Photo of Syrian girl raises red flags at banks

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A picture of a young girl from Syria became an "image problem" for a River North gallery owner after officials at her bank froze payment for the photo. (WLS)

A photograph of a young girl from Syria triggered bank investigations, frozen funds and serious questions for a River North gallery owner who was trying to sell the picture.

"I have nothing to hide so I don't have to worry...but then again I don't know," gallery owner Arica Hilton told the I-Team after bank investigators questioned her involvement in Syria.

Hilton represents photographer Zack Whitford. Whitford is best known for his work as the band Aerosmith's official photographer, but it's a shot he took a couple of years ago at a refugee camp in Lebanon that is causing some issues.

"We had one of the photos of a Syrian girl, and we sold it, and I wired a payment to Zack through my bank, Chase bank, and he didn't receive the money," said Hilton. "So I called Chase and they said oh, we sent you a message saying the wire was on hold because they want to know what your involvement is with Syria and the Syrian girl."

The message is from JP Morgan Chase's legal compliance department. Investigators in the sanctions service division stated the transaction was "under review" for "a possible sanction" or "risk policy issue".

Hilton was asked to clarify the reference to "Syrian girl" in the payment details, provide a detailed purpose of payment and disclose details of any Syrian involvement.

"They wanted information about it, so I sent them our website, I sent them pictures, the picture of the girl, Zack's biography, everything," said Hilton.

ABC 7 legal analyst Gil Soffer said banks are fearful of being fined by the government if they defy sanctions or executive orders.

"We have a sanctions regime, which prohibits the transfer of funds to Syria, so anything like the word Syria, will be a red flag," Soffer said.

Sanctions for terrorism and human rights violations. Just this week dozens were killed in a suspected chemical attack in Syria. The United Nations has accused the Syrian regime of three earlier chlorine gas attacks since the conflict began 6 years ago. U.S. sanctions against Syria began in 1979 and have been intensified through numerous executive orders.

There are similar U.S. sanctions against countries such as Iran, North Korea and Sudan.

Hilton said it took several days for Chase to investigate and eventually release the funds. She said the whole thing was unsettling.

"To know that we are being watched and that any word that we write, I mean if I write the word Syria in an email does that mean that I'm going to be flagged and the government investigating me...I don't know," said Hilton.

"The person who wants to send money isn't himself or herself necessarily under investigation, it's the banks that are being asked to transfer funds, always have to worry about complying with laws, so they have to double down to make absolutely certain that there are no issues. That can be a little unnerving to someone whose account is being looked at," Soffer said.

Chase banking officials told the I-Team they flagged the payment because Syria is a sanctioned country and was mentioned in the notation, and said investigators worked with Hilton to resolve the matter.

Once Chase allowed the payment to go through, her client's bank-Bank of America-also put a hold on the funds.

The I-Team attempted to reach the photographer who took the picture of the Syrian girl but he has not responded.

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