Today, I went to my brokerage account at Wells Fargo and the page said that online trading was suspended. I called them and the rep. said, "We need to know where your money came from."

This is an odd question. I've been with the bank for 15 years and the money in the accounts has been very slowly accumulated via direct-deposit paychecks over that time. In fact, in order for me to determine where my funds came from, I have to look at their records.

After I explained this, they said the brokerage account would be back online tomorrow. But I'm left confused as to why in the world they need to do this to their customers. Any ideas?

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    I wondering why this question is even legal (in USA). Aren't I entitled to personal privacy protection? Commented Jun 22, 2011 at 22:44
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    In the USA, the Patriot Act is incompatible with any notion of personal privacy. It's for the greater good.
    – Fixee
    Commented Jun 23, 2011 at 0:43
  • Today my bank started asking my net worth and personal income, and they required me to answer to continue to bank with them. I've been banking with them for over 20 years and never answered these questions. My only options were to lie to them or stop banking. So I made up fake numbers out of protest. Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 14:26
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    @Fixee - we all waited for Obama to repeal it :( Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 22:28

5 Answers 5


Banks have a financial, and regulational duty called "Know your customer", established to avoid a number of historical problems occurring again, such as money laundering, terrorism financing, fraud, etc.

Thanks to the scale, and scope of the problem (millions of customers, billions of transactions a day), the way they're handling this usually involves fuzzy logics matching, looking for irregular patterns, problem escalation, and other warning signs. When exceeding some pre-set limit, these signal clues are then filtered, and passed on for human inspection.

Needless to say, these algorithms are not perfect, although, thanks to financial pressure, they are improving.

In order to understand why your trading account has been suspended, it's useful to look at the incentives: false positives -suspending your trade, and assuming you guilty until proven otherwise- could cost them merely your LTV (lifetime value of customer -how much your business brings in as profit); while false negatives -not catching you while engaging in activities listed above- might cost them multi-month investigations, penalties, and court.

Ultimately, this isn't against you.

I've been with the bank for 15 years and the money in the accounts has been very slowly accumulated via direct-deposit paychecks over that time.

From this I gather the most likely explanation, is that you've hit somekind of account threshold, that the average credit-happy customers usually do not exceed, which triggered a routine checkup.

How do you deal with it? Practice puppetry!

There is only one way to survive angry customers emotionally: you have to realize that they’re not angry at you; they’re angry at your business, and you just happen to be a convenient representative of that business.

And since they’re treating you like a puppet, an iconic stand-in for the real business, you need to treat yourself as a puppet, too.

Pretend you’re a puppeteer. The customer is yelling at the puppet. They’re not yelling at you. They’re angry with the puppet.

Your job is to figure out, “gosh, what can I make the puppet say that will make this person a happy customer?”

In an investigation case, go with boredom: The puppet doesn't care, have no feelings, and is eternally patient. Figure out what are the most likely words that will have the matter "mentally resolved" from the investigator's point of view, tell them what they have to hear, and you'll have case closed in no time.

Hope this helps.

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    Good answer - but your classification of money laundering, terrorism financing and fraud as historical problems sound off to me ...
    – Daniel
    Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 14:48
  • The "historical" part goes more for the specificity of the solution; ie fraud used to happen partially due to lack of KYC, terrorism financing used to be facilitated by wire transfers, but now that there are checks against that, financiers have to find another route, etc. Improvements are particularly visible around the issue of consumer fraud -the consumer-friendliness of being able to cancel arbitrary transactions post-hoc have put many a great number of bad actors out of business -at the expense of some honest traders. But I do agree, that some of this will remain a red-queen's race. Commented Mar 18, 2018 at 0:52

Most likely this is connected with new banking regulations related to the Patriot Act, which require banks to be much more inquisitive about their customers and their money. The requirements are mostly about new accounts, but there may be some provisions to backfill this information for existing accounts.

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    Kind of ironic that we live in a "free" society yet we are questioned by our government all the time about stuff that should be no of their business. This is another example of why we should vote all of the bums out and start over with the Constitution.
    – mpenrow
    Commented Jun 23, 2011 at 13:09
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    It's a classic case of the trade-off between freedom and security. If you ask me, the threat of terrorist attacks are doing more harm to the country than the execution of them.
    – JohnFx
    Commented Jun 23, 2011 at 15:06
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    Totally agree we as a people in the US have given up way too many freedoms in the past 10 years because of the threat of terrorism. Very few actual terrorist attacks have happened. IMHO the lost freedom is not worth it.
    – mpenrow
    Commented Jun 23, 2011 at 15:12
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    Well. You have a conundrum there. Maybe few attacks have happened BECAUSE of all the freedoms we gave up. That's my main point. We need to decide where we want to be on the trade-off between being safe and not being in a police state.
    – JohnFx
    Commented Jun 23, 2011 at 16:42
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    @mpenrow We do not live in a free society, and haven't for many years. Commented Jun 24, 2011 at 12:20

Banks and credit unions are constantly required to improve their detection methods for suspicious transactions. It's not just big transactions anymore, it's scattered little ones, etc.

Our credit union had to buy software that runs through transactions sniffing for suspicious patterns. More regulations and more costs that ultimately get passed on to customers in one way or another.

Some of your transactions probably tripped a wire where there was none before.

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    Perhaps because I had 1 acct for 15 years then I just opened 7 more and started moving money between them. :)
    – Fixee
    Commented Jun 23, 2011 at 2:52
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    @Fixee. Humm now you know why you got the call ... moving money between multiple accounts is a classic case of Money Laundering so that the source of funds is not known. Lucky you they did'nt put you behind the bars and then asked questions :)
    – Dheer
    Commented Jun 23, 2011 at 5:11
  • @Dheer: But one might hope that opening 7 accounts all at the same bank, under the same name, would allow them to see that the one pool of money was merely being partitioned into separate piles. How would that enable laundering?
    – Fixee
    Commented May 8, 2012 at 17:47

Bank runs very complex software to detect suspicious activity - terrorism financing, money laundering, etc. How would a program know that some person's activity is suspicious? It uses a set of rules. That set might be imperfect (that likely was not intended) - there might be some rule that triggers a warning on your account dominating the fact you've been with them for 15 years. So it's highly likely that an imperfect program triggered a warning on your account and the bank employer didn't dismiss it.


Let me just add that in addition to regulations requiring banks to be on the lookout for money laundering and terrorist financing, there are also regulations supposedly intended to keep banks from exploiting their customers. I opened an investment account once and they asked me a bunch of questions about why I was opening this account and my financial goals and how much money I normally kept in my checking account, etc. I told them that I wasn't looking for financial advice, I had my own plan thank you, and I just wanted to open this account. The bank person replied that they were required by law to ask questions like these to prove to the government that they weren't pressuring me to buy bank products that would be bad for me.

In a similar vein, I owned a small business for a few years (never made any money, I gave up on it), and when I started it I got a packet from the state on state business laws, one of which was -- not the exact words, it was many years ago -- that it was illegal to "sell a customer a product that will not benefit the customer". Was I really expected to quiz every customer about why they wanted to buy my product and then I decide whether it will do them any good or not? That seemed insane. Why is it the seller's job to tell the customer what he should buy? But that was state law.

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