account, or take any relevant actions.
Later in the conversation, I ask why as a manager they think another Paypal manager would ask why people from Syria are refugees. Obviously this is subjective and my interpretation, but there seems to be a suggestion that the question may have come from a staff member who is based outside the EU, and therefore a possibility that they are not aware of the conflict in Syria. The logic makes no sense at all, as clearly Syria is not in the EU, and is the location of a major international conflict since 2011 that has been well documented in the International news. I wouldn't expect their staff members to be aware of the rights to seek asylum under the UN convention of 1951, and why it is an inappropriate question in that context, but to suggest that being outside the EU means someone is less informed of global events hints of xenophobia, and to ask why someone may be a refugee is in my view unhelpful and ignorant.
A Paypal Manager tries to explain why we were asked to explain why people might be refugees
In the first 2 calls I had with Paypal, it was assured that this was all just a minor misunderstanding and the issue would easily be dealt with.
I provided evidence (multiple times) that the book was written, printed and sold in the UK. Paypal can see clearly from our account that most sales are in fact in Sussex, where we live. I have also explained how money made from sales would be distributed. This was all that Paypal asked for. Not once have they in any way responded to the information I’ve sent, or questions I've asked.
Slightly later on, during a phone call one of their staff said, ‘it looks to me like they just don’t want you selling this book’ (I can’t remember the exact date, and this was before I started recording calls). Another had cut themselves off mid sentence, and refused to comment further, stating concerns of what we may be funding in Syria. I also have a recording of a Paypal employee stating that certain words will trigger their security systems, which is clearly what has happened here.
Paypal has stated multiple times, in a generic email they send ‘U.S. regulations currently prohibit the purchase or sale of various goods and services originating from or being shipped to Syria.” I have made clear that this is not the case, and yet still our account is blocked, and funds are frozen.
Certain words will trigger security systems. It is clear that staff cannot intervene, no matter what information and evidence they are given.
Since those initial calls, every staff member I reach at Paypal is unable to comment on any of the issues I've raised, or on anything to do with our case.
What is clear is that staff in the call centres in Ireland, the UK and Philippines are all unable to comment, or make any effective changes to an account status. Staff in centres appear to have a given script from which they are unable to diverge. The only team that has any power to make adjustments to an account is in the US, and they don’t take calls, or reply to emails.
Power structures of who can and cannot sell, and what can be sold are maintained by a system that suppresses people and products based on regional and ethnic heritage. They are done so in a manner that upholds arbitral decisions, based on incorrect assumptions and information, in this case, around the regional heritage of the recipes in a cookbook, possibly the origin of the person who wrote the book or the people who the book aims to benefit.
Staff working at Paypal have made statements that support the ‘othering’ and prejudiced views against people and cultural items (food) based on regional and ethnic heritage, and events that have happened to them, that are outside of their control or choosing. Seemingly no one in the organisation is accountable, apart from those that are conveniently unreachable. This is racialised capitalism.
On the 7th April, I submitted this case to the Financial Ombudsman. The same day, I had an email from a different Paypal department (firstname.lastname@example.org) acknowledging receipt of the inquiry with the ombudsman.