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Misunderstanding over one word keeps Chicago mom from childcare money for years

Misunderstanding over one word kept woman from her childcare money
Misunderstanding over one word kept woman from her childcare money 04:28

CHICAGO (CBS) – A Hyde Park mother got caught up with the likes of international criminals.

She was not accused of breaking any laws. It was a big misunderstanding that took three years.

CBS 2's Lauren Victory explained the one word that caused all her trouble.

For Dr. Jontay Darko, her 6-year-old son Carlos is her world. When he was 3, Darko added the grueling hours of residency to her already round-the-clock job.

"Motherhood is difficult," she said. "Like it is very difficult, and I won't stand here and say it's not, but it is a true joy."

What was not a joy was the monster money problem that began more than three years ago. 

The trigger: a Zelle payment for childcare expenses from Carlos' dad. He transferred the money while on his way to catch a flight back to medical school in Cuba.

"After a while, I was like, 'You know, I didn't get the Zelle,'" Darko said. "And he was like, 'Well, I definitely sent it.' And he sent me a screenshot saying the Zelle payment has been sent. So confusion and confusion until the next day."

That's when she learned of a Chase Bank investigation. Her money for Carlos was blocked because of federal "asset control regulations," all thanks to one word.

"He wrote the word 'Cuba' in the memo line because on that day, he was going to Cuba," Darko said. "Of course, he didn't think there would be such large ramifications."

It appeared that just putting "Cuba" in the Zelle memo line led Chase to take serious action. The bank said it "cannot release the funds" unless Dr. Darko applied for and received a special license from the U.S. Department of Treasury.

"So I'm an intern," Darko said. "I have this 3-year-old, and now I have to like, after work, stay a little bit longer to complete this application, and it was just a lot of work."

The Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, usually deals with terrorists or drug traffickers, not Hyde Park moms. CBS 2 asked a global trade law expert to help explain what was at play in Darko's situation.

"Blocked funds are a decent amount of work that we're doing right now," said Marvin McPherson, a Chicago international trade attorney.

McPherson explained that algorithms used internally by banks might flag transactions that reference Cuba and then hold someone's money, because of federal rules about foreign assets control.

"When it comes to sanctions, everyone has to comply," he said.

McPherson pointed to a 2015 settlement in which PayPal forked over $7.6 million in penalties for improperly screening transactions involving countries with trade restrictions like Iran, Sudan, and Cuba.

The island is also under embargo.

"This limits travel there," McPherson said. "This limits the amount of money you can pay towards Cuba."

Darko shared with CBS 2 her plea to get her childcare money that was unintentionally labeled "Cuba" to be released. It took 11 months for the OFAC to respond, and the agency told her to call back her bank.

"I went to Chase Bank like, 'Oh, OFAC says I got the license. May I have my money?'" she said. "And they were like, 'Oh no.'"

Chase said to call OFAC again, and the agency said to call the bank again. They went back and forth for three years.

It took so long that her toddler is now in kindergarten.

Victory: "If you could do this all over and rename that memo, what would you call it?"

Darko: "More than likely 'Carlos' or 'childcare expenses.'"

So, what other words would McPherson suggest customers not put in their memo line?

"I would suggest not using other sanctioned countries' names, such as Syria, Russia," he said.

He suggested to also keep the line free of jokes about weapons, drugs, or illegal activities, and be especially careful with transactions of $500 or more.

A Chase spokesperson would not explain why but also said the bank unblocked the $600 and released it back to Carlos' dad last March. But he still didn't have the money.

His bank, the California Credit Union, couldn't find a record of the Chase refund. It took several inquiries by CBS 2 for the two banks to figure out the problem, but the Hyde Park mom still doesn't have the childcare money.

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